Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Case Against One Central's Transportation "Hub"

Aesthetically, the One Central transit hub looks arguably more spectacular than any other rail terminal in the United States. Now, if only it were actually necessary.
(Image: Landmark Development)
Hunting for a fortune in public funding, Landmark Development is touting that its proposed One Central development in Chicago's South Loop includes a "world class" transit hub. Except that there's no need for a "hub" in that location, and most attempts to create one would create far more problems than solutions.

Earlier this year, Landmark Development unveiled a proposal for the next Chicago megadevelopment. The humongous South Loop plan would stretch above the Metra Electric tracks from Roosevelt Road to McCormick Place, nearly a mile long, with numerous skyscrapers and public green spaces.

Curiously, the project was also announced with a specific intention to create a new transportation "hub", complete with fancy renderings of a terminal you'd expect to find in France or Germany. Not that anything about a grand rail terminal in general is bad, but a quick analysis of this one finds this "hub" to be completely nonsensical.

One Central's "world class transit hub". (Image: Landmark Development)

Why the emphasis on the "hub" then, instead of just focusing on the main components of their project? Because if they can convince local officials that this megadevelopment is truly in the public interest, via a regional transportation hub, it could unlock billions in city and state dollars and tax breaks. This is especially key for Landmark seeing as the the funding plan for One Central does not include any TIFs, unlike the controversial Lincoln Yards, which was approved despite intense scrutiny on its heavy TIF reliance.

The One Central transportation hub is slated to feature:

  • an "extension" of the CTA Orange Line
  • an "extension" of the Metra BNSF Line
  • a new infill station along the Metra Electric Line and South Shore Line, which already runs directly beneath the project area and already has an old station at 18th St
  • a new Amtrak "hub"
  • a bus line (the "CHI Line") between One Central and Millenium Park

"Extension" is in quotes because for both the Orange Line and BNSF, it's not actually an "extension" that has been proposed, it's a branch. This is a crucial differentiation if we're talking about transit that's actually useful for people, and in both cases, branching would cause many more problems than it would solve.

Similarly, a "hub" is defined as "an effective center of a network," and One Central would not be that.

The One Central plan is heavily reliant on a significant mode shift to transit. However, even if their transit plans were efficient, a 60% increase in transit mode share would be a shockingly dramatic shift. Also, the "current" numbers seem to be completely fabricated: per 2017 CMAP data, the Near South Side's current mode split is actually 47% "drive alone", 28% transit, and 14% walk or bike.

This is a classic example of a developer either A) not understanding transportation dynamics and putting forth a nonsensical, yet gleaming, idea, or B) understanding how nonsensical it is and promoting it anyway, because they're betting that politicians won't know the difference.

Furthermore, even if a politician does see flaws in the plan, they almost certainly have political stake in the project other than "efficient, dynamic transportation infrastructure," so they're often unlikely to blow the whistle and risk the entire project falling apart.

The imaginative idea of this "hub" is the developer's best (and probably only) path towards hundreds of millions of public dollars, so a "hub" it is.

(Image: Landmark Development)
To Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot's credit, she has highly skeptical of the hub proposal, openly criticizing it multiple times in June. Even when asked if her opposition was more of a "how" instead of an "if" the project would happen, she said, "No, I think I've just said, I have questions as to whether or not we need a transportation hub."

She had also dismissed its necessity in saying the city has "huge transportation needs all over the city," specifically naming the Red Line extension to 130th St as an example of a much higher priority.

Lightfoot is right to be skeptical. The case for the hub does need to be made, and nearly three months since those comments, Landmark still hasn't made one.

A possible reason why? There isn't much of a case to be made. Breaking it down by each component, it quickly becomes apparent that this hub would be built on a foundation of poor transportation planning.

