Federal funds bring Circle Line closer to reality

Federal stimulus money could mean years-old plans to create a Circle Line connecting several El lines will move closer to completion.

Last week, Congress approved the $410 billion Omnibus Appropriations Act, which includes about $230 million for Illinois. Among state projects that made the final cut: The Circle Line.

Chicago Transit Authority officials say the project would make it easier for riders to make crosstown trips without changing trains in the Loop. The office of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who pushed for the earmark, calls it "a key component of the city's transportation strategy for the 2016 Olympics."

Carole Brown, the CTA's chairwoman, says the $6 million included in the approved spending bill for the project "is but a small part of the capital budget for the Circle Line."

"The $6 million that were set aside for the Circle Line was to help with some of the alternative analysis that needed to be done, some of the initial engineering," Brown says. "Clearly if the Circle Line proceeds and is one of the new start projects, we'll need a full-funding grant agreement from the federal government to fund the construction costs."

Despite its size, the seed funding could bring the years-old proposal closer to fruition. Officials say it would involve using 6.6 miles of new or rebuilt CTA track, and that they could build it over 10 to 15 years in three phases. It would serve an area six times larger than the existing Loop, officials say.

An initial plan includes measures to rebuild the Paulina Connector on Chicago's Near West Side and let Douglas-branch Blue Line trains run independently to the Loop; build new, elevated track that would connect Blue Line trains to the Orange Line at the Ashland/Archer station; and add 3.4 miles of new track to connect the Circle Line to the Red Line at the North/Clybourn station.

Officials estimate that the completed Circle Line would trim 10 to 20 minutes from commutes beginning at Chicago O'Hare International Airport and ending at Lincoln Park or the northern lakefront, and as much as 15 minutes for commutes beginning at O'Hare and ending at the Medical Center or United Center.

From Chicago Midway International Airport, officials estimate they could save commuters about 10 minutes traveling to the 95th/Dan Ryan station on the Red Line and 20 minutes to Pilsen.