By Anna Lothson
The Chicago Transit Authority released information about a Blue Line Forest Park Branch Feasibility/Vision Study that will assess needs of the branch between the Clinton and Forest Park stations. Essentially, CTA officials will determine how the stations can be upgraded to be more pedestrian friendly.
This study, which will offer long-range planning options and ways to modernize rail lines, also has the potential to stimulate new economic development for communities along I-290, according to the CTA news release. It will be paid for through a combination of federal funds and in coordination with the village of Oak Park, whose leaders helped secure a chunk of money to conduct the study.
Rob Cole, Oak Park's assistant village manager, said the village won't be using any of its own dollars; its contribution instead comes from funding Oak Park received in 2005 that was specifically earmarked for this type of project and can't be used for any other purpose.
"It's sat out there since 2005. We've been waiting for discussions to get to a meaningful level," Cole explained. "That stage is now. We're saying now is a good time to use this."
Oak Park secured grants through a transportation bill to expand bridge decking near stations along the Eisenhower Expressway to make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. The funding must be met with a 20 percent match, but Cole said the CTA agreed to pick up that portion.
Cole said the CTA and community leaders in the corridor are assessing environmental impacts of any changes. CTA has vowed to continue to identify and work with key stakeholders along the route. Because the Blue Line feasibility analysis will be done in coordination with the Illinois Department of Transportation's current planning for the circle interchange and reconstruction of I-290, the planning will involve multiple stakeholders.
Oak Park has also committed itself to having ongoing conversations with IDOT regarding its current Ike expansion study. IDOT officials have pledged to work with the CTA as it moves forward with its own plans, which in most scenarios involve widening the expressway with an extra lane.
Oak Park leaders, however, are skeptical that IDOT's "multi-module" concepts as presented are actually taking into account public transit and what's best for the communities along the Ike. Cole said because IDOT doesn't have the expertise to study transit-related options, it's critical that the state transportation group pay attention to the CTA study.
Enhancing the Blue Line stops along the Ike and expanding the line west to Maywood and even Hillside is something leaders in Oak Park and nearby communities have said could help address congestion issues on the expressway. Cole has said multiple times that IDOT failed to address this issue and through its analysis has not properly linked the importance of expanding public transportation when addressing highway demands.
"It's critical to have the CTA involved when evaluating the capabilities," Cole said, "addressing the good state of repair and demonstrating whether or not a prospective westward extension is a prudent investment."
IDOT tearing up the expressway and not taking into account how the Blue Line impacts overall travel in the area would be inefficient and irresponsible, Cole said.
"An investment in the Blue Line is an investment in improving traffic issues on I-290," he said. The two transportation systems operate in tandem. It's synergistic. You can't divorce one or two from the other."
The newest Blue Line study is anticipated to be completed by late 2013 or early 2014. Cole hopes the CTA's initiative in this project will spark IDOT to realize the group needs to change direction and take into account facts available from other sources.
"There is glaring evidence [IDOT] is going the wrong way," Cole said.
Instead, he hopes the study can help bring Oak Park's Blue Line stations into the 21st century with common sense by better linking the two travel systems.
"IDOT has to really say they are going to work with CTA," Cole said. "It's best they proceed in that manner."
Ike expansion discussions aside, CTA officials say this study is critical in terms of developing the transit system for its customers and the surrounding communities.
"The Blue Line Forest Park study is a key step in investing in transit on the West Side," said Chicago Transit Board Chairman Terry Peterson in a news release. "We look forward to partnering with the Illinois Department of Transportation to develop a long-term multi-modal plan that will meet transportation needs along the I-290 Eisenhower Expressway corridor and ultimately generate new economic development for the West Side."
Former village president David Pope was praised during his last term for standing up for Oak Park, speaking against IDOT's current expansion plans. He and local transportation expert Rick Kuner have kept up with IDOT's plans through each stage. Trustees also vowed at a recent goal-setting meeting that a major priority was reminding IDOT that the village doesn't support the direction in which the transportation group is heading.
Village President Anan Abu-Taleb Taleb said the Blue Line study was a step in the right direction.
"The resilience of our transportation network depends on improved and expanded public access to the high-quality, affordable and reliable transit service the Blue Line can provide," Abu-Taleb wrote in a news release. "We applaud the CTA's commitment to examining the present and future needs of this critical transit asset."