Friday, August 30, 2019

A Deep Dive into the CTA Orange Line

Unbuilt stations, unbuilt extensions, and even a previous "Orange Line": even for regular riders, there's plenty you might not know about the CTA's newest-constructed line
Midway Orange Line Station. (Image:
The CTA Orange Line, which runs between downtown Chicago and Midway International Airport on the city's Southwest Side, is a speedy, pleasant ride. 

Opened in 1993 and still the CTA's newest (predominantly) built-from-scratch rail line, the Orange Line filled the last major gap on the city map in terms of rail service: the Southwest Side had been completely left out of the original lines, most of which had already existed for decades.
A deeper look into the line's history and planning documents reveals a plethora of intriguing nuggets and ideas that never came to be.
  • Perhaps the most common fun fact about the Orange Line plans is that it was originally slated to run beyond Midway Airport to the Ford City Mall, about two miles directly south of the Midway station. These final two miles were never built, but they were heavily anticipated: an orange “Ford City” destination roller sign was added to all rail cars, and can still be seen on 2600-series cars (found today on the Orange, Blue, and Brown lines). Other series cars use digital LED signs, as will all new series presumably, so seeing Ford City as a phantom destination on a real "L" car will soon become a relic of the past.
How would this sprawl-topia, looking north along Cicero Ave just outside Ford City Mall, have developed differently if an elevated Orange Line had been built above the center of it 26 years ago? Impossible to say.
  • While a Southwest Side "L" line had been discussed for decades, it wasn't until "a vote for military action in Central America" indirectly got the project a necessary federal funding boost that it would need to come to fruition. It broke ground in 1987.
    • President Ronald Reagan directly provided said boost as a political favor, which is especially significant considering he was not known as a supporter of mass transit. Around the same time, he cut federal funding slated for the unbuilt second phase of Miami's Metrorail system, infamously (and falsely) stating "it would have been a lot cheaper to buy everyone a limousine."
  • The Southwest Side "L" proposals varied over the years, but incredibly, the first piece of track intended for the future Orange Line was actually completed in 1943. It remains in service, but it's not the Orange Line that uses it--it's the Red Line.
    • As per the city's 1939 comprehensive subway plan, there was to be a subway underneath the diagonal Archer Ave. It was to branch off from the State St Subway (Red Line) south of Roosevelt and continue under Archer out to Cicero Ave, where it would turn south to 63rd St. This would have effectively served the entire Orange Line market, including Midway Airport.
    • The Archer subway never came to fruition, which is what necessitated the Orange Line many years later. The State St Subway did come to fruition, and was built with the junction to the future Archer subway included, as it would have been much more difficult to add later this junction later without significantly disrupting State St trains. A short distance of track for the Archer subway was built out. It was used only for storage or emergencies for many years, seeing as these tracks didn't go anywhere.
    • From its opening in 1943 until 1993, southbound State St Subway trains would stop at Roosevelt, leave the subway via a ramp near State & 14th, and connect with the South Side Elevated (part of today's Green Line) to continue south. In 1993, however, the CTA opened a new stretch of tunnel between Roosevelt and Cermak-Chinatown on the Dan Ryan Line. This tunnel directly connected the Dan Ryan Line and State St Subway for the first time, which is the route today's Red Line runs. Most of that tunnel truly was new. But a short stretch just south of Roosevelt utilizes those original Archer Ave subway tunnels, that had been built there nearly 50 years before. The difference in tunnel can actually be noticed in a CTA's cab-ride video of the northbound Red Line, close to the 20:10 mark.
Alternative R7, which follows the current Orange Line route until it curves beyond Midway to Archer/Summit. 
  • There were also some Orange Line route alternatives that would have extended it 3.5 miles to the west of Midway. The line would have traveled under or around the airport to the suburb of Summit. The Ford City route would have precluded any Summit routing, so these alternatives must have been eliminated at some point in the planning process.