Orange Line branch

A rough projection of the branch's route, which would need to be elevated and constructed from scratch.
As the Orange Line leaves the Loop heading southbound, it runs along Wabash to around 18th, then veers curves west towards Midway. Here, goes the thinking, you could build a spur from 18th/Wabash eastbound along 18th over to One Central, and run some Orange Line trains that way too. However you slice it though, this solution creates an avalanche of other problems:
  • Branching the line halves train frequency. By branching the Orange Line two ways, you automatically cut service in half on each branch. That would mean Orange Line trains leaving downtown must alternate between Southwest Side/Midway trains and One Central trains. 
    • Currently, Orange Line trains leave downtown for Midway every 7.5 minutes at rush hour and every nine minutes at midday. With the branching, that would be every 15 minutes at rush hour and 18 minutes midday on each branch, which is completely unacceptable on the Midway branch because of its capacity demands. 
    • Infrequent service also kills ridership, and this would instantly make the Orange Line the least useful of the CTA's lines.
    • As if Mayor Lightfoot didn't already have enough reasons to dislike this proposal, the optics of slashing half of the rail service to low and middle-income Southwest Side neighborhoods (as well as Midway), in exchange for service to another controversial central city megadevelopment, would be horrible. Southwest Side residents would be less than pleased.
  • One Central trains would be just as infrequent. Would some people board the trains to One Central? Sure. But because of the branching, these trains would also be capped at once every 15 minutes at rush hour, and less than that in off-peak times. That won't cut it, especially if One Central draws a fraction of the employees and residents advertised.
  • Loop track capacity constraints don't allow adding more trains. The obvious question here is: why can't they just run more Orange Line trains, on both branches? The Orange Line uses the Inner Loop (clockwise) track downtown, which is also used by the Pink, Green, and Purple. It's at maximum capacity--you can't add trains on any of those lines without decreasing service on another, and the Orange Line already has more service than any of those three because its heavy ridership warrants it.
Bottom line: The physical realities of branching rapid transit lines provides unacceptable Orange Line frequencies for both the Southwest Side/Midway and One Central at best, and at worst, a PR disaster for Lightfoot pitting working class commuters against mega-development yuppies.

Metra BNSF branch

A rough projection of the branch's route, using existing little-used freight tracks.

The BNSF Line runs from Aurora to Union Station. Coming eastward into the city, it runs adjacent to 16th St and curves northward just past Canal St, where it goes right into Union.

There are also existing railroad tracks that don't curve northward, but rather continue east through the South Loop all the way to the lakefront, connecting with the Metra Electric Line and freight tracks near Soldier Field. These tracks are how the BNSF would theoretically access One Central. But even with the existing tracks (which minimizes capital costs for this idea), branching the BNSF makes even less sense than the Orange Line:
  • Exacerbated BNSF Line capacity issues. The BNSF is by far Metra's busiest line, and it runs along the busiest rail corridor (Metra, freight trains, and Amtrak combined) in America's rail capital. Unsurprisingly, the BNSF already struggles with capacity, and any rush hour trains routed to One Central are now trains that no longer serve Union Station. This is a major problem, because the vast majority of riders are, and always will be, going to/from Union. Even if One Central winds up employing 10,000 people, which would be a significant accomplishment, downtown Chicago will still be employing 650,000.
  • No ability to transfer from other Metra lines. While you can (inconveniently) transfer between Metra lines downtown, downtown transfers from other Metra lines would actually be impossible in this scenario. That rail link between the BNSF and the Soldier Field area comes in from the west, meaning One Central trains wouldn't stop at Union, or any of the other three downtown Metra terminals. This means that the BNSF branch would literally only be useful for people who live along the BNSF line, and almost completely useless for city residents.
  • Little, if any, off-peak service. So we know that western suburbanites along the BNSF could commute in to One Central for the 9-to-5 workday, and there would probably be probably be sufficient demand induced to designate a few rush hour trains to go there (setting aside the problems this would create for Union Station commuters). But outside of rush hour, most Metra lines run only every hour or two to downtown, and some don't operate at all. Given that, it would be hard to see them justifying off-peak or weekend trains to One Central at all, because without a serious infusion of operating funds to run more trains, you'll still be taking away crowded Union Station trains.
Bottom line: For a limited suburban commuter population (those living along the BNSF in the western suburbs), this would help the 9-to-5 crowd get directly to their One Central jobs, at the expense of all other BNSF riders. But like most other modern day mixed-use developments looking to maximize their square footage, One Central will certainly be designed for people to live, work, and play. Relying on a branch of one Metra line that only serves 9-to-5 commuters from the western suburbs as a serious mobility option would be counterproductive to that goal.

