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(Re-)introducing the Mid-City Transitway

Ted Rosenbaum

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

Abandoned rail rights-of-way stripe the Chicago landscape, mostly outside the loop.  Some of these have been reclaimed for use as walking and biking trails--like the Skokie Valley Line.  Others have groups devoted to reclamation projects which have not yet come to pass--like the Bloomingdale Trail.  And still others lie dormant and mostly ignored, except for the occasional study suggestion from long-term planning organizations or a state legislator looking for a pet project.  This last area is where the Mid-City Transitway sits right now.

MCT Map.jpg

For the uninitiated, the Mid-City Transitway was the name the Chicago Area Transportation Study (CATS) gave to a 22-mile abandoned Belt Railway Company line in its Destination 2020 document--back in 1998!  It's also been called the Crosstown Expressway (potentially I-494) before proposals for another 6-8 lane behemoth mercifully died in 1979 at Mayor Byrne's hands.  Nothing but a couple mostly un-read feasibility studies ever came of these proposals, which is unfortunate given how valuable this line could be.  It's a fully grade-separated right-of-way running parallel to Cicero Avenue, from Jefferson Park in the north to Midway in the south.  The transit study even extended it eastward along further abandoned rail lines north of 74th St. on the south side, though if reconsidered today, the better option may be to attach it to the Orange Line extension to Ford City, where the pilot 79th St. BRT line could have a western terminal.  In Destination 2020, a heavy rail line along this L-shaped route would yield more than 90,000 daily--albeit at a cost of roughly $1 billion.

This cost, quite clearly, is too much to bear these days.  Part of that cost would be avoided by only creating the north/south part of the line and not the east/west connector.  Even if both sections are built though, much of the cost is wrapped up in repairing the rails, adding an electrified third rail, and buying rolling stock.  For a fraction of the cost, the city could pave over the rails, buy nice new attenuated buses, install turnstiles for curb-side fare payment--like in the L--and run an exemplary BRT service.  With a smooth, devoted channel, buses wouldn't bunch, the rides would be fast and smooth, and because the __route nearby on Cicero provides good local service, stop spacing could be wider to allow for better end-to-end travel times.  High speeds aren't enough to make good transit service--frequency is just as important.  To that end, cheaper BRT may actually be a better solution than heavy rail, without affecting ridership: Instead of expensive 4- or 6-car trains plying the lines every 20 minutes or more off-peak, buses could run every 6-9 minutes.

Usually asking for further study of an infrastructure project is a back door way of killing the project.  In this case, the first study in a decade is a vital first step toward adding a vital new trunk line to Chicago's transportation landscape.



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