Lelea Herring near the planned location of the 103rd Street Red Line stop Credit: John Greenfield

Thanks to Donald Trump, the funding outlook for the long-awaited $2.3 billion Red Line extension—proposed and postponed since the Nixon administration—looks pretty bleak right now.

In late January, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the planned route south from the current stopping point of 95th, winding 5.3 miles across Roseland and Pullman to Altgeld Gardens, with stations proposed near 103rd, 111th, Michigan at 116th, and 130th Streets. At the time the CTA was hoping to apply to the Federal Transit Administration for upward of $1 billion from its New Starts grant program, the main source of federal funding for public transportation expansion projects. But Trump’s much-ballyhooed $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill, released February 11, contains no new revenue and, to make matters worse, his 2019 budget proposal calls for slashing $3.7 billion from New Starts. It looks like it might be impossible to fund the extension until a Chicago-friendly Democrat is in the White House again. Even in a best-case scenario, construction wouldn’t begin until 2022, and service wouldn’t start until 2026.

But for decades transit experts and advocates have pointed to a much cheaper alternative for bringing rapid transit to the far south side. The Metra Electric District line runs more or less parallel to the Red Line and makes eight stops in the neighborhoods that would be served by the extension. It would be relatively easy to convert it to el-style frequent service and integrate its fare system with the CTA. And while the Red Line project breaks down to $434 million per mile, local policy analyst Daniel Kay Hertz has estimated that converting Metra for the purpose would cost only $27 million a mile.

So far, however, discussion of this alternative possibility has been missing some important voices: those of the residents who’d stand to gain the most from the service extension. Would they be willing to trade a longer Red Line for cheap, frequent Metra service if it meant getting the improvements sooner than later?

To find out, I rode the train to 95th and traced the path of the proposed extension, buttonholing neighbors near the planned station locations.

From 95th the new tracks would run south along the Dan Ryan, then bend west along the north side of I-57 for about half a mile. Near Eggleston Avenue the Red Line would head south along the west side of the Union Pacific Railroad corridor.

At 103rd and Eggleston I met Lelea Herring, a retired surgical technician who lives nearby. She regularly takes the 103rd Street bus to the Red Line, rides north to Roosevelt, and then takes another bus west to Damen to see her doctor on the Illinois Medical Campus.

Herring was somewhat familiar with the Red Line extension plan. “It’s convenient for me because it brings the train closer,” she said. When I told her that it wouldn’t be ready to ride until 2026 she wondered, “Oh Lord, will I even be here?” But she noted that rapid transit service on the Electric Line wouldn’t do her much good either—the 103rd Street/Rosemoor Metra station is about the same distance from her home as the 95th Street terminal.

Around 108th Street the proposed Red Line route would cross to the east side of the Union Pacific tracks and continue south. Near the planned 111th station location I encountered Bruce Huskin, 58, who lives just south and works as a handyman. While he’s enthusiastic about the possibility of having an el stop right by his house, he said inexpensive, frequent service on the Electric Line would also be useful for getting downtown, since he could ride a bus about a mile east to the 111th/Pullman Metra stop. “Whichever comes first, I’d be really excited for,” he said.

After 111th, the Red Line would continue to hug the Union Pacific line as the railroad turns southeast and climbs an embankment to an overpass near 116th and Michigan. There I met Anthony Brown, 34, who lives near 115th and State and serves as a Safe Passage worker for Curtis Elementary, which is right by his home. On February 13 the CTA held an open house about the extension at nearby Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep. He said his neighbors and coworkers are looking forward to getting a Red Line stop nearby.

“We’d kind of given up because we hadn’t heard anything for a while, but now the city is buying properties and asking questions,” Brown said. “That’s something a lot of us are really happy to see.”

On the other hand, Brown said, if the Red Line extension wouldn’t open for another eight years or more, the Electric Line conversion might be a good consolation prize. It would still be convenient for him—the 115th/Kensington station is about a ten-minute walk east from his house. And because the current Metra fare to the Loop is $5.50, paying the $2.50 CTA fare instead would be a significant savings.

After Michigan, the Red Line extension would continue southeast, cross the Electric Line, and join the South Shore Line corridor on its way to the future 130th Street station, located just northeast of Altgeld Gardens. Residents of that community would benefit greatly from the new el stop, since it would cut an estimated 20 minutes from their downtown commutes. The nearest Chicago Metra stop is at 121st and Michigan, about a ten-minute ride from the middle of the housing project via the #34 South Michigan bus.

At the point where the South Shore tracks pass under 130th Street, the thoroughfare is a high-speed four-lane road with no sidewalks and little foot traffic, so I headed west a few blocks to Rosebud Farms grocery store to talk with locals. There I spoke with Sam McCarthy, a construction worker who lives three miles northwest at 122nd and Elizabeth, right by the Electric Line’s Racine station.

Although the Metra solution would give him inexpensive, frequent train access, he favors the Red Line extension. “[The Electric conversion] would be a good idea too, but it wouldn’t create as many construction jobs,” he said.

Obviously the pros and cons of the Red Line project and the Metra Electric conversion depend on where you live and where you need to go. But the latter definitely deserves further consideration. Far-south-siders have already been put off since the 70s. They shouldn’t have to wait until the Trump administration is just a bad memory before they get rapid transit service.  v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.