Metra Electric/South Shore infill station

Seeing as One Central is already along the Metra Electric line, a new intermediate station at One Central--which basically just replaces the aging 18th St station--makes sense. Not shown on this map is the South Shore Line, which could also utilize it. (Original image: TransitCenter)
Finally, an idea that makes sense, even if its scope is pretty narrow. The Metra Electric line, which runs between Millenium Park and University Park in the deep south suburbs, runs right thru the proposed project area--the project will deck over the Metra Electric's yard and maintenance facility across from Soldier Field. The South Shore Line also uses these tracks to get out of the city towards Indiana, and could stop at One Central on the way.
  • This station would benefit Metra Electric and South Shore Line commuters. You could easily build a station at One Central to serve the Metra Electric and South Shore. 
    • However, just as with the BNSF, the only commuters that would benefit would be those near South Side and south suburban Metra Electric stations, and northwest Indiana South Shore stations. 
    • So the scope is limited, but it does help that these two lines in particular would provide a lot more communities with direct access: the Metra Electric is comprised of three branches that spread out across the South Side, and the South Shore Line will soon be constructing a second branch of their own in Indiana.
  • You could also use the station to access One Central heading southbound (from downtown), but Metra's schedules and fares structure would need to be improved to make this convenient. The Metra Electric reverse commute morning schedule has random gaps of 15-30 minutes in it, so transferring from other modes in the Loop to Metra Electric wouldn't be all that convenient. 
    • That's not even mentioning that Metra's fares still don't integrate with the CTA's, so even the short trip from Millenium to basically Soldier Field would cost $4 each way.
    • South Shore Line trains aren't even permitted to carry passengers between stations within the Metra Electric corridor, so as to avoid competing with Metra.
  • This station already exists. There already is a Metra Electric station basically right there--at 18th St--and it serves a whopping 23 riders every weekday.

Bottom line: Obviously weekday ridership would greatly increase from 23 with One Central's construction, but because of the prior points, its total scope would always be limited. And nothing about one improved station on an existing line constitutes a "hub".

Amtrak station

A map of the Amtrak lines running into Chicago, which all converge upon its hub at Union Station. Of the 60 daily Amtrak trains using these lines, only 6 utilize the track that passes One Central, and it would out of the way to send any of the other 54 there.

Chicago Union Station is Amtrak's fourth-busiest station nationwide, and its busiest off the Northeast Corridor. I'd be shocked if they had any interest at all in One Central, for numerous reasons:
  • Why would Amtrak want to de-centralize Chicago operations? Managing a massive intercity passenger rail network, it is to Amtrak's advantage to keep their operations in each individual major city as centralized as possible. Their fixed station costs, for everything from station personnel to engineers to checked baggage services are most efficiently kept at one terminal.
    • This is especially true at Chicago Union Station, which sees Amtrak trains departing in seemingly every direction. No trains run through Chicago, so any Amtrak passengers traveling through have to connect to their new train here. This means Union Station actually is an important "hub", much like how airlines use hubs for connecting flights.
  • Union Station boasts unbeatable proximity to Amtrak's locomotive and coach maintenance facility. All Amtrak trains terminating in Chicago are serviced and stored here between revenue runs. That proximity to Union Station is part of what makes Union ideally equipped as a terminal for everything from a three-coach regional train to a long-distance behemoth. 
  • Amtrak owns Union Station, and is spending unprecedented refurbishment and expansion dollars on it. Amtrak is spending hundreds of millions to reopen disused areas, as well as leading a big mixed-use expansion project. It is probably the biggest capital investment in Union from anyone, government or private railroad, in at least 50 years.
  • Union Station is in a far more central location for an intercity hub than One Central, both in the context of the city and connecting to local transportation.
  • Railroad operations challenges make accessing One Central illogical, if not simply impossible, for most of Amtrak's Chicago trains.
    • Of the 60 Amtrak trains that run in or out of Chicago daily, 6 currently utilize that track that runs between the Soldier Field/One Central area and just south of Union Station, the one I mentioned that the BNSF line branch would theoretically use. These 6 Amtrak trains are the one daily train to New Orleans and two daily trains to Carbondale, all via Kankakee and Champaign. These trains could easily stop at One Central, as it would already be on the way. 
    • As for the 54 other daily Amtrak trains, they would literally all have to be rerouted to One Central before or after Union, either going out of their way (if possible) to get on the lakefront freight tracks or, after stopping at Union, reversing out to One Central. Only to come right back towards Union to the maintenance facility.
    • For example, the popular Detroit-Chicago trains do enter Chicago through the South Side, but they take a route farther west than the tracks that pass One Central. There is no track connection on the South Side between its current route and the lakefront One Central tracks, so they would have to come in to Union, reverse out and use the connecting track, terminate at One Central, then basically come back to Union for maintenance.
Bottom line: A logistical nightmare that would hardly benefit anyone's Amtrak travel plans, and certainly not Amtrak's existing hub. As for the 6 daily trains that already pass the One Central site, they could certainly serve One Central without much issue.

