South Lakefront Corridor Transit Study — Shame!

In 2012 the Chicago Department of Transportation commissioned the South Lakefront Corridor Transit Study (“the report”) from 31st to 95th streets in response to very strong community interest in improving transit access, especially along the Metra Electric corridor. The report used dishonest assumptions to pan the idea of rapid transit service on the Metra Electric line, citing high capital and operational costs and low ridership.

This post will focus on Section 5 and Appendix A of the report.

Appendix A

The Metra Electric is the only Metra line with more stations and mileage within the City of Chicago than outside of the city. While there is strong community support for proposals, such as the Gray Line, that implementation of rapid transit service over the majority of the existing track, the report only studied implementing rapid transit, the ‘Gold Line’, on the South Chicago branch.

The study assumes that existing Metra and CTA bus schedule would remain unchanged with the implementation of the Gold Line. In other words, operational savings from route consolidation were eliminated from consideration. As I mentioned two weeks ago, the CTA operates six express bus routes on South Lakeshore Drive that operate unreliably and cost at least $23 million per year.

With 10 minute peak frequency and 15-20 minute off-peak frequency, and a 90 minute return trip time, the Gold Line as proposed would operate around 50,000 service hours per year with 2-car trains. The ‘L’ operates 4 car trains at $325 per service hour, including capital costs. In total, a bare bones Gold Line should cost around $16 to $20 million per year to operate1)This assumes CTA ‘L’ operating costs are similar to operating the Metra Electric as rapid transit.  If they are not comparable, then I’d expect a good explanation for the discrepancy, which the report does not provide., far less than the $56 to $60 million per year quoted in the study, or the $47 million per year that is already spent on service in the corridor.

The study assumes the Gold Line would operate with a lower frequency than all other ‘L’ lines except the Ashland and Cottage Grove branches of the Green Line. While the Gold Line would be fare integrated with the CTA, it would not be integrated with the other Metra Electric branches. This, in addition to the continued provision of competing service, artificially lowers the expected ridership in the report. Today, nearly 30,000 customers ride the South Lakeshore Drive express buses and a further 7,287 ride Metra at stations served by South Chicago branch trains each weekday2)This is the sum of all inbound boardings and all outbound alightings at SC branch stations and stations on the Main Line north of 71st.. The report estimates that the Gold Line would attract only 13,300 weekday riders. The existing ridership in the corridor should be a lower bound on the ridership the Gold Line can attract, but the report underestimates Gold Line ridership by at least a factor of three!

The report uses two models to estimate ridership. One model, from CDOT, flatly assumed that few riders would transfer from buses.  The other model, the ARRF II model, is not designed to model rapid transit in urban settings.  The <a href=’http://www.fta.dot.gov/documents/Day2_Sessions_06_10.ppt’>ARRF II model</a> is designed to evaluate greenfield commuter rail and light rail routes, and specifically avoided modeling large urban areas. While both models agree on an estimated ridership of 13,300 weekday riders, this inter-agreement means nothing as neither model is valid.

The language used in the report is also heavily biased against the proposal. Half of the text is devoted to raising doubts about the viability of the service, even when such doubts are unwarranted.

Metra has indicated that it needs all four tracks north of Kensington to operate both express and local service during peak periods …

Metra would not need to run local trains north of 71st Street; the service would be provided by the Gold Line. Metra and NICTD’s 19 trains in the peak hour already run perfectly well on the two track segment at Kensington 115th St.

Under the heading of “Key Issues/Challenges”,

In addition to the important issues discussed below there is the fundamental question of the need for the additional service. As previously discussed, the Gold Line neighborhoods are now well-served by a combination of bus and rail transit

There are many strategic transportation needs that are not being met on the South Side:

These needs are not and cannot be met by existing bus and rail services.

The report warns of substantial costs for increasing capacity at Millennium station. While rebuilding the unnecessarily slow interlocking at 11th Street Museum Campus and adding a new platform and fourth track at Van Buren station would be required, proper organization of trains entering Millennium station can avoid the need for rebuilding tunnels. If Metra’s obstinance precludes using Millennium station for the Gold or Gray Line, as a last resort, service could be terminated at Van Buren, avoiding any need for big budget rebuilding.

I’ve addressed concerns about MED Operations, Interagency Coordination, Cost-Effectiveness, and Development Potential above. The report fabricated these concerns from the use of bad assumptions. Concerns regarding traffic on the South Chicago branch are valid but manageable.

This study devalues the benefits and shamelessly exaggerates the cost of providing rapid transit on the Metra Electric infrastructure.  Yet both transit experts from far and wide and local community members recognize the importance and potential of this underused corridor. The level of dishonesty and manipulation that has gone into this report cannot be all due to poor planning; denying improved transit service to the South Side is politically motivated.  Why are none of our local politicians speaking forcefully in support of rapid transit on the Metra Electric3)Especially, why don’t aldermen Willie Cochran, Pat Dowell, and Leslie Hairston speak out as they were on the public advisory committee for the study.?

Shame!

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1. This assumes CTA ‘L’ operating costs are similar to operating the Metra Electric as rapid transit.  If they are not comparable, then I’d expect a good explanation for the discrepancy, which the report does not provide.
2. This is the sum of all inbound boardings and all outbound alightings at SC branch stations and stations on the Main Line north of 71st.
3. Especially, why don’t aldermen Willie Cochran, Pat Dowell, and Leslie Hairston speak out as they were on the public advisory committee for the study.

About fbfree

I am a graduate student in Physics at the University of Chicago.
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  • THANK YOU so much for this analysis; I knew all of the things you mention, but I don’t have the sophistication to present it as well as you do. I am going to be addressing CTA’s Bd. on March 11th, RTA on the 19th, and Metra on the 25th. This proves what I have been saying all along; and I will be utilizing it in the upcoming weeks before the election.

    Please join Mayor Chuy Garcia’s Transit Coalition, and help us all win on April 7th: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/GarciaTransitCoalition/conversations/messages

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  • Yonah Freemark

    Would it be possible for you to collect data on bus travel times on the #55? This would be very helpful.

    • I’m collecting data presently for the 55. I should have it posted in about 2 weeks.

      • Yonah Freemark

        Thanks! That’s fantastic.