Important Update: Do not follow the instructions in this document to contact Metra’s Board. The Board is already revisiting the project. Thank you so much for all of your help on this issue.
I am going to make a rare foray into direct advocacy because of something very important to Chicago’s transit future. Others may also be interested as some element are not uncommon.
As incredible as it sounds, Metra, Chicago’s commuter rail agency, is planning to spend part the region’s precious transit capital funds for the benefit of road users – and do it in a way that permanently destroys a piece of Chicago’s transit infrastructure. If this sounds as crazy to you as it does to me, read on.
If you are in the Chicagoland area I’m asking for your help. Please read at least the first part of this post, then write to Metra using the links I’ve supplied and tell them to stop and re-evaluate this project. Then spread the word to all your friends to do the same.
The project in question is on the Union Pacific North Line. Metra is undertaking a project to replace 22 bridges and rebuild the Ravenswood station at a cost of $185 million and a timeline of eight years (?!). The bridges are 100 years old and there’s no question they need replacement. However, as part of this project, Metra is using transit dollars to raise the grade of the railroad to increase vertical clearance on the streets below it, and permanently destroying fully one third of the transit right of way in the process.
The UP-North line runs on an elevated embankment through the city. The bridges along the route do not meet current standards for vertical clearance. Here’s an example of a 13′ bridge on Belmont Ave that is among the lowest clearances on a major street.
This isn’t ideal, but isn’t terrible either. Virtually all trucks can navigate even Belmont Ave. without issue, though a couple times a year a truck does get stuck there. I don’t philosophically object to raising the grade, but doing so dramatically increases the cost and complexity of the project. Metra is paying for that exclusively out of transit capital funds. One hundred percent of the value of raising the rail grade is for trucks. It has nothing at all to do with transit. Yet trucking and road funds aren’t even chipping in one cent.
I’m all in favor of an integrated transportation system without all these funding stovepipes but this is ridiculous. It should be a fundamental principle of planning that transit dollars should be for transit, and that transit projects undertaken for the exclusive benefit of roadway users should be paid for with highway funds. Greg Hinz over at Crains documented how Illinois had a record highway construction season while transit hadn’t gotten a dime from the state’s capital plan. After this was exposed, the state coughed up $500 million for transit, but it is still underfunded versus roads. Yet here we see a project that de facto siphons off transit funds for the benefit of road users and trucking subsidies.
If it were just a matter of money, I could probably forget about it, particularly since this type of thing is all too common. The real problem is how this grade raising is being accomplished. The UP-North Line embankment originally had three tracks, though only two are in service today. Here’s a photo showing the right of way:
Metra’s redesigned bridges will consume the entire right of way for just two tracks. So the third track of right of way will be permanently destroyed. Why is this important? The north side is the city’s strongest growing area, particularly among the middle and upper class professionals the city has worked hard to attract. This population explosion of people who work in the Loop put a ton of pressure on transit. The Brown Line L, which runs in the vicinity of the UP-N line, was so overcrowded, the CTA implemented a $550 million project to lengthen platforms to enable longer trains. But now the Brown Line is maxed out. There is no further way to increase L capacity if ridership increases even more.
But the UP-North Line runs through the area too. This provides the only real option left for expanding rail transit service in that area of the city. As the city grows in the future, and demand warrants, the city could build a number of new stations on the UP-North Line, add the third track back, and run high frequency shuttle service, at least at rush hour, while allowing suburban trains to run express. This is conceptually similar to the “Gray Line” idea on the South Side.
Also, the UP-North line terminates at Northwestern Station in the West Loop. The area from Wacker Dr. west is what has seen the most office tower construction and most of the vacant land for new development is there. The center of gravity of the Loop employment base is clearly going to shift west over time as this area fills in. The UP-N actually serves this area much better than the L does. And there’s a multi-billion plan to build a consolidated West Loop Transportation Center that would dovetail with this perfectly.
Will we ever need this line? I don’t know. I certainly hope the city keeps growing so that it does. I do know that if Metra does their project, if we do need it down the line, it won’t be physically possible except at ruinous expense. Thus it does not meet the definition of sustainability above, because it takes away the ability of future generations to provide for themselves.
It should be another fundamental principle of planning that the city will not permanently impair an irreplaceable piece of transit infrastructure unless there is no feasible alternative. Even then, it’s a decision that should be, like the Jackson Park L removal, made at the highest political levels and after extensive public consultation. That didn’t happen here.
I raised my concerns at the highest levels at Metra. They say that nothing can be done. It is very clear their project team does not believe preservation of the third track right of way is important. What’s more, they say doing so would be very expensive because, due to the nature of raising the grade for trucks, it would require extensive retaining wall work, and they don’t have any money. Also, they say that the right of way is too narrow to work with.
Having spent many years dealing with transportation agencies, let me put together a translation table:
We Don’t Want to Do It = There’s No Money, or It’s Impossible for X, Y, and Z Reasons
We Do Want to Do It = Money Is Available, and It Has to Be Done Exactly Per Our Current Plan
In this case, Metra clearly went out and found the money to pay for raising the grade for trucks, a part of the project with no technical requirement. Also, Metra’s new Ravenswood station is a Taj Mahal palace that far exceeds the standards of almost any existing commuter station. They found money for that.
