Blue Line extension gathers steam

Extension tied to development of three key north-south transit corridors

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By BILL DWYER

After three years of study and public input, officials of the Cook-DuPage Corridor Study presented preliminary plans for a major expansion of rapid rail and bus service in the western suburbs to the Regional Transportation Authority. That plan would include extension of the CTA Blue Line from Forest Park to as far west as Oak Brook, and the development of three north-south rapid rail and express bus transit corridors in Chicago, western Cook County and DuPage County.

Last Thursday's presentation outlined what is still a very conceptual set of plans to deal with a wide variety of transportation and related economic issues throughout the west suburban area and Chicago's far West Side. Public comment will be solicited from the public, including an event to be scheduled sometime in late March at Oak Park Village Hall.

Officials expect to have a final proposal to present to the public for comment in about 18 months.

The preliminary plan presented to the RTA Thursday reflects a mix of two of five original design concepts first brought before the public two years ago-mainline and concentric systems. "We took some of the concentric and some of the mainline system and overlaid them into a final set of options to put forward for public comment," said Oak Park President David Pope, who serves as vice chair of the study's policy committee.

Benefits of an extension

People in Oak Park may have reason to support the heightened possibility that the CTA Blue Line would be extended and the overall width of the Eisenhower Expressway remain unchanged. However, Oak Park officials, who have been intimately involved in various aspects of the study, stress there are several other key elements that must be included for any final plan to ultimately gain the broad political support needed to be successful.

A fully extended Blue Line would feature intersecting connections with three major north-south transit corridors, including the Cicero Avenue Transit Way in Chicago, what's called the "Inter-circumferential" rail line track and right of way that would be extended from O'Hare Airport down 25th Avenue in Bellwood and continuing south to Midway Airport, and the "J-Line" bus rapid transit corridor in DuPage that would connect numerous DuPage County municipalities, including Schaumburg, Addison, Elmhurst, Oak Brook, Lisle, Naperville and Warrenville.

Any extension of the Blue Line would likely also have significant benefits for the enhancement of 1st Avenue, which could become a major transit route to such destinations as Loyola Medical Center and Brookfield Zoo to the south, and Triton College to the north.

Pope said Friday the increased awareness of all the benefits an extended Blue Line has to offer is generating increased support.

"I think we're making strong progress," said Pope. "Both the DuPage members of the policy committee and staff at the RTA are increasingly impressed with the value and potential value to the region of the Blue Line extension, and of the incorporation of the Inter-circumferential rail option that would travel through western Cook and the airports."

Just as importantly, said Rob Cole, an assistant to Oak Park Village Manager Tom Barwin, support is broadening in favor of the Blue Line extension over the establishment of dedicated High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on the Eisenhower.

"HOV will only save two minutes [commute time]," said Cole, who serves on the corridor study's technical committee. He said the building of additional lanes for HOV traffic could also constitute a back-door way to widen the expressway.

"HOV lanes can be reverted into regular traffic lanes if it was determined they weren't being adequately used," he said.

Growing consensus

Both Pope and Cole are encouraged by what they see as a growing consensus between the city, Cook and DuPage representatives on the study. That consensus, they say, is based on a growing trust between the previously opposed groups, a trust that each group's interests will, in fact, be protected and advanced.

Such trust is essential for any progress to occur, since a super-majority of 70 percent of the policy committee must agree on any final plan. Pope and Cole said Friday that there is a widening agreement among politicians on how to proceed with what is basically a once-in-a-century opportunity.

"There's a growing sense of collaboration and mutual goals we'd like to explore," said Cole.

Pope called the proposed development of the Mid-City Transit Way along Cicero Avenue "the most important element" of the plan. Pointing to a map, he noted, "This north-south run picks up many of those in the West Side community and would help reduce congestion."

A look at that map shows the Cicero corridor, which would feature express bus service intersecting with five Metra rail lines and the CTA Green Line and both branches of the Blue Line in Oak Park and Cicero. The result would be greatly increased access to a wide geographic area by low income people seeking distant employment.

New Urbanism

Pope, whose thinking is informed by a conceptual framework called "New Urbanism," said such streamlined transportation options that don't require commuters to travel downtown to make connections would benefit a wide variety of people. He lauded the study's plan as a positive step toward "strengthening the region as a whole."

"If you can develop urban regions in a way people can live, work, shop and recreate within close proximity, you can reduce the negative impacts we see in sprawl," he said. The thinking of the past 50 years, he said, has led to a region-wide situation in which poor transportation and land use planning have contributed to, not mitigated, urban sprawl. Any current and future plans, he insisted, must take into account both transportation and land use.

"If we don't have healthy cities and economically viable urban areas that attract and maintain diverse and viable populations, we end up with situations where people want to move further and further away," he said.

Pope said he's as grateful for what didn't happen six or seven years ago as he is for what might happen over the next six or seven years.

"If not for Rick Kuner, eminent domain would already be under way [to take Oak Park land for a wider expressway]," said Pope, referring to the concerted efforts of former Oak Park trustee Rick Kuner, a transportation expert who blew the whistle on efforts by the Illinois Department of Transportation to ram through plans to significantly widen the Eisenhower by adding additional lanes, with no option for rapid rail improvements. Such plans would have cost Oak Park significant land adjacent to the expressway, threatening the loss of such historic structures as the Oak Park Conservatory and Rehm Park.

"Kuner helped Oak Park and other communities prevent IDOT from beginning expansion of the Ike corridor," Pope said. "He was on the cutting edge of ensuring IDOT wouldn't just ram something down the throats of the communities in the western suburbs."

CONTACT: bdwyer@wjinc.com

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