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A New Idea: the North Side Connector

Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

Lately I've been looking over the city's old and new plans for potential bus rapid transit lines.  There's one corridor I haven't seen the city or CTA explore in any studies or plans--an east-west connection on the Far North Side.  Just as a 79th street BRT line -or the Mid-City Transitway (MCT) alignment along a rail right-of-way near 75th--would connect the Far South Side to Midway, a North Side Connector (NSC) could connect the Rogers Park-Loyola area to O'Hare efficiently.

The isolation of Rogers Park is a quirk of land use and political boundaries.  First, the land use: the mile-wide swath of land east of the Edens between Foster and Peterson features a Nature Preserve (the LaBaugh Woods Forest Preserve,) 5 cemeteries (St. Boniface, Bethel, St. Luke, Bohemia National and the enormous Rosehill,) 2 university campuses (Northeastern Illinois and North Park,) and is split almost in half by the North Shore Channel.  Then, there's the quirk of Chicago's border with Lincolnwood, which dives south from Howard all the way to Devon along the canal.

The result is striking: the normally robust Chicago street grid hits all sorts of dead ends, and transit access suffers as a result.  The northernmost bus line that connects the lakefront to the Blue Line is the 92 along Foster.  The 84 along Peterson jogs northwest along Caldwell and never crosses the North Branch of the Chicago River, and the 155 along Devon ends at Kedzie, rather than cross the Canal into Lincolnwood.

There's a solution to this mess, and it lies in abandoned railways, just like the MCT.  In among the weaving highways at the Junction is the old Chicago & Northwestern Railway.  From its merger with the current Union Pacific lines running northwest/southeast at Montrose, it curves north and east with foundations visible as far north as Emerson St. in Evanston.  In order to connect Rogers Park, we'd only need the right-of-way between Lawrence and Devon.  This works very well, as the line makes its southernmost at-grade crossing at Devon just east of Pulaski.

View North Side Connector in a larger map

So how do we tie this all together? Essentially, the NSC would start with an extension of the 155. Since it effectively starts at the Morse and Loyola Red Line stops, it ties in nicely to existing transit options. Westbound buses would technically be in Lincolnwood for the mile between Kedzie and the repurposed C&NW line, but many CTA bus routes run into or through suburbs, so this should not be an issue. Adding a stoplight where the old rails cross Devon would allow buses to efficiently cross traffic and enter the new busway. This stoplight could be triggered by an approaching bus, just as many buses are given signal priority all over the city.

On the southern end, near the corner of Cicero and Lawrence there are two separate overpasses. Using eminent domain to acquire the land currently owned by the Super Car wash at that corner, a simple ramp could be built that allows buses to go from street-level along Lawrence to the Cicero overpass without unduly impacting traffic. The overpass over Lawrence would become useless, and could be razed if necessary. The route would continue west along Lawrence following the path of the current 81 bus, all the way to Jefferson Park. Voila, the Red Line and the Far North Side are tied to the Blue Line.

Like any un-explored route, it's hard to know what kind of cost-benefit ratio we're looking at. Its ridership likely would be dwarfed by the MCT, and so purely for the benefit to the system and the city, I'd rate the North Shore Connector lower. But since only 2.3 miles of rail right-of-way would be acquired--as opposed to the MCT's 22--the NSC could in fact be more economically efficient. There's also the question of what kind of service this would be--Devon Ave is too narrow for the devoted lanes necessary for BRT, but its commercial vitality and at-grade intersection with the C&NW make it the only really feasible route. Would skip-stop express service be fast enough--and resist bunching enough--to draw riders? These are the questions only a formal study could answer.



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1 Comment

ctiassoc said:

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We did propose a nearly identical route as part of our 2035 Rapid Transit Buildout, but I agree with you that BRT would be a good "seed" service in this corridor due to cost. See http://www.ctiassoc.com/cti/Vision.html and click on the map graphic to see what I mean.

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