Opinion: The Red Line extension costs too much and does too little

But we're probably stuck with it. Now what? Transit consultant Ed Zotti on what we're getting into—and what lessons we need to learn from the $3.6 billion project.

21 comments

Best
Spankpocalypse_Now
Spankpocalypse_Now
314 · 14 days ago · Reddit

If we put it to a poll, half this sub would probably vote to dismantle all L lines south of 35th Street and use the metal to connect Lincoln Park with Wicker Park.

LauterTuna
LauterTuna
306 · 14 days ago · Reddit

we need bold projects. connect the brown, blue, green, pink, and orange lines with a new north south line parallel to the red line and farther west. boom.

commschamp
commschamp
149 · 14 days ago · Reddit

The comments: First we need to improve transit for the people who already have better transit

Commercial_Wish5862
Commercial_Wish5862
120 · 14 days ago · Reddit

Ok first of all, the city has been baiting far south side residents for about 4 decades with hope of extending the red line to 130th street. The area needs the investment badly!

higmy6
higmy6
72 · 14 days ago · Reddit

All of y’all critiquing the project saying there are things that should be done first, I kinda agree. However, this project is too far along for that now. It has significant amount of grants and funding already earmarked for it, a plethora of the community engagement and planning done, and has already been a promised project for decades. Postponing this project in favor of more important ones is something that should have been done ages of go. Now we owe it to the far south side to finally get this project done and to ourselves in order to not waste all of this time, money, and effort already spent. Because chances are if we don’t get it done by 2030 it won’t be done in any of our lifetimes

smile_drinkPepsi
smile_drinkPepsi
55 · 14 days ago · Reddit

It costs too much? This has been a project long talked about. People need access to public transportation

ConnieLingus24
ConnieLingus24
53 · 13 days ago · Reddit

Another poster said this, but it bears repeating: public assets used for the public benefit should not have to generate a profit just to exist. It’s a shit argument for arguing against a project. If it bore out, every road, street, or highway would have a toll attached to it.

There are a lot of benefits to having more robust public transit that do not have an immediate financial benefit:

-Trains take cars off the road. Cars off the road=less road damage=less funds on road repair.

-they enable people who cannot drive (people without a license for whatever reason, people without a car for whatever reason, kids, individuals with physical or mental handicaps) the opportunity to get around.

-mass transit is more environmentally friendly (see number 1)

-they generate development. Trains=stuff around trains stations.

People talk about the south side being kneecapped in terms of potential. A part of that has to do with transit access. Transit access is what generates housing decisions and development (note: part of why I chose my condo? It’s 5 min walking from a train station), where businesses locate, etc. and at this point, car ownership is getting prohibitively expensive (New car financing payments topped out at $500/​mo for a 6-7 year loan term this year. Thats just the loan payment. That’s insane.). I do not see Crains articles arguing against light rail to Lincoln Yards or the new stops in the south loop. Or the new stop by the United Center…..but a project teased for 20+ years that could bring some development to an entire underserved part of the city? Cue the concern re the purse strings.

Edit:

“But there are two Metra lines nearby….” Argument.

CTA has different usage. Problems aside, CTA is more frequent than Metra and normally has more stops from neighborhood to neighborhood. Metra is useful if you want to quickly get downtown, but is less useful if you want to get to another nearby neighborhood. Anecdotally: I live by a Metra and CTA station. 99% of the time I do not use the Metra to get to another neighborhood. I take it to get to the loop.

Substantial-Art-9922
Substantial-Art-9922
50 · 14 days ago · Reddit

The north side has plenty of transit services running right next to each other and it gets along just fine

TomTomz64
TomTomz64
44 · 14 days ago · Reddit

At $3.6 billion, the Chicago Transit Authority's Red Line Extension to 130th Street will be, on a cost-per-ride basis, one of the most expensive rail transit projects in the world.It will siphon hundreds of millions of tax dollars out of Bronzeville, one of Chicago's most promising majority Black neighborhoods.

Ridership is likely to be much less than projected. Building stations next to busy railroad grade crossings, as planned, is inviting trouble.On the plus side, travel time will be reduced for Far South Side el riders and the CTA will get a better Red Line rail yard.

But hopes that the extension will spur a Far South Side revival are certain to be dashed. The project at best will provide limited benefits to a few neighborhoods, and will duplicate existing rail transit that could have provided better service to a larger swath of the South Side at less cost. The last major el expansion, the Orange Line, was built 30 years ago; if you had to pick the most urgent project to get Chicago through the next 30 years, it's doubtful the Red Line extension would be it.

Still, there's little choice but to proceed. The project is politically popular—I had difficulty getting anyone to comment about it on the record, although many acknowledged misgivings privately. It's too late to start over without jeopardizing billions of federal grant dollars available for a limited time.