  • The Stevenson Expressway (I-55), opened in 1964, included dedicated median space for the future Orange Line, as did the Dan Ryan for the Red Line and the Kennedy and Eisenhower for the Blue Line. A few of the Orange Line alternatives would have utilized this median (including one route that completely misses the airport and runs straight to Summit), but the chosen one instead primarily followed freight rail rights-of-way that more directly served residential neighborhoods. 
    • This was definitely for the better, as the expressway median stations projected much lower ridership. Stations surrounded by an elevated expressway and heavy industrial land likely would have had horrendous walkability. Relatively very few residents or businesses could be found within a 10-minute walk of these stations, so the expressway routing would not have served existing communities well. The likelihood that any transit-oriented development would have sprung up around these stations would have to be considered extremely low, and even that assumes that zoning would be adjusted to allow for it. 
  • The median space in the Stevenson Expressway still exists. The Illinois Department of Transportation in recent years has eyed it for demand-priced toll lanes, but Pace should throw its hat in the ring for a busway. Here's why: 
    • Pace currently runs six express bus lines along the Stevenson. When traffic slows below 35 mph, buses are allowed to use the shoulder to bypass it. For safety reasons, however, they're prohibited from running above 35 mph or more than 15 mph faster than the speed of traffic while on the shoulder, not to mention frequent interruptions from disabled cars or emergency vehicles that they must yield the shoulder to.
    • Despite these inefficiences, since Pace was permitted to use the shoulder in 2011, express bus ridership along the corridor has increased by 600%.
    • The four busiest of these six Pace express lines serve and Bolingbrook, which has nearly doubled from 41,000 residents in 1990 to over 75,000 in 2018, and Plainfield, which grew from about 4,500 to over 44,000 in 2018. Neither are served well by Metra. 
    • The one Metra line that does parallel some of the expressway, the Heritage Corridor, provides a highly limited, freight-traffic-constrained service.
  • Midway was initially proposed as a subway station, as opposed to the “open cut” it wound up in. The design of the open cut station does still allow for a future southward Ford City extension, although there hasn’t been much momentum for it since the CTA put the most recent plans on hold in 2011.
Ridership projections for stations along Alternative R7, which follows the current Orange Line route until it curves beyond Midway to Archer/Summit. Note the unbuilt Polk and California/49th stations, as well as Narragansett and Archer/Summit on the Summit extension. "Western" was later renamed Archer/35th (so as to avoid confusion with Western/49th), and Polk was cancelled in favor of the elevated Roosevelt station. 
  • There was also an Orange Line station planned at California & 49th, in between today’s Kedzie and Western stations. California was cut at some point as it had lower projected ridership than those two (although, interestingly, higher projected ridership than Halsted, Ashland, and 35th/Archer, which were built anyway).
  • Today’s elevated Roosevelt station, a crucial transfer point between the 3 south side “L” lines and hub of the booming South Loop, was not in the original plans. Instead, there was a planned station at Polk & Wabash just south of the Loop.
    • The Roosevelt subway station (now served by the Red Line) has been open since 1943, but the elevated Orange Line, sharing tracks with the Green Line at this point, would have passed right above it without stopping. The first transfer opportunity would have been at the Polk station, at which point you could have transferred to the Red via the Harrison station's Polk St entrance.
  • By the early 1990s, the CTA was quickly phasing out A/B skip-stop train service. It had existed on almost every line, but years of ridership decreases and subsequent lowered train frequencies, the increasingly long waits for trains at A or B stations torpedoed ridership. The Orange Line opened in ‘93 without A/B stations (meaning all trains made all stops), but these four stations were originally intended to be skip-stop: Halsted (A), Western (B), 35th/Archer (A), and the unbuilt California/49th (B). 
    • These were the four stations with the lowest projected ridership on the Orange Line.  While making them skip-stop stations would have marginally increased the line's overall average train speed, the doubled wait times at these stations would have made them significantly less useful. 
