(WGN-AM)- Transit riders already have a choice of Red, Green, Blue, Brown, Orange, Yellow, Pink and Purple Lines, but a coalition of South Side activists also would like commuters to go for the Gold.
Underserved by rapid transit, residents there would benefit from a proposed "Gold Line," an innovative hybrid of both Metra and the CTA, according to Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, or SOUL.
With the city bidding for the 2016 Games, the line also would serve key Olympic venues, say SOUL members, who represent more than 20 churches and community organizations.
Although the Olympics served as inspiration, the real goal is better access to jobs -- especially Downtown and in the suburbs -- as well as improved transportation options, supporters say. Parts of the South Side, particularly neighborhoods close to the lakefront and south of Jackson Park, are among the city's most densely populated and the most in need of additional rapid transit, SOUL believes.
Under the group's Gold Line plan, more frequent trains would be provided on the Metra Electric District Line. The plan also calls for allowing transfers between Metra trains and CTA buses and adding a new station at 35th Street.
The proposal faces a number of obstacles. These include securing funding, overcoming a historic lack of cooperation between Metra and the CTA, even proving that the line is needed.
SOUL estimates that implementing the Gold Line would cost $159 million. This would pay for adding 26 Electric District Highliner cars for $91 million as well as for new tracks, station upgrades and fare equipment.
But funding for big-ticket mass transit projects is already scarce to non-existent, experts say. The Regional Transportation Authority has lobbied vigorously for a $10 billion, five-year capital plan to maintain and expand transit systems, but the legislature this spring came up with only a "status quo" $2.7 billion capital package.
But the bulk of the money for the Gold Line or any major capital project would have to come from the federal government.
Metra and the CTA already have projects in the planning stages that those agencies say would help the underserved Southeast Side and south suburbs and would bolster public transportation to the Olympic venues. One project, Metra's proposed SouthEast Service Line, would extend commuter rail service through the city on existing Union Pacific/CSX railroad tracks to 20 suburbs in south Cook and Will Counties. A preliminary estimate puts the line's cost at over $524 million, but the figure is likely to be much higher.
Meanwhile, the CTA is looking at an extension of the Red Line that would connect the current terminus at 95th Street with 130th Street. Estimates for that project range from $210 million to $1.1 billion, depending on the specific route.
Gold Line supporters say a key component of their plan calls for permitting commuters to transfer between Metra and the CTA.
"If you take both Metra and the CTA to work, the problem is there's no transferability," Thompson said.
While the two agencies operate independently, the RTA has been working to implement a universal fare card which it hopes to start testing next year.
The Gold Line is similar to a Gray Line proposal, which transit advocate Mike Payne created and has promoted for several years. The concept received little traction at the CTA and Metra. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning has included it on a list of long-range projects, but The Gray Line plan isn't considered a high priority, a spokesman said.
SOUL has lined up support from community organizations, several aldermen and state legislators.
Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) is seeking $995,000 in federal money to fund a Gold Line study.
Members of SOUL have met with transit agencies and the Chicago Department of Transportation. The RTA urged the group later this year to apply for funding to evaluate the need for the project, said RTA Executive Director Steve Schlickman.
"We will look at what the SOUL people are advocating and assess the value of all the options and see what makes sense," Schlickman said. But the Gold Line plan will have to compete with other projects for money, he said.
SOUL has also pitched the plan with Chicago's Olympics organizing committee. Linda Thisted, chair of the SOUL task force, said the group got involved because "We wondered what could benefit the South Side long-term and the Olympics."
If the city wins the 2016 Games, the Gold Line could transport South Siders to jobs at such venues as Soldier Field, McCormick Place, Jackson Park, Northerly Island and the Olympic Village.
Even without the Olympics, SOUL believes the Gold Line would be worthwhile, Thisted said, adding the group is prepared for the long haul.
"We're just kind of plugging along," she said. "Nothing in transit goes very fast. These things can take years."
(The Chicago Tribune contributed to this story)
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South Siders Hoping For Olympic Gold Line
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