Dispatches from Utah: Brand new commuter train line opens with enviable features


The inaugural train parked at the new Provo Station.

This post was going to be on a completely different topic that I started writing Thursday afternoon. I visited a local library in the evening to use the internet at which point my laptop decided to malfunction. I was able to recover the post but it’s no longer relevant and it’s very difficult for me to finish it without my personal workstation. Anyway, please enjoy this post about my vacation in Utah (which is happening as I write).

I’m visiting my family in Utah for six days. On Thursday, my birthday, I boarded the inaugural commuter train from Salt Lake City to Provo, Utah. It’s about 45 miles by train or car and they take the same amount of time (assuming light highway traffic)*. This train is most similar to Metra in its operating characteristics. It uses a single, diesel locomotive to haul a few large cars a long distance at low frequencies on tracks shared with freight. The freight-passenger rail relationship is very different here: the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) owns the right-of-way, purchased from Union Pacific, built its own tracks, and leases them to freight carriers overnight. In the end, no freight trains slow down commuter trains whereas in Chicago, Metra trains are delayed by freight trains on a daily basis.


Bike space in the train.

The train cars are of a newer and quieter design from Bombardier (manufacturer of Chicago Transit Authority’s 5000-series cars). They have low floors so it’s easier for people with bikes or using mobility devices to board. There are 9 bike spaces in a rack in one of the cars (it appears that more than 9 bicycles will fit). The windows are big and clear. The train provides work tables at some seats, power outlets at the work tables, and free wifi. The Illinois state legislature passed a bill in 2011 that required Metra to study the provision of wifi. Metra announced this year that its refurbished cars will have power outlets.


Work tables in the train.

UTA has had an open fare payment system for years. CTA and Pace will launch Ventra in 2013. Open fare means people can pay with RFID-enabled bank cards or NFC-enabled smartphones. A new company called Isis allows you to pay for transit with an app you can download. Metra is looking into a similar program, which would display a barcode on you smartphone’s screen.

There is some commercial and residential development around the train stations, but the typical land use around the stations, just feet away, is surface parking lots. This should be the most valuable land and hopefully can easily be converted to higher uses when a developer comes around.

After the train ride and ceremonies I drove around with my mother for a while, running errands and going out to eat. I noticed a lot of bike lanes and also Salt Lake City’s version of the “enhanced” marked shared lanes — in many places the city laid a wide green strip down the middle of a lane. These are accompanied by large “bikes may use full lane” signs, which were first installed in Chicago in 2012 on Wells Street on the ‘L’ structure. I prefer the green strip to the sharrows with dashed lines.


Green sharrow lane.

There are raised crosswalks in some neighborhoods. These do a good job of slowing down drivers who are used to driving 40-50 MPH on 8-lane wide “neighborhood” streets. I think the City of Chicago should be installing these around train stations is where there is a lot of pedestrian crossing activity because people cross to board buses on the opposite side of the street. Some exist: there are a couple on Lincoln Avenue in Lincoln Square just south of Lawrence Avenue. The Chicago Pedestrian Plan lists raised intersections as a tool to improve pedestrian safety.

* The I-15 highway in the Salt Lake Valley has HOT lanes that allow drivers to pay to avoid congestion. The minimum charge is 25 cents per section and increases based on traffic in the “free lanes” in 25 cents increments.

New Wilson Red Line train station offers more flexibility, better looks, and a long wait


The Gerber Building, at the corner of Wilson Avenue and Broadway, will be restored to original architectural heritage. 

The Chicago Transit Authority held an open house-style meeting on Thursday at Truman College (1145 W Wilson Avenue) in view of its subject, the Wilson Red Line train station (read last week’s article). The CTA’s plans, estimated to cost $203 million dollars, give the rebuilt station three entrances: the main entrance will be on the south side of Wilson Avenue; an auxiliary entrance will be on the north side of Wilson Avenue to the west of the Gerber Building (which hosts an entrance from Broadway currently); there will be an auxiliary entrance on Sunnyside Avenue with direct access to Target and Aldi stores.

CTA’s director of communications and media relations, Brian Steele, summarized the project:

The Wilson station will become a main transit hub along our north side corridor but also a community amenity. This is the the first new transfer station since Library in 1997 which will provide new flexible trip choices and a better transportation option in a vibrant community.


Rendering of new Gerber Building.

One example of new trip choice is that commuters who are heading downtown in the morning starting from a Red Line station south of Howard can transfer to the Purple Line Express at Wilson instead of Belmont and potentially have a shorter trip. The ability to transfer at a station several stops from Belmont and Howard can help redistribute passengers amongst crowded Red Line trains and less crowded, but faster, Purple Line Express trains.


Neighbors talk to CTA staff and view information display boards. 

Many website comments (here and other places) dealt with the local environment’s nature of having crime, drug deals, and people urinating. I asked Alderman James Cappleman (46th ward) at the open house to talk about some of these neighborhood issues.

He first noted that the Urban Land Institute (ULI) conducted a study about the station and environs, for the second time, which says that the addition of a new station (upgrade, renovation, new, it doesn’t make a difference), doesn’t by itself make a difference (here’s background information). Cappleman said it’s necessary to protect the affordable housing stock, and work with neighbors, police, schools, community groups, social services organizations, and police (he said it twice for emphasis), to reduce crime and poverty in the area.

He specifically mentioned that the arrest rate for drug abuse is over 10 times the city average, and that in the Census tract containing the train station, over 50% of households are considered to be below the poverty line (which changes often based on the nation’s changing incomes). The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Cappleman explained, considers a “healthy community” to be one with 25% or fewer households below the poverty line. He ended with, “When that study’s released, we’ll start discussing how to deal with that [the relationship of the station to crime and perception of crime]”.