But we need to understand what we're getting into and, if possible, mitigate the worst aspects. At minimum, the project's dubious funding mechanism should be revised—taking tax dollars from one Black neighborhood and giving them to another is a terrible idea.

If nothing else, we need to learn some lessons. Lesson No.1: Transit equity is laudable, but that doesn't require doing things the most expensive possible way.

Cost vs. benefit

The Red Line extension will be the single most-expensive project in CTA history, but the issue isn't cost alone. I ranked all major current or recent U.S. rail transit projects by construction cost per ride, with some big non-U.S. projects included for comparison.Of the 30 projects, the Red Line extension is the third-most-expensive on a cost-per-ride basis. U.S. rail projects have higher construction costs and typically lower ridership than in other countries, transit experts say. That means the Red Line extension is on track to be among the most expensive rail transit projects in the world.

And while it's not No. 1, it beats out Honolulu Rail Transit, an epic boondoggle at one point expected to cost more than $12 billion for a single rail line, which was recently shortened to reduce expense.

And things may get worse. The ranking assumes the Red Line extension will achieve the CTA's projected daily ridership of 41,500. But it probably won't. Chicago transit experts I spoke to think the Red Line extension may not generate much new ridership at all.The CTA's planning assumptions, to be charitable, were optimistic. Its "alternatives analysis" indicated Chicago would have 3.2 million people by 2030 and the Red Line extension's service area would grow, as well.

Neither is likely. Chicago's current population is about 2.7 million—500,000 short of that projection. The area south of roughly 95th Street has lost 45,000 people since 2000.The downward trend is evident at the Red Line's 95th Street terminal. Boardings peaked at 27,000 in 1980 and fell to 9,000 by 2019.

Transit experts agree the Red Line extension has no chance of reaching the CTA's projection. Instead, reasoning that most Far South Side transit riders are already taking the bus to 95th, they think the 9,000 boardings there in 2019 (assuming full post-Covid recovery) would be distributed among the five stations between 95th and 130th streets. One speculated there might be 1,000 new riders. That would make the Red Line extension's cost per ride $1.8 million. Let's see any transit project on the planet top that.

Taking from Peter to give to Paul

A controversial aspect of the Red Line extension is the funding mechanism, known as a transit TIF, for tax-increment financing. The idea is that the city creates a transit TIF district, sells bonds to pay for a transit improvement, then uses the additional property taxes generated by the improvement to pay off the bonds over 35 years.The first and so far only transit TIF district is on the North Side, extending for roughly a half mile on either side of the Red and Purple Line tracks from North Avenue to Devon. TIF proceeds are being used to fund the CTA's Red-Purple Modernization initiative, starting with the Red-Purple bypass.

The Red-Purple Modernization TIF is set up so the project pays for itself. The tax money needed to cover the local share of the cost comes from the areas the trains serve.The Red Line extension TIF district is different. The revenue-generating segment—the "redevelopment project area," or RPA—extends along the Red Line from Madison Street to Pershing Road., but the proceeds will fund an improvement from 95thto 130th.Some find that astonishing. "Robbing one Black neighborhood to give to another one—that's a nuclear bomb about to go off," says Aaron Renn, a one-time Chicago urban policy writer and later a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Maybe, maybe not. Reactions from aldermen whose wards included part of the proposed RPA were more subdued than the headlines might suggest. Ald. Nicole Lee, 11th, was noncommittal. Ald. Sophia King, 4th, was supportive. Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd, had mixed feelings.

"I have to be concerned about the fact that money is coming from Peter to pay Paul, instead of coming from Peter and being used to support Peter," Dowell said. "That's not to say I don't think this is important—it is. But we have to consider where we're going down this road. I want to make sure money is fairly allocated, and that other entities like the state are supporting the extension."

Her hesitation is understandable. My colleagues and I have argued the majority Black south lakefront is poised for redevelopment. But it needs massive investment. The Red Line extension TIF will take a huge chunk of south lakefront resources—$950 million—off the table for 35 years. That's a decision we'll regret.

The promise

For some Red Line extension advocates, cost and ridership are irrelevant. They say the city promised rail service to the Far South Side long ago and now it's time to deliver. In some tellings, city officials promised to extend the Red Line to 130thin 1969.

Not exactly. The original 1958 plan had the Dan Ryan line splitting south of 95th, with one branch heading west down the Interstate 57 median to a terminal at the city limits at 119th Street and Ashland Avenue. The other ran east on the Bishop Ford median to a rail yard at 103rd Street and Doty Avenue. Both locations are about six miles from the Red Line extension terminal at 130th.

The west extension was eventually dropped, but an east extension to a rail yard, shifted to 108th Street and Stony Island Avenue, was on the books as late as 1998.

That changed in the 2000s, when CTA chief Frank Kruesi told his planners to get serious about el expansion. They started from scratch, for the first time envisioning a terminal at 130th because it was next to the South Shore commuter line and a Bishop Ford Freeway interchange and could be used as an intermodal center. It was also across the road from the Altgeld Gardens public housing project, often held up as an example of how isolated poor Chicagoans were.

