For decades, Chicagoans on the Far South Side have been waiting for the CTA’s Red Line to come to their neighborhoods. Plans to extend the heavily used train line south of its current endpoint at 95th Street have been discussed as far back as the 1950s, but the project has been steadily moving from idea to reality in recent years, and the CTA says it hopes to start a key development phase of the project very soon.
“The city does not end at 95th Street,” said Michael LaFargue, a realtor and member of the Red Line Extension Coalition. “We have a transportation desert, we have disinvestment in our community, which can be assisted with equitable transportation.”
In 2018, the CTA released its preferred plan for the location of the tracks and stations. The extension would run largely alongside an existing Union Pacific rail line, with stations at 103rd Street, 111th Street, Michigan Avenue at 115th Street and 130th Street, better connecting the communities along the 5.6-mile stretch to the CTA’s network.
“Travel times for people living on the Far South Side of Chicago and south suburbs are some of the longest in the region,” said Leah Mooney, the CTA’s director of strategic planning and policy. “This could add 20-minute time savings for people on their commute, which is a significant difference. And that’s just on average, so some people would see more than that.”
Earlier this year, the CTA awarded a $38 million contract for preliminary engineering work and a final report on the extension’s environmental impact, key pieces needed to move the project forward. The CTA also lined up funding to make sure the economic development the project spurs benefits area residents and communities.
“This project has equity at its foundation, and that’s one of the biggest impacts for a project of this magnitude,” Mooney said.
LaFargue wants to see not just better access to jobs, education and health care, but transit-oriented development around the new stations. He says you can think of it like a rail line coming through a town in the Old West.
“All of a sudden that town becomes prosperous. It becomes a compact area of economics, social life, growth, education, religious life,” LaFargue said. “Very importantly, transit-oriented development also brings economic development and power and the ability for funds to stay within a community.”
Keeping those funds within the community and not displacing residents are key. The CTA says it’s heard concerns about gentrification, and is working with city departments like Planning and Development, and Housing.
Abraham Lacy, president of the Far South Community Development Corporation, says for years, many neighborhoods around the proposed extension have been a bedrock of single-family homeownership for Black Chicagoans.
“However, given that the population is aging, there needs to be a new housing strategy in terms of the rental housing, affordable housing, as well as single-family housing that can spur from this development,” Lacy said.
Lacy is excited about the possibilities surrounding the Red Line extension. But, he says, folks aren’t waiting for the train to come through. There’s already a lot of work underway to reverse decades of disinvestment, and he says it’s important to think about the bigger picture — and the long-term challenges.
“We have to do a 10-year strategy when it comes to how to fund our schools, how to get more help and assistance to Black-owned businesses on the South Side, when it comes to housing development,” Lacy said. “We can’t be going after these one-trick ponies anymore where, if we build one thing like a grocery store in your neighborhood then that means we did economic development.”
Another development Lacy and LaFargue are hopeful about: the Roseland Community Medical District, which was created by the state to improve health care opportunities on the Far South Side and would be located near the proposed station at 111th Street.
Dr. William Towns, the district’s president, said researchers often come into Chicago neighborhoods to study prevalent health problems like asthma and hypertension.
“The medical district is a way not to just come in to these communities and do research and then take information out, but to establish a center where … we can really sort of study and figure out how best to address the issues and needs of the people in the Far South Side,” Towns said. “We can do that through a number of ways: through health expansion … looking at the Roseland Community Hospital expansion, (and) bringing outpatient clinics and other services here to the Far South Side.”
And in a city where many people don’t own cars, LaFargue says extending the Red Line to Chicago’s southern city limits can mean “an improved environment, it means investment into the community, it means investment in immediate walkability, it means better access to education, better access to health care. It’s simply a quality of life we have been waiting for,” he said.
Mooney says the project is one of the agency’s top priorities.
“Our goal is to enter into … the project development phase very soon. This project, I think, has really got legs, so it’s very exciting,” Mooney said.
That project development phase is a two-year process the CTA will have to go through to get federal funding for the extension. At the end of those two years, the CTA will have to have to finish 30% of the design and have identified about 30% of the funding that isn’t coming from the federal government.
The project’s price tag is estimated at $2.3 billion, which would be the single largest project the CTA has ever taken on — even more than the $2.1 billion modernization of the Red and Purple Lines on the North Side that’s underway now. About half of that would be local money, which could take a variety of forms and is still not finalized. The other half, the CTA hopes, will come from a federal grant program.
Dr. William Towns, president of the Roseland Community Medical District, discusses the impact the medical disrict could have on the surrounding neighborhoods.