Joseph Musco attended the meeting, too, looking for insight and answers to the changing costs of the project, where they’re being spent, and their sources. He noted that the estimated cost of the project increased from $135 million in November 2011 to $203 million now. Don Gismandi, capital grants manager, was standing next to the funding sources chart and informed me that in the past year CTA has continued its engineering studies which resulted in more accurate cost estimates.

I asked CTA for a breakdown of costs, which they could not provide, as “project components as project plans have not yet been finalized” and “details on how much each project components will cost will also depend on the contractor selected following the competitive bid process, which is not expected to take place until early 2013”.


Funding sources chart.

Here are other attributes of the project:

  • Construction will last 33 months during which the CTA will operate a neighborhood business campaign in the same style as the one it ran during the Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project. The station will remain open.
  • The Gerber Building will be restored and CTA, along with its real estate manager Jones Lang LaSalle, will seek the right developer to build out the space.
  • The viaduct that carries Track 4 will be removed; 4 tracks will be constructed.
  • All track and the track structure will be replaced with a concrete aerial viaduct, much like the viaduct at Belmont and Fullerton stations. This provides a smoother ride and is quieter for the neighborhood.
  • For accessibility, there will be an elevator at the main entrance and ramps at the Sunnyside Avenue auxiliary entrance.
  • View all photos for this story
  • View the display boards (.pdf)

Take Action

For more information, visit the CTA’s website. The CTA invites comments about the project:

Updated October 12 to correct quotes and paraphrasing of Alderman Cappleman. Added link to display boards. Added cost estimate quote from CTA. 

There’s a lack of cooperation in the region’s transportation authorities


A South Shore train travels between northern Indiana and downtown Chicago. It’s not a member of the Regional Transportation Authority of Illinois. Photo by Seth Anderson. 

The Regional Transportation Authority is a financial administrator and cooperative service planner at the top of the Chicagoland transit hierarchy. Or at least it’s supposed to be. But transit in Chicagoland doesn’t act regionally, and hasn’t for a long time (if ever). Here’s the evidence:

1. Suburban county board member perpetuates the myth that Metra = suburbs and CTA = Chicago

DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin is quoted in the Daily Herald about an “impasse” in how to distribute some funds amongst the RTA’s three member agencies. The CTA normally would get 99% of this particular pot, but the RTA is proposing it only gets 95%. (Note that CTA provides 82% or rides and receives 49% of region’s funding.)

“The money is collected from all the taxpayers in the region, the majority of whom reside in the suburbs. Why should we subsidize the CTA more than we already are?” he asked. “They seem to care little for their neighbors in the suburbs.”

Each transit agency operates routes and stations in and outside the Chicago city limits. Each has connecting service within and between municipalities, Chicago and not Chicago. Thousands of Chicagoans take Metra daily for work and other purposes to other points within and without Chicago. Thousands of people who don’t live in Chicago ride the CTA. It’s likely true that a majority of Metra’s weekday passengers don’t live in Chicago, though it doesn’t matter where they come from.

Typecasting transit agencies and their respective passengers based on the attributes of where they live and not the place of where they live – the place matters in order to know where service should go – inhibits the slight progression transit has been making in the region in the past decade.

RTA Chairman John Gates’s heart is in the right place when he said, “This is a regional agency, we have to reach a regional consensus.”

Continue reading There’s a lack of cooperation in the region’s transportation authorities

Grid Bits: Red Line south closure, Bombardier trains under construction, universal fare card


Photo of a Metra train by Sam Dickey

There are 5 stories from 8 sources in this edition of Grid Bits, all about transit.

CTA Red Line south track renewal project

The Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line south project to shut down 9 Red Line stations (Cermak-Chinatown to 95th) for five months in 2013 to replace 100% of track is generating uninformed controversy. The CTA will be holding at least 5 meetings across the south side to meet one-on-one with neighbors and community groups. The first meeting was Monday; the second meeting is tonight.

Coverage and commentary of the Red Line south project:

The CTA has posted an extremely detailed webpage dedicated to informing people about the project’s goals, alternative service, and why it chose to avoid a 4-year-long weekend-only shutdown to complete the same work.

Continue reading Grid Bits: Red Line south closure, Bombardier trains under construction, universal fare card

Grid Bits: State of the Union address, transit news


Photo of a Blue Line train at UIC-Halsted. This train has the oldest cars in the system, noticeable with their “butterfly doors” that are inaccessible to people using wheelchairs, or customers with bicycles. Photo by David Wilson.

In this edition of Grid Bits, five transit stories, and an update on President Obama’s State of the Union address last night. First, the transit news.

(1) CTA overtime

The Chicago Transit Authority uses an employee’s overtime work to calculate their pension amount, and analysis from the Chicago Tribune finds that the CTA reports overtime in an odd way: Continue reading Grid Bits: State of the Union address, transit news

CTA announces open fare system to come in 2014


If the backside of your Chase Bank credit/debit card has the “blink” text and logo, you’ll be ready for Open Fare.

Soon you’ll be able to pay for a trip on Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) buses and trains with your credit/debit card (provided it has an embedded wireless chip) and NFC-enabled cellphones. Currently all four credit card processors (Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover) offer cards with contactless chips – they use RFID technology. The Samsung Nexus S is the only widely available cellphone with an NFC chip. This is all part of an upcoming system called Open Fare. It’s not the same as the regional fare payment system that Pace, Metra, and the CTA are legislated to provide by 2015 (where one fare payment method works on any transit vehicle, often called “universal fare”*). Continue reading CTA announces open fare system to come in 2014