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Compiled by Alexander Reed/MEDILL

Source: City of Chicago and the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District


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Comparison of urban transit systems.

Obama's stimulus plan offers opportunity for Chicago mass transit

by Chris Gray and Alexander Reed
Dec 11, 2008

Chris Gray/MEDILL

CTA's LaSalle and Van Buren Streets stop in the Loop. The CTA is planning four new expansion projects, including an extension of the Red Line to the Chicago city limits on the South Side.

South Shore

 Chris Gray/MEDILL

 The South Shore line has been running along Lake Michigan to Chicago for 100 years from Indiana. Planners want to add two new branches to the line.

Blue Line

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An O'Hare-bound Blue Line train comes into the Clinton subway station in downtown Chicago. The CTA is analyzing a new Circle Line, which could include a new North Avenue subway. 

clark cars

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Environmental experts often cite automobiles for America's dependence on foreign oil.

Compiled by Alexander Reed/MEDILL

Compiled by Alexander Reed/MEDILL 

Source: U.S. Department of Energy. Data reflects 2006 levels

 Chris Gray and Alexander Reed/MEDILL


For 100 years, the South Shore Line has connected Indiana commuters to Chicago jobs and culture as well as Chicagoans to weekend getaways in the dunes.

Today, passengers fill the South Shore Line to capacity. The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District doesn't even advertise because its 14,000-16,000 daily riders is all it can handle. A set of double-decker cars like those used on Metra have been ordered to meet increasing ridership and will be put in service early in 2009.

But the South Shore really needs to expand its tracks, with plans to build two new branches through Lake and Porter counties.

The commuter railroad exemplifies transit projects across the country in desperate need of funding. Mass transit proponents are looking to President-elect Barack Obama's massive public works program to provide potential funding.

The South Shore Line starts in South Bend, streams through the Indiana dunes in the shadow of steel mills, and up through the South Side of Chicago along the Illinois Central or Metra Electric line. One far South Side neighborhood, Hegewisch, depends almost solely on the South Shore for public transportation into the rest of  the city.

The electric South Shore opened in 1908 as one of dozens of “interurban” rail services spread across the Midwest. Covering 90 miles, it is the longest commuter railroad in the Chicago area.

“The secret to its longevity was that it was built to high standards,” said John Parsons, spokesman for the South Shore Line.

With global temperatures rising from the effects of climate change and the oil that drives the United States automobile culture increasingly dependent on expensive foreign oil, scientists and transportation experts agree that now is the ideal time to make mass transit investments.

“In all the talk of an economic stimulus, I’m rather disappointed there’s not a bigger emphasis on what could be done for mass transit funding,” said University of Chicago professor Ray Pierrehumbert, a climate change expert. “Fix the crumbling bridges so they don’t fall apart, but there are so many underfunded transit agencies and places that need new transit.”

“The temptation is much greater to bail out the automobile industry,” said Anthony Perl, an urban studies professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the author of “Transport Revolutions.” He advocates electrical mass transit powered by renewable energy as the solution to our twin problems of climate change and energy.

The United States once led electric rail technology, stringing interurban rail lines across Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Americans abandoned many of the lines and stalled any new rail development with the coming of the Great Depression and the rise of the automobile.


Today, as Chicago makes do with an aging ‘L’ system and America chugs along with Amtrak, European passenger trains run on electric power and can travel at much higher speeds.

France’s TGV (train à grande vitesse, or high-speed train) runs entirely on electric power and can regularly reach speeds of up to 200 mph. American Amtrak trains run mostly on diesel, and the network’s fastest electric train rarely breaks 150 mph. The typical Amtrak train runs at about 80 mph.

The American passenger rail system isn't as extensive as Europe’s, a continent where countries have collectively built an efficient, clean rail system after the devastation of two world wars.

“In Europe, you can go from the north of Sweden to the tip of Italy all on electric trains,” Perl said.

But California may soon change that. In November, Golden State voters approved Proposition 1A, a measure that provided nearly $10 billion for a high-speed electric rail system connecting Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area.

The new train system, planned for completion by 2030, will be able to reach speeds of 220 mph, said Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority, in a news release.

“It suggests that people are interested. Certainly, it gives me hope,” Perl said. “They need to build these lines in five years instead of 10.”

The American Public Transportation Association said public transit agencies across the country have 559 planned projects ready but need $8 billion to complete them. 

The United States is the world’s leader in greenhouse gas emissions, about 20 percent of which come from cars and trucks.

According to the transportation group, a single person who regularly commutes 20 miles a day alone by car, can reduce annual CO2 emissions by 4,800 pounds per year. That's equal to a 10 percent reduction in all greenhouse gases generated by a typical two-adult, two-car household.

“Instead of just giving people checks to go shopping again, lets get these projects accelerated,” said Perl. “That is what China is doing.”


In addition to the growing commuter demand, northwest Indiana is seeing a migration of people out of Gary, Hammond and the some of the south Chicago suburbs into communities such as Hobart, Cedar Lake and Valparaiso. The South Shore would like to serve these growing communities, but so far no funds have been available.

“Our customers in 2007 drove 91 million fewer miles by taking rail,” Parson said.