What we need is an independent analysis. I am calling for Metra’s board to put the project on hold until an outside review can be performed. This review should be chartered with finding a cost-effective way to save the third track right of way, and re-examining the necessity, scope, and funding structure related to raising the grade for trucks. This will require the Board to politically engage with outside stakeholders, particularly around the funding issue. This review needs to report directly to the Board, not management, and should be conducted by someone independent who does not have future consulting dollars at risk if they give the “wrong” answer. If anything, the consultants should have a financial incentive to find a way to save the third track and either take cost out or find non-transit funding sources. And there should be a public involvement process.
When I spoke to Metra they said, “Don’t you trust us?” Trust has nothing to do with it. In fact, I do trust that Metra’s management undertook the project in good faith and have made the decisions they legitimately believe are correct. I also understand that they operate in a world of many constraints and pressures.
However, I trust my doctor too. But if he tells me we’ve got to amputate, you can believe I’m going to go out and get a second opinion from someone totally independent before I get anything lopped off. That’s not mistrust. That’s simple common sense. You’d be crazy not to.
Similarly, Metra is proposing to amputate one third of the ROW and spend precious transit funds on trucking subsidies. That might be the right answer. But it deserves a second opinion.
Other Reasons for an Outside Review
Even if you don’t believe me or share my concerns, there are clearly other reasons why this project should get an independent review. Among them:
1. Phil Pagano, Metra’s executive director for the last two decades, killed himself earlier this year after it was revealed he paid himself an improper bonus. Other similar types of matters then came to light. Reports commissioned by Metra’s Board subsequent to this found various controls and procedure issues and a number of reforms were made. While perhaps not related to any projects or transit operations, these items certainly do give reason for pause. The review I’m suggesting is very similar to what Metra did on more purely administrative matters, and I think it is entirely appropriate given the circumstances.
2. While Metra is justly famed and should be praised for its operational reliability – as they say, you can set your watch to Metra – it is also an agency also justly famous for its resistance to change and innovation. Metra only started accepting credit cards last year, and then only after being forced to by the threat of legislative action. Megabus might have wi-fi on its coaches, but Metra doesn’t and says it has no plan to install it. Heck, even Amtrak is rolling out wi-fi. Metra conductors still punch paper tickets the way they did back when those bridges were first built a hundred years ago while the CTA is looking at an ambitious open fare media project.
Given the historic “can’t do” mindset at Metra, I think there’s reason to push a little bit when we hear a No from them. After all, Metra said it couldn’t afford to take credit cards. But wouldn’t you know it, after legislative threats, they could. And the world didn’t end.
3. The ROW elimination was never vetted outside of management. When I brought this matter up to a Metra board member, it was news to him. So clearly the aspects of the project around removing the third track were not discussed with the board. And while I admittedly did not attend all the public hearings for the project, I googled extensively looking for evidence that this had been part of the public discussion and didn’t find anything. I only learned about it myself when told by my friends at the Transit Riders Authority. I don’t think it’s nefarious, I just think Metra’s management never really gave this aspect of the project much thought. We need to change that.
A Call to Action
If you think it’s a bad idea to spend transit funds on trucks instead of trains, and if you think it’s wrong to permanently destroy a piece of Chicago’s transit infrastructure, I need your help. Metra will go forward with their current plan unless they hear from enough people that this is unacceptable to the public.
So I’m asking you to email Metra and tell them to pause the project to conduct the review I discussed. They are already familiar with my arguments, so feel free to reference this blog post if you’d like.
And again, please spread the word to your friends and ask them to write Metra too. If you run a mailing list, please distribute this link to it and encourage people to take action. Thank you so much.
For those who are interested, I will go into further details around various aspects of this project.
Raising the Rail Grade Reconsidered
Why is Metra raising the grade on the tracks? They didn’t come up with the idea on their own. The city asked them to. I would be interested to know at what level this was discussed within the city, especially since the city is on its sixth transportation commissioner in five years. Still, it’s worth noting this idea didn’t originate inside Metra.
Again, I don’t philosophically object to improving clearances, but let’s consider the need. Metra raised the grade on the UP-Northwest Line, but that route runs directly parallel to the Kennedy Expressway, a major truck route. The UP-North line runs along the Lakefront. It is never more than two miles from the lake and is often less than one mile. And the area east of the tracks is not a heavy industrial area that would drive large amounts of truck traffic. Also, the CTA Red and Brown Line elevated structures also have limited clearances in this area. So what is the actual need? How many truck movements will be facilitated and at what cost?
As I said, the major commercial arteries already have clearances already that are, if not ideal, adequate for the vast majority of vehicles. Irving Park Rd., a four lane arterial of the type that should carry truck traffic, has a 14′ clearance, for example. There are heavy truck routes in the city with less clearance than that.
One of Metra’s objections around the third track was that if more trains ran, that would be more noise and vibration in the neighborhoods. But trucks cause noise and vibration too. And unlike added trains, which would be mostly at rush peak periods, trucks are around all the time. I live on Belmont Ave. right at the UP-North bridge and I would certainly rather see more trains than more trucks.