The 130 Street alignment was declared the "locally preferred alternative" in 2009. Rahm Emanual endorsed it during his mayoral campaign in 2011 and greenlighted the project once elected. So yes, Chicago officials promised the extend the el to 130th—but in 2011, not 1969.

ZeroPride
ZeroPride
38 · 14 days ago · Reddit

We should never do this again. If a transit expansion project won't generate enough revenue to cover local costs, we shouldn't do it.

I am so sick and tired of this talking point that Public services need to generate a fucking profit or at least break even with revenue.

HOW MUCH MONEY DO ROADS MAKE?

happilyfour
happilyfour
33 · 14 days ago · Reddit

The answer is that more projects are needed. To me, this project is valuable but it’s 1 of about 20 needs. The progress is too incremental.

Fit-Bluejay-956
Fit-Bluejay-956
27 · 14 days ago · Reddit

I am from the South East side of Chicago. We have two options for public transportation to get DT: 1. take a bus to the 69th Redline stop (it takes 45 min) and then ride the train to the closest stop to our job/​school and still walk. 2. Take the 26th bus that comes every 30 min (never on time and always too packed). Either way minimum two hour commute each way. Thats four hours a day.

Of course ya’ll privileged fucks don’t think its “profitable” or “worth it”. Its equitable. Our schools are under funded, our streets are falling apart, crime is worsening. The least the city can do is help improve our quality of life and create more access and opportunities.

turbograss
turbograss
27 · 14 days ago · Reddit

I said all this and got downvoted lmao. This project is one big finesse. 3.6 billion for 4 new stations in the far southside? What a joke. Have any of you guys been to that area? It’s basically the suburbs. All 4 stations will be park and rides and anybody who thinks this will spur walkable, sensible development might be brain dead. Englewood has multiple CTA stations, yet year after year its the city’s most dangerous neighborhood. Filled with blight. This project is only being done so the mayor’s office team looks like its doing something “equitable” and “woke”

Even in “better”neighborhoods, the land use is still poor around stations. I guarantee (for far cheaper) a single brown-blue line connection will garner FAR more ridership than this whole project. Or shit, if you wanna keep it southside, bring back the south lakefront line. That area is booming, very walkable/​dense already, and the stations won’t be park and rides like this one.

ChiraqBluline
ChiraqBluline
22 · 14 days ago · Reddit

Opinion: your perspective is shit. The south side deserves access too

jaredliveson
jaredliveson
18 · 14 days ago · Reddit

We need a red line extension and east to west trains and bus lanes and WAY reduced parking and actual bike lanes. It costing to much is the cities fault. Not the projects fault

thewhitejaycutler
thewhitejaycutler
17 · 14 days ago · Reddit

i will never accept the city saying something is too expensive when the police go over budget in paying out lawsuits brought against them year after year.

PowerKrazy
PowerKrazy
17 · 14 days ago · Reddit

Read the first line talking about "cost per ride" immediately closed the article. Cost per ride isn't the correct metric to judge mass transit projects. What you want to do is look at time saved per ride and number of people who can now get places without using their cars.

urban_citrus
urban_citrus
12 · 13 days ago · Reddit

I’m from down there. There are two trains lines that stretch out north but you have to link extra busses to get from the southern end of the city to the main Chicago artery. It has been promised for decades and now, because costs of everything had made so expensive it’s not worth it?

Public transit is supposed to serve the public, not necessarily be a cash cow. It should serve people, and the people on the far south, with whom I’ll be today, sorely in need of updates in infrastructure. This is only one.

Did anyone make similar arguments about the Yellow or Purple, or how close the Brown line is to metra?

flsolman
flsolman
8 · 14 days ago · Reddit

So almost 100 years ago they got the crazy idea to build this huge bridge from a major population center out west to an area that had a relatively sparse population and was best known as an area visited by day trippers from the city. While traffic had exploded on the intended route, it was served by ferries and many thought you could just add more ferry service. On top of that, they did it during the depression when many thought that that money could have been better spent on more deserving projects. It was the quintessential bridge to nowhere. Where were they going to get all the people to drive everyday from San Francisco to Marin County!!!

rdldr1
rdldr1
5 · 14 days ago · Reddit

If it were up to public opinion there would not be any stoplights or stop signs.

LordTeddard
LordTeddard
5 · 14 days ago · Reddit

i unfortunately wholeheartedly agree. this extension should certainly be built, no question. but not before many MANY other projects the CTA should invest in e.g. connecting blue & brown, some sort of circle service utilizing pink N/​S tracks, E/​W connections on the south side, N/​S line on ashland or western. once the system is more robust we should extend away. until then though serious, bold, transformative projects need to happen.