The South Shore wants to extend a line south across from Hammond to Lowell for $550 million. A second proposed line would extend from Gary to Valparaiso. Costs have not been estimated for that.

The Lowell branch would remain electric from Hammond to Munster but, south of Munster, a hybrid diesel-electric power train would be required because a freight railroad company owns the right-of-way and would not allow the overhead wires of the South Shore.

Compared to diesel trains, electric rail is better for the environment, even if the electricity comes from a coal power plant. If the source of the electricity is from a nuclear power plant or a renewable source such as wind, solar or wave energy, electric rail produces no emissions.

Perl said electric trains use four to eight times less energy than diesel, depending on the number of stops.

“They’re very efficient at starting and stopping,” Perl said. When braking, "they reverse the polarity and actually generate electricity.”

Diesel trains are the opposite, sluggish to accelerate and wasteful of energy when braking as they lose energy through friction.

Starting with Portland, Ore., in the early 1980s, electric light rail, similar to the South Shore Line has been installed in cities across the country, such as Denver, Houston and Baltimore. Portland has three light rail lines and is constructing two more, with plans for others to follow in its network.

San Francisco probably has the most diverse public transportation system in the U.S. Famous for its cable cars, the city by the bay also has electric streetcars, electric trolley buses, diesel buses, a light rail subway line, ferries and a heavy rail line, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, known as BART.

Chicago’s 'L' trains use this technology, heavy rail, which powers the cars with an electrified third rail running along the tracks.

“The CTA could easily use a doubling of its capital budget,” said Pierrehumbert, who relies solely on public transportation.


Four Chicago Transit Authority expansion projects are undergoing federally funded alternatives analyses, an initial planning stage that takes place before the engineering and environmental analysis, which could receive funding next year. Total funding for all of these expansions would cost nearly $4 billion.

But even if the CTA completes its current work, each new stage of planning must be approved with funding from the federal government, and the process is much more competitive than it is for federal highway projects.

The Yellow, Orange and Red Lines may all get extensions, and a Circle Line has been proposed to connect all nine lines coming out of the Loop with a bypass from Bridgeport to Wicker Park and Lincoln Park. Most of this would be elevated, while part of it would require a new subway line, making it easily the most expensive of the proposals.

“It’s really important that we have a capital bill. Our share would only come in a capital bill that Springfield has not given us in five years,” said CTA Strategic Planning Manager Jeffrey Busby. “CTA is really anxious about that.”

The Red Line’s 95th Street station is the city’s busiest single-line stop, serving 12,700 daily riders by 2007 figures. The Clark/Lake stop, which is served by the Blue, Orange, Pink, Brown, Green and Purple lines has 15,300 daily riders. Almost a dozen PACE and CTA bus lines feed into 95th Street station.

Chicago’s ‘L’ system stops at 95th Street, but the city actually extends as far as 138th Street, requiring a long bus ride before the 35-minute ride to the Loop on the Red Line. An 'L' line to 130th Street would get passengers to 95th Street in just 12 minutes from communities such as Roseland and Riverdale.

“People have no connection to the rest of the city,” said Lou Turner, a public policy consultant for Developing Communities Project, the community organizing group where Obama once worked. “Riverdale has the highest unemployment in the city. In greater Roseland, one out of four [people] don’t have cars. That’s the same as the ninth ward of New Orleans.”

Turner would like to see the line extend along the Union Pacific Railroad , “through the heart of the community” to Altgeld Gardens at 130th Street — “the most isolated part of the city.”

He worries, though that Mayor Richard M. Daley strongly favors the Circle Line, and the CTA may not be able to get both projects.


On top of improvements to public transportation, engineers are working to shift automobiles to alternative fuels. Cars are inherently inefficient compared to trains and buses, but there are steps to make them better than what’s been coming out of Detroit.

At Argonne National Laboratory, near Lemont, scientists are at the forefront of researching alternative, clean energy sources in transportation. “If you look at how much oil we have left, we’re looking at about 30 years of easy oil—and that’s to the last drop,” said Forrest Jehlik, an Argonne engineer.

“With renewable fuels, we’re talking about cellulosic ethanol, coal-to-liquid fuel, catalytic-based biomass to petroleum, or even further out, looking to algae-based ethanol or petroleum,” said Jehlik. “We have to go that route if we’re going to consume these fuels for transportation, simply because there won’t be petroleum around to do it.”

“I don’t think there’s a greater call of our time for both national security purposes, and most importantly for our children, that we kick this petroleum habit once and for all, we develop the energy that we consume here in the United States that is sustainable till the end of time, ”said Jehlik. “To solve this problem, it’s going to take no less passion, vision or drive than the Manhattan Project in World War II, developing nuclear technology or the Apollo program in the 1960s when we put a couple of men on the moon.”

Urban areas have long been dependent on public transportation. After representing the South Side for years, Obama is keenly aware of urban issues, leaving some hope for a greater investment.

He has also promised to have the “greenest” presidency ever.

"I feel very confident that he could understand these issues,” Perl said. “There are many problems in the world right now. There are so many competing for his attention. He is only human."