    • Even including these stations, the Orange Line's fewer stations and more modern construction standards (namely, smoother curves than many found on the older lines that had to sneak around buildings and through alleys) make it among the fastest stretches of "L" track.
  • The eight Orange Line stations that were ultimately built (including the elevated Roosevelt station which also serves the Green, and connects directly to the Red Line's Roosevelt subway station) marked a drastic change in station design for the CTA. 
    • Decades without "L" stations to anchor denser, transit-oriented development around saw the Southwest Side in particular develop in a more car-oriented fashion. Thus, these new stations were designed to fit that environment, rather than the denser and more walkable station areas found along some of the older lines.
    • These included off-street bus bays and park-and-ride lots at most stations. While the freight right-of-way routing did allow the line to directly serve more neighborhoods, the lower population density of them meant the CTA still didn't expect nearly as many riders to walk to the stations.
    • A few similar multimodal stations had also recently been constructed along the O'Hare extension of the Blue Line.
    • As it turns out, the CTA underestimated the number of walkers to Orange Line stations. The stations between Midway and Halsted feature a combined 1,147 parking spaces, but saw over 28,000 average weekday boardings in 2018. These stations also must see a high proportion of riders transferring from buses.
    • While there's no denying the Southwest Side neighborhoods through which it passes sport a lower population density and less walkable, more car-oriented development, the argument has also been made that the city's failure to actively plan for transit-oriented growth around stations has left behind significant unrealized opportunity.
The "Lake/Southwest" line mentioned here proposes running trains from Midway to Harlem/Lake via the Loop. This would have combined today's Orange Line with the western half of the Green Line.
  • The proposed service pattern refers to the Orange Line as the “Lake/Southwest” line, and also mentions a “Ravenswood/South Side El” line. This means today's West Side Green Line was to be combined with the Orange Line (via the Lake/Wabash sides of the loop, like today’s Green), and the Brown Line was to be combined with the South Side Green (via the Wells/Van Buren sides of the loop).
A look at the 1985 CTA rail map finds the Skokie Swift, today's Yellow Line, as the original "orange line", even though the color labels were unofficial and rarely, if ever, used colloquially at this time.
  • The 1993 opening of the Orange Line also marked the CTA's official renaming of all rail lines, from their destination. For example, the Ravenswood became the Brown Line. However, the CTA had already been experimenting with line colors on rail maps in the 1980s and early 90s, and orange had been assigned to a different line: the Skokie Swift, now known as the Yellow Line.
  • Color-coded line labeling obviously makes navigating easier, as they give even tourists a simple understanding of the system's operations. But what if a train didn't abide by its color's route? All havoc would break loose--and for six weekday Orange Line trains that spontaneously turn Brown downtown (and six vice versa), that's exactly what happens.
  • While a “line to the airport” seems intuitive for a major city’s second major airport, shuttling thousands of passengers and employees, it’s important to note the Orange Line’s role in Midway’s surprisingly mercurial history.
    • In 1959, Midway was the busiest airport in the world. 
    • As its tight location amidst residential neighborhoods made runway expansion and accommodation of larger planes a major challenge, the newer and more spacious O'Hare International Airport quickly took most of its commercial air traffic.
    • By 1979, its future as a commercial airport was heavily in question--only two commercial flights per day remained. 
    • However, Southwest Airlines began serving it in 1985 and quickly evolved it into a large hub. The Orange Line arrived in 1993. Other airlines have come and gone since, but Southwest continues to dominate the vast majority of passenger traffic at Midway. 
    • Today, Midway is home to over 230 daily departures and 22 million annual passengers (or 60,000/day) and thousands of employees. 
    • A strong majority of Midway travelers still arrive by car or ridehail anyway, so it would be disingenuous to imply that the Orange Line is the major reason for Midway's rebirth. However, the Southwest Side desperately needed a rapid transit connection either way, and connecting Midway has absolutely contributed to the airport’s rebirth.

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