Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the CTA escalated a mystifying turf war recently against Cook County and Metra on Chicago’s South Side CTA announced Feb. 10 that it would spend $38 million to study an extension of the Red Line to 130th Street. The proposed project is not just expensive for an aboveground rail line — its cost, $2.3 billion for 5.3 miles, could pay off CTA’s entire unfunded pension liability — but it also serves an area already covered by two Metra lines, Rock Island and Metra Electric.
Lightfoot still resists Metra’s proposals to run these lines more like the “L,” with frequent service, low fares and free transfers to CTA service. She is doing her constituents a disservice. Rather than invest in the Red Line boondoggle, the city should support efforts to fix up Metra, as community and business advocates on the South Side have long advocated.
Chicago’s Red Line vs. Metra squabble resembles other American transit fights only in its dysfunction and wastefulness; in every other way, it is unique. In New York, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere, transit advocates have long begged politicians and transit authorities to upgrade infrequent, high-priced commuter rail to rapid transit in the center city. City politicians usually agree: Who wouldn’t want better, cheaper service for their constituents, subsidized by other jurisdictions?
But suburban politicians and commuter rail agencies usually balk, fearing that allowing city residents to board for cheap near downtown will scare off their high-paying suburban customers. New York is facing this exact battle over a proposal to charge subway fares on commuter rail lines inside city limits, offsetting the lower revenue by eliminating train conductors and using more efficient methods of fare collection.
Similar battles have played out at the MBTA in Boston — which reduced fares on the Fairmount Line, but only runs it about once an hour and has not committed to retraining conductors as train drivers — and Philadelphia, where SEPTA’s Regional Rail scrapped a rapid transit conversion of the Fox Chase line during a strike in 1983.
In Chicago, conversely, suburban politicians in Cook County and Metra’s board support the South Side community’s eminently sensible wish list of efficient improvements to Metra Electric. It’s Mayor Lightfoot who supports an expensive alternative that would give the South Side inferior service.
Cook County and Metra even offered to compensate CTA for lost Red Line or bus fares from those who switch to the improved Metra, a response that obviated Lightfoot’s concern about losing CTA riders. Cheaper, more frequent Metra Service could begin immediately, and ultimately benefit much more of the city than a Red Line extension. This might be the first time Cook County and Metra care more about helping city commuters than the mayor and CTA.
If Lightfoot won’t play nice with Cook County and Metra’s unprecedentedly generous offer, the Federal Transit Administration should step in and reject federal funding for the Red Line extension. The point of federal involvement in local transit is to mediate pointless political rivalries in a way that provides the greatest public benefit and protects disadvantaged communities. Rare indeed is a better case for federal involvement than this one.
This fight is a no-brainer. Cancel the Red Line extension, send the CTA’s planned capital spending to the Cook County pilot with Metra, and start building the future that community leaders have demanded for decades: transit service and fare integration on Metra in Chicago.
This piece originally appeared at the Chicago Tribune