You know, right before they get to Union Station, which is where everyone on the train will be going anyway.

CHI Line Bus

Confusingly, despite reports claiming the CHI Line would utilize the McCormick Place Busway, Landmark's own presentation seems to show it just using surface streets.

We don't know much about this idea, other than it's some sort of "circulator" that supposedly would utilize the existing McCormick Place Busway with autonomous vehicles between Museum Campus and Millenium Park, somehow continuing to Navy Pier.

The Busway, which is currently open only to convention-chartered buses and other vehicles with specific access, is one of Chicago's most underutilized pieces of transportation infrastructure. The CHI Line would fix that--but it's also not like the city couldn't do the same thing on its own, with or without this development. It's not even clear who would be responsible for operating the CHI Line, be it the CTA or a private service.

Regardless, the CHI Line has some value in the context of One Central. It could be a high frequency and dependably fast link between East Loop "L" stations and One Central.

However, it doesn't do much for the thousands of One Central employees that would be arriving via Union Station and Ogilvie.

This is all assuming the CHI Line actually uses a direct route via the Busway, which is unclear as Landmark's own project transit map (see above) seems to imply it will instead meander around on congested surface streets. Unless it involves some sort of dedicated lanes on these streets (consider this unlikely), it's no improvement at all over existing CTA bus service in the area.

If anything, a development proposal such as One Central should underscore the need for better traffic-separated central area circulation, specifically to better serve areas surrounding the Loop. A high capacity transit line between Museum Campus/South Loop, West Loop (including Union and Ogilvie), and River North/Navy Pier is absolutely needed. The CHI Line isn't that, but it could be.

The idea last received significant momentum in the mid-1990s when Mayor Daley pushed it, known as the Chicago Central Area Circulator project, but Governor Jim Edgar didn't sign off and the proposal died. A group brought it back in 2016, but without a high profile champion, it died again.

~~~

After observing that of all these grand ideas, only the CHI Line (if it does use the Busway) and improving the 18th St Metra station would actually be beneficial, we're certainly not left with a "hub".

It's time for Landmark to give up the naive-at-best, disingenous-at-worst transportation hub angle, and have One Central be fairly evaluated in terms of its actual positive and negative impacts on the economy and community.

(Image: Landmark Development)
Regardless of whether or not One Central happens, there are two things we know for sure. The McCormick Place Busway (the route of the proposed "CHI Line") can and should be much better utilized for transit, and a Central Area Circulator connecting the West Loop, South Loop, and River North is vital for future growth of the urban core.

If One Central passes its actual, non-transit hub judgment, the developers must be leveraged into contributions to one or both of these plans. It's the least they could do to manage the transportation demand they'd be creating, not to mention making meaningful positive impact for the existing South Loop community.

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