(Gray Line is the name Mike Payne from Chatham has given to a similar but somewhat more ambitious proposal than mine. You can read about his idea here. Mike's been indefatigable about pushing his proposal and we owe him a great debt, but the name of the proposal below was changed from Gray Line Lite to Gold Line in November of 2008.)
Currently, Metra offers commuter rail service along the South Chicago line, with trains running to and from the Loop every 20 minutes during rush hours and hourly service at other times. Using the same rail tracks, these neighborhoods along the lake would be served by the equivalent of CTA el lines if two changes were made:
2) Service on the South Chicago line was increased to every 10 minutes from 7am to 11am.
The South Chicago line is quite an anomaly. While it lies completely within the City of Chicago, the line is owned and operated by a commuter rail service agency whose primary concern is transporting suburbanites from their homes to the Loop in the morning and then back home again in the evening. Their funding comes from a mix of sales taxes collected in the suburbs and state matching funds. Obviously, expecting Metra to pay for increased service is a non-starter. The likely scenario would probably revolve around the CTA taking over the line but contracting with Metra to run it.
Would this be expensive? It would take a study to answer that and no one so far has been willing to put together the funding for one, but CTA officials have never told me that they think the long-term costs are prohibitive. Instead, they've expressed interest, even calling this approach "innovative", but their immediate priorities at this cash-strapped agency lie elsewhere. Since Metra is a suburban agency that simply doesn't run el lines, they have little motivation to pursue this. The obstacles in our way are short-term political in nature, not long-term financial.
One way of looking at this is to stand back from the present realities and imagine we were starting from scratch. Would anyone in the region argue that a rail line existing completely within the city should be run by a suburban agency with a separate fare structure requiring a different fare card? The present situation is the result of historical accidents rather than rational planning, but we don't have to look back very far to see how the region dealt with an analogous situation.
In 1993, the city (not the CTA) paid for, and still owns, the Orange Line. The city could have set up the Orange Line with entrances separate from other el lines, charging a whole fare for transfers. Would that have brought in more revenue for the Orange Line? I doubt it. By adding the Orange Line to the rest of the CTA system, it made the Orange Line a good choice for more riders. And, the addition made the entire CTA system more valuable as well because transit users could get to Midway faster. A CTA study done in 1995 found that public transportation use in the neighborhoods near the Orange Line had increased by 25% and I think we'd see substantial gains along the South Chicago line if it, too, were added to the CTA system.
Also, moving riders by rail can be less expensive than buses if ridership is high enough. Rail has large fixed expenses, but the variable expenses-- mostly personnel-- can be much less per rider because trains can carry more riders per operator. Just as importantly, trains move riders more quickly. A trip from Hyde Park to Randolph Station is about 25 minutes by Metra, but closer to 40 minutes by bus, depending on traffic. On an operator-hour basis, rail expenses per rider can be substantially less than bus expenses. And Gold Line marginal costs would not include most of the track maintenance expenses since Metra already has to pay those. The number of trains on the line would have to be doubled over their rush hour highs, so there would be some capital and maintenance expenses there. A modest capital investment would lead to sextupling the quantity of daily runs.
The Gold Line would result in some bus route reconfigurations as rail travel would draw riders away from some routes. (Again, the Orange Line provides a good analogy. The CTA still runs local bus service along Archer Ave, but express routes were clipped.) Many southeast Chicago riders take long bus rides west to the Red Line. The Gold Line would provide a quicker alternative, again resulting in some CTA savings as operator-hours per rider would be reduced. A quicker trip for CTA customers can be a less expensive service for the CTA to provide.
I'm not going to claim that the Gold Line would save the CTA money. But I think there's a very good chance that extra expenses will accompany increases in transit usage in the affected neighborhoods and a small increase in transit use elsewhere in the city. CTA per-ride subsidies may actually be lower. The long-term financial consideration is not whether the Gold Line would pay for itself, but rather how it would affect the 50/50 split the state mandates for fares and public subsidies.
I've made a case for subsidizing public transit elsewhere, so I'll just make a couple arguments about the advantages to our communities that the Gold Line might bring about. The first is that Chicago has horrible asthma problems and we're pretty sure that more than half of urban air pollution is vehicle exhaust. Taking the bus cuts pollutants on a per ride basis substantially, but electric rail is the most environmentally-friendly method of travel, except for biking and walking.
The second is that these neighborhoods in southeast Chicago were built with the trolley in mind. In the automobile age, we struggle mightily with parking issues which affect residents, customers and employees. Trains are much more popular than buses as a method of transit because their schedules are largely unaffected by personal vehicle traffic. Train stations are usually more comfortable places to wait. Development along Chicago's el lines over the last 15 years confirms this. Making transit a more pleasant and less costly alternative will gradually decrease the proportion of travelers driving and parking in our neighborhoods.
The stations along the South Chicago line are generally considered safe places to be, so it's not imperative to employ personnel at these stations. That could make the Gold Line the most cost-efficient el line in the city (besides the Red Line). Population density along this route looks higher to me than along the Brown Line, probably more like the O'Hare branch of the Blue Line. These considerations make this branch a better place to start than the Blue Island branch.
Obviously, there are quite a few details to work out, but I'm confident that political will is what we're lacking. The key components of the Gold Line are 25-cent transfers and 10-minute service. Any plan which includes those components will greatly improve our neighborhoods.