The Red Line Extension: Promise or Pipe Dream?

By Julia Thompson and Janel O’Brien

Video: Short Introduction Interview with Dr. Joseph P. Schwieterman, Professor in the School of Public Service, DePaul University

Residents in far South Side communities have been living in a transit desert, and many say they have been given broken promises by city officials over the last 60 years about solving the issue.

Click here to view an entire history of the progress of the Red Line expansion into Southside Chicago 

By completing the initial environmental impact study in November 2016, the CTA took the first big step toward securing federal funding for the Red Line expansion.

The next phase would be to complete a final study. However, to do that, you would need to secure funding, something this project has failed to do.

According to Dr. Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at the School of Public Service at DePaul University, after the recession in 2009, Chicago received a great federal stimulus package.

This money was for projects like new starts for transit, however according to Schwieterman, “That money has dried up a bit in the last few years.”

Schwieterman added, One thing that has happened, the political forces have really lined up behind the project. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made that a huge priority and a lot of stakeholders have come on board.”

Photo: Julia Thompson

Unfortunately, this isn’t entirely true. Though the project has support from local government, the state of Illinois is unable to offer a lot of financial contribution, thus relying on federal government funding for the project.

The Trump Administration has previously announced its intention of eliminating the New Starts program and all other federal funding for transit.

Even if the project was able to secure funding under the Trump administration, states still have to match any federal funding they receive. With the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois facing major budget problems, their ability to contribute seems incredibly unlikely.

The project has been shown overwhelming support by state and local government officials, and residents all over Chicago. On Jan 26, 2018 the city announced the intended route for the expansion of the Red Line.

The line would run another 5.3 miles, extending from the current 95th Street terminal to 130th Street. The CTA has chosen the following route for the project:

  •   Beginning the extension at 95th Street and continue running along the west side of the Union Pacific Railroad (UPR) tracks from I-57 south to around 109th Street;
  •   Cross the UPR tracks and run along the east side of the tracks until crossing the Metra Electric tracks near 119th Street and continue south to 130th Street,     
Proposed Route for the Red Line Extension, via  Chicago Transit Authority , 
Strategic Planning & Policy, 10th Floor
Attn: Red Line Extension Project 
567 W, Lake Street
Chicago, IL 60661-1465

When viewing the photo and video below from the tour on Google Earth, you get a sense of just how many communities would benefit from the Red Line expansion.

Image via Google Earth Pro/ Julia Thompson 

Video via Google Earth Pro/ Julia Thompson

However, according to Schwieterman, “When push comes to shove, the ridership that the line will generate may be low enough that it’s going to be hard to rise on the top of federal funding lists.”

When asked about why there is an assumption that ridership is expected to be low, Dr. Schwieterman replied,

“The biggest thing you look at is the land use patterns in that part of the city …there ’s reasonably a lot of jobs in the area, but it’s not the kind of dense development where you’re going to have a lot of walk to transit. You’ll have some, and of course, it will be important for a neighborhood that in many ways is a transit desert. Buts it’s not clear we’re going to see the same amount of job growth or traffic growth on that line, as you would in some of these other transit proposals around the city. I know the area needs better transit in a big way, but I do worry that the cost of the line for the ay off of ridership could be pretty tough.”

This is one perspective from a source living outside of the area, however, many residents and activists in the area believe the new transit line would actually stimulate a lot of economic growth for the area.

The new expansion would benefit around 128,000 residents in Chicago’s far south side communities, who are currently living in a transit desert.

CTA riders waiting for the bus, Photo: Julia Thompson

The expansion would cost a fraction of what it costs to normally commute, and even a smaller fraction of the time.

According to the U.S Census Bureau, there is a correlation between unemployment and long commute times in these far south side communities.

Riverdale, located about 17 miles south of downtown, had the highest unemployment rate in the city of 41 percent. Of the working residents in Riverdale, 37 percent spend more than an hour commuting to work.

Burnside, Pullman, West Pullman, Chatham, West Englewood, South Deering and Roseland and just some of the other communities where unemployment parallels the time it takes for citizens to commute to work.

Besides being able to bring employees to there jobs in downtown, the $2.3 billion transit project could bring thousands of construction jobs, further sparking employment development.

When asked about convenience, Riverdale resident Cheryl Johnson explained,

“We could go all the way from the Riverdale community area all the way to Loyola, to Howard to Rogers Park. One stop. Straight. How convenient would that be? For opportunities and accessibility to other opportunities. That’s a huge issue for this area.”

Photo: Julia Thompson

Riverdale is just one of the majority black communities that has been isolated from jobs and business opportunities by a lack of public transit.

According to community activist Deloris Lucas, the average commute to get to the 95th Red Line station on the one bus that comes into the community is 30 minutes. Then add on another 30 minutes or so for people who work downtown, and add another 30 minutes for people who work on the North Side.

Lucas lets us know that the “better” jobs are located on the North Side.

Resident Sanora Talbert agrees with Lucas’ claims stating, “We stay all the way out here and there’s really no jobs out here so most of the jobs are in the city”

Talbert, like many South Side residents, do not have the luxury of turning down a job because of the commute time. “I have kids and I can’t just not accept a job because of the length or the distance. I just have to do what I [got to] do until something better comes up.”

She goes on to explain how many people don’t have a choice when it comes to taking public transit.