Also, many of these bridges are on residential streets that have very low clearances such as 10′ that make them impassable to trucks today. If the grade is raised, this will actually open up many residential streets to trucks that don’t have them today. That’s not good.
Maybe the grade actually doesn’t need to be raised, or a much more limited effort should be undertaken only at a couple major crossing points.
Also, the funding for this shouldn’t come out of transit. Apart from highway funds, the city of Chicago is sitting on $1.2 billion in cash in its Tax Increment Financing districts that it has broad latitude to shuttle around the city through a process called “porting.” Infrastructure projects are exactly what TIF money is for. If the city really wants to raise the bridges, perhaps it can chip in some TIF money.
Every dollar that can be taken out of this project, either through reducing the scope of the grade raising, or getting outside money, is a dollar than can be put towards preserving the third track right of way.
Perhaps the city really does prioritize trucks over trains. That’s a decision that can be made, but it should be made by elected officials. If Mayor Daley is willing to say, “Yes, I agree we should raise the grade and destroy the third track using transit funds” then, while I might not agree with that, I would be willing to respect that the guy we elected to make the tough choices is the guy who made the call.
Cost of Bridge Replacements
One interesting question to consider is how much cost is added by the inclusion of the grade raising component to the project. I can’t say for sure, but I speculate that the amount is substantial. Let me explain.
Replacing a railroad bridge can often be a surprisingly easy process. Consider that many active rails lines only have one track, so taking it out of service for any length of time is problematic. The solution is to assemble the bridge superstructure adjacent to the track, then cut over by removing the old span and hoisting the new one into place. This sometimes only takes a couple days. You can do it on a weekend. For example, a company called Fenton Rigging cites several case studies of this. In one case they floated a span out into the middle of a river on a barge, and hoisted it onto the existing piers.
The Metra bridge abutments clearly require work, but there are also examples here. For example, when the CTA needed to replace steel piers on the Brown Line L during the station project, they put temporary bracing in place to support the elevated tracks, then poured a new footer and erected a new pier underneath it. All while keeping the tracks in service.
I can’t promise these techniques could be used here since I’m not an engineer, but when I see things successfully done in one place, it seems an indication that it’s at least not impossible. There’s plenty of room for construction staging because the majority of this rail route runs in the median of a city street. Perhaps temporary bracing could be used to support the existing bridge while the abutment is repaired and a replacement span assembled next to the track. When that’s complete, the old bridge is removed and the new one hoisted into place and the track rapidly replaced.
Of course that would be a lot tougher to do if the grade is being raised significantly. That’s a much more complex undertaking and is one reason that this project is going to involve eight years of service disruptions from reducing the line to only one track for an extended distance. (Yes, the right of way is for three tracks, but it is permanently being reduced to two by an eight year project that temporarily reduces it to one).
I don’t know how much extra cost this grade raising is driving, but it is surely tens of millions of dollars, in addition to the vastly increased construction complexity.
As part of this project, Metra is also replacing the station at Ravenswood (Lawrence Ave). Here’s a photo of the rendering of the proposed station (via Flickr/vxia):
The current station has, as virtually all Metra stations do of simple asphalt platforms. There is no station house. As you can see, this is quite an upgrade. It has completely enclosed, sheltered platforms, a ticket office, and even a decorative retaining wall.
I haven’t been to every Metra station on the UP system, but I’ve been to most of them and I can’t name a single other station that has full canopies like this. If Metra can find the funds to build the most lavish platforms on the entire UP network, it is difficult to plead poverty when it comes to saving the third track right of way. Also, notice that this station consumes the entire embankment, thus it is another design element that has the effect of precluding restoring the third track to service at a future date. This design should be changed.
The Right of Way Issue
As I noted earlier, Metra previously replaced bridges on the UP-Northwest line, which dates from the same era. This one still had three active tracks and wouldn’t you know it, all three tracks were preserved during reconstruction, even as the grade was raised. To me that, along with the fact that the UP-N line used to have three active tracks itself, is prima facie evidence that three tracks can be preserved on this right of way.
According to Metra, the Northwest line had a wider right of way than the North line, 100′ versus 66′. I have no reason to doubt them. However, the North line also has ROW advantages. As I noted, the majority of the route is in the median of a city street that features low to moderate traffic. This provides significant opportunity for construction staging and temporary ROW encroachment that the Northwest line does not. That line cuts diagonally across the city grid and is directly adjacent to the busy Kennedy Expressway to boot.
Here’s an example on the UP-N line at Irving Park Rd. showing the width of Ravenswood Ave, the street whose median the train runs in. It’s wide enough for angled parking on both sides of the street. The rail line is on the left past the parked cars out of the photo, and there’s another side to Ravenswood just like this one on the far side of the tracks.
Not all segments are this wide, but there’s generally some space to work with, often quite a bit of it.
While construction in a urban environment always provides challenges, I still believe an outside review is warranted to examine the specifics of this and other potential issues. Every project has issues that must be mitigated. I think there are significant opportunities to examine the parameters of this one to look for creative solutions to meet the project needs while saving the third track right of way.