Revamped Metra Electric could put South Side on the fast track

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A newly formed coalition wants the Metra Electric rail line to be reinvented to better serve the low-income communities it runs through, connecting riders to jobs and spurring economic development.

Roseland is one of those communities, and it is ripe for transit-oriented development, says Andrea Reed, executive director of the Greater Roseland Chamber of Commerce.  The area is dotted with vacant lots, many of them situated near the Metra Electric (ME) line.

“We have a lot of vacancies. But to me, that also means a lot of opportunities,” said Reed, whose organization is part of the new Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric (CMME).

For Reed, those opportunities are boutiques and coffee shops that will employ residents and cater to tourists visiting the Pullman National Monument Park. President Barack Obama designated portions of the Pullman community—created by its namesake founder, railroad baron George M. Pullman—as a national park in 2015.

Metra is now planning $4.6 million in station improvements along the ME line, including at the 111th Street Station and the 115th Street-Kensington station, both in Pullman.

“The advantage of bringing in tourism is bringing in revenue to the community,” said Walter Kindred, a South Chicago resident and member of the Alliance for the South East, which is part of the coalition. “If tourists come, they are going to spend money. That would inspire entrepreneurs to develop and bring in businesses people can walk to.”

The ad-hoc coalition wants Metra, the commuter rail agency, to study the cost of operating the line with more frequent trains and better fare integration with CTA and Pace buses. As Metra’s fare system is now set up, lower-income bus riders are priced out, the group says.

Ultimately, however, the coalition envisions the ME line serving as a high speed rail line from downtown Chicago to O’Hare International Airport. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley first raised the idea of high speed rail service to O’Hare in 2010, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel has revisited that idea.

“To do a full financial analysis will take a lot of dollars and a lot of time. We have to talk to our board and look at what direction we need to go in,” Metra’s director and CEO Don Orseno said when the coalition presented its proposal at last month’s board meeting.

The idea of having the ME line operate like a rapid transit line is not new. It has been floated as part of previous proposals, including the plan to have ME trains operate for Chicago Transit Authority passengers as a Gray Line. But the new coalition’s efforts mark the first time that a concerted push has been launched to move the idea from the “needs more study” shelf into an actionable plan.

In fact, the CMME wants the ME line to operate like the CTA’s L system, running every 10-15 minutes. That’s similar to how it operated more than 30 years ago: Until 1981, trains ran every 20 to 30 minutes. At that time, Illinois Central (IC) operated the line, which Metra took over in 1987.

“That is what the Metra Electric line was built for,” said Dan Johnson, a lobbyist with the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, also a coalition member.  His group has been pushing for high speed rail service to O’Hare and is dovetailing its efforts with the coalition.

The “bones” or infrastructure of the ME make it ideal to operate as a rapid transit system, Johnson added. Its main line is the only Metra track that is above-ground for its entire length and doesn’t share tracks with freight trains, unlike Metra’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific lines. Those lines are owned by freight companies, which affects Metra’s timetables, Johnson says.

The ME has two at-ground branches: South Chicago and the Blue Island. The tracks were elevated because of the 1893 World’s Fair to eliminate unsafe rail crossings for fairgoers. To ferry patrons to the fair, the IC built tracks to run express trains.

Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Metra is planning to improve the 111th St. Station near Pullman National Monument.

The Metra Electric runs like a vein through mostly Black communities on the city’s South Side and south suburban communities and could serve as an economic engine for these areas, which have long suffered from disinvestment. When businesses, jobs and residents left the communities, it bolstered the arguments for service cuts due to declining ridership, Johnson noted.

Under Metra’s domain, ME ridership peaked at 12 million in 1990, but it has declined steadily since then. In 2015, annual ridership was 7.9 million for the main line. For its two branches — the South Chicago and Blue Island — ridership that year was more than 868,000 and 284,000 respectively.

Metra covered an operating deficit of $64 million in 2015, when the line generate $46 million in revenue but cost $110 million to operate.

Even so, Johnson called the line an asset that, with more frequent trains, would attract new businesses and improve transit access to jobs, especially in the growing suburban employment market.

“When there is an area of high unemployment, that’s an area that needs more transit, not less,” Johnson said. “The problem with Metra is that it is priced out of the market.”

That market is low-income bus riders. Metra, Johnson said, doesn’t allow transfers from CTA or Pace — which forces bus riders to pay a second fare to transfer to a Metra train. That “brick wall,” as Johnson calls it, penalize bus riders, especially low-wage workers. Metra, he said, should allow a transfer discount, similar to the discount offered by CTA for bus and rail riders using the Ventra card. Charging people two full fares limits who can ride Metra, Johnson noted.

“When you do that, what you’re saying is we don’t want you coming off a bus,” he said. “It is particularly important for public agencies to make additional efforts to accommodate communities that have disproportionately suffered from previous public policies. Agencies that represent the whole region cannot ignore economic and historical realities.”

The CMME has been talking to community groups along the ME line to get their support and urge them to join the coalition. The group already has about a dozen members, including the Active Transportation Alliance and the Center for Neighborhood Technology. It hopes to meet with elected South Side and south suburban officials to push its plan.

“Metra doesn’t really want to do anything [other] than what it already does. So it is going to take an enormous amount of public pressure and political will ­­­­­to get them to move,” said Linda Thisted, of the Hyde Park-based group Coalition for Equitable Community Development.

State Rep. Al Riley (38), who was a member of the now-defunct House mass transit committee, says the idea has merit, along with many others aimed at sparking more economic development in disadvantaged communities. Many south suburban towns in Riley’s district are served by the ME.

“There is not a problem that we can’t solve,” he said. “The problem is making it politically feasible and that’s where we run into problems all the time. Having collaborations, bringing it out in the open, getting a lot of groups involved, means that it may have a chance that it can come to fruition.”

Johnson understands that getting everyone on board won’t happen overnight.

“Government is slow, but we will get there,” he said.