“A lot of people have to take public transit. A lot of people don’t have cars to get around…I see a lot of people getting on the bus in the morning going to work. A lot of people work all the way out at O’Hare that I know here”, she says.

After looking at Google Maps, the minimum commute time from Riverdale to O’Hare is 1 hour and 29 minutes. The maximum commute time reported by Google Maps was 2 hours and 11 minutes.

Both options require multiple transfers from the Metra to bus lines, then finally to CTA rapid transit trains. Neither route takes into account traffic or delays, and that is just one way.

The only bus that travels out to Riverdale and its neighboring communities is the 34 line, however, though it runs 24 hours, 7 days a week, it only services once every half an hour.

“If you miss the bus, you have no choice but to wait another 30 minutes.”

We took the Red Line as far south as it goes to 95th Street, to interview people about their daily commute times.

Trina, a resident of South Holland, who lives around 154th and Cottage Grove tells us about her daily 4-hour commute to and from work.

Trina works at 7200 W Touhy Avenue and when asked how long her daily commute was, she replied, “Almost 2 to 2 and a half hours there, and the same back.”

Her process of getting to work start with taking the 353 bus to 95th to transfer to the 95th Street Red Line station then takes the red line, transfer again to the 290 bus which takes her to her job.

According to Trina, the 353 bus is the only line that reaches her neighborhood.

Another thing she told us to consider is possible delays on top of commute time.

“The 353 is the only one, and the only thing with that is, at times it’s good, but it might be even later depending on the railroad there…so if the train is coming, we’re delayed. Just last week we were stuck for 40 minutes in front of three trains just sitting in the same spot.”

Another interviewee Geneva, who lives on 139th in Robbins, also faces 4 hours of commute time every day.

Photo: Julia Thompson 

Geneva takes the 359 bus to the Red Line, then transfers from the redline to another bus line. She says that on average, her commute time is always between 1 and a half to 2 hours.

Tina Jackson, a resident of Riverdale, further explains what it’s like to live in a transit desert. Jackson explains,

“It has just become a very big hassle that most people in Chicago do not have to go through. A lot of people forget about us out here by us being on the far south side of Chicago, including transportation.”

On top of being extremely timely, commuting from far south side communities to get to work downtown can be extremely expensive.

Resident Marguerite Jacobs explains, “if you go on any connecting bus, you might spend $10 going one way and $10 coming back. It could cost you $20-30 just to get to your job…”

A full-time employee living in one of these communities if forced to invest a large portion of their check just to get to their job.

If someone works 5 days a week and commutes to and from the far south side, that is a minimum of $100 on transit in one week.

For the same amount of money, these residents could ride the CTA rapid transit lines an unlimited amount of times for an entire month.

Jacobs explains, “that’s why we would like to have the red line right here. That $2.50 alone (cost of a single CTA train ride) would break down the carfare.”

Contrary to some predictions, residents of these communities believe the extension could help reverse disinvestment, as well as segregation.

“I see, with the extension of the Red Line, it bringing different companies, new ideas, and creativity to the area”, says Tina Jackson.

“For the Red Line to extend, it would be more encouraging for people to work”, added Marguerite Jacobs.

Speaking about the community of Riverdale, Deloris Lucas said, “We have a lot of low to moderate income people and many of the residents don’t really think about what they should have in comparison to other parts of the city.”

Tina Jackson, a resident of Riverdale, said also why she believes the Red Line being in the community would spark positive economic growth and a bigger sense of community.

She said, “The extension of the Red Line, it’s going to bring so much money to our neighborhood, and money is one thing that we are missing out here.

Video via YouTube/The Chicago Reporter (Oct 31, 2016)

“Things can get better, but we need the Red Line. We want the red line; Because it’ll make our lives much simpler and easier. Who doesn’t want an easier and more simple life?”

Though not able to do it alone, Schwieterman also believes great things can come from the expansion of the Red Line. He tells us, “Really good things can happen. I’ve seen that around the country. You build transit lines and suddenly the whole development picture changes.”

He adds that we are seeing this in a big way in other cities across the country, where there isn’t any room around transit because development is so intense.

“In our city, we may well see that too, because in the North Side, the number of good sites for the kind of residential towers they want to build is getting slimmer and slimmer near transit, and we’re thinking that may push it further south”, he says.

“We can’t ignore this neighborhood any longer,” Schwieterman said. And he is right.

The biggest question right now is, where and when are they going to get the money? Though we are in a limiting political climate, we urge you to reach out to government officials and address this serious issue that has gone on far too long.

Photo: Julia Thompson

If continued to go neglected, as a city, it sends the message: “If you can’t afford it, your quality of life doesn’t matter, and we’re abandoning you. Deal with it.”

Don’t ask officials where the funding is, demand them to find it. Without funding, there is no expansion to the Red Line, and almost 150,000 people will be stuck in a transit desert for who knows how long.

If you want to get involved and stay informed, visit , this site will keep you updated about the proposed projects, the planning process, and important opportunities for public input and participation.

For any questions regarding the Red Line Extension Plan, please contact

Also check out The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Plannings’ (CMAP) video below, explaining why the Red Line South extension would significantly improve access to job opportunities, educational institutions, health facilities, and other resources for Chicagos’ south side residents.

Video via Youtube/GOTO2040, Published Dec, 18, 2012


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