Who Stole the ‘L’ Stop at Washington/State?

(Photo: Notice anything missing in the above graphic?)

It may be the biggest heist in Chicago history, folks, and it’s right under our noses. Or our feet, anyway. One look at this year’s new Chicago Transit Authority map uncovers the dastardly deed: someone has stolen the Washington/State Red Line station.

When I first picked up the agency’s semi-annual system map, I thought I was seeing things. It can’t be, I thought. How does someone make off with an ‘L’ station 30 feet beneath the middle of State Street? Could it be another proofing error like the infamous “Bemont Avenue” typo? But try as I might to find good old Washington/State at his other usual haunts–car maps inside trains, online maps at the CTA website (here and here)–he was nowhere to be found.

I started to worry. After all, at 66 years old, Wash is a senior citizen and last time I saw him, he wasn’t looking very good.  Could he have wandered off and fallen down somewhere?  Was he lost?  Did he get mugged for his social security check?

Or heaven forbid, could he have been…demapped?

Maybe my memory is failing me and he really never existed at all.  I’ve only been a Chicagoan for the past six years and any local will tell you it takes a lifetime to really know the place. And I’m sure my ADD-induced short attention span doesn’t help matters. But I could swear the station used to be there, right there, between the Red Line stops at Monroe and Lake.

I’m pretty sure that’s where I used to change for the Blue Line to head to my old Logan Square stomping grounds, kiss my ex, Devyn, good-bye on a Saturday morning, and too many times to count stand and wonder why the renovation at Lake couldn’t have been extended just a smidge further south to give the now-missing platform a makeover, too.

To look at Wash back then, you’d never have guessed he was famous.  Well, partly famous.  Until Mayor Daley’s ill-fated May 2005 plan to build an airport express CTA superstation with service to O’Hare and Midway under the Loop’s equally troublesome Block 37, State Street’s 3,500-foot continuous platform held the Guinness Book title as longest subway platform in the world.

The title went out the window later that year when construction crews closed the Washington/State section of the alarmingly long State Street platform and unceremoniously severed it from Lake, its sister station to the north.  What a way to treat your elders, but it needed to be done in order to give express trains access to the State Street subway tracks and the little-used connection to the Midway Orange Line further south.

I guess that’s what we get for letting Mayor Daley visit fancy places like Europe. Everytime he comes back, another idea always seems to come back with him. Now I’m all for median planters–who doesn’t love a little greenery in the middle of the concrete jungle?  Those sexy Parisian bus stop shelters? Très magnifique!  And I’m all for the new street lights that for once throw a little bit of illumination onto sidewalks.  What a pleasure to finally see who’s mugging you at three in the morning.

But at the time, the only person who seemed to think the $213 million project was a good idea was Mayor Daley.  And that figure, shared among the CTA ($130 million), the City ($42 million), and now long-exited developer Mills Corp. ($41 million), didn’t even account for construction of the bypass tracks needed along the Orange and Blue line rights-of-way to let the airport express trains leapfrog the existing local service and actually run express.

I’m not grousing.  This is the Windy City, after all.  Make no small plans, right? Just because Chicago is the only big city in America to already have direct rapid transit service from downtown to all of its major airports doesn’t mean we can’t do better, does it? We’d only have squandered that $213 million anyway on far less sexy capital projects like buying new railcars and rebuilding old platforms to keep the woodchucks at bay.

After all, only sexy capital projects stand a chance of bolstering Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympic Summer Games. [Ed. Note 2/15/10: At least we dodged an even worse financial bullet on that particular boondoggle.]

But racing forward with mega-projects just to meet other cities’ interpretation of the status quo isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. As Indianapolis blogger Aaron Renn of The Urbanophile recently cautioned, it does no good for a city to try and keep up with the Joneses unless the projects being copied from them meet a fundamental economic need.  With the Blue Line from O’Hare faster than a rush-hour taxi to downtown and Midway already only 25 minutes from the Loop on the Orange Line, the only economically fundamental thing about the airport superstation project turned out to be its rapidly rising cost.

By June of 2008, five months before the project was originally scheduled for completion, it stalled after unexpected engineering problems led to an astounding $100 million cost overrun followed by a whirlwind of controversy over who should–or even could–cover that kind of expense.  The CTA?  The City? New Block 37 developer Joseph Freed & Associates?  You can’t fault any one of them for unexpected construction difficulties, but you’d at least expect the City–who by dint of Mayor Daley hatched the superstation idea in the first place–to at least have planned a bit better for the possibility.

Lack of such fiscal foresight forced the CTA to call a halt to the project before the month was out, without even the means to reopen Washington/State. So the former downtown transfer point was mothballed pending the funds to reactivate it, leading at least one CTA board member to label the whole affair disastrous and CTA Chair Carole Brown shifting blame to truth-challenged former CTA President Frank Kruesi. That charge was a little unfair; the airport station idea was Mayor Daley’s brainstorm from the start. Luckily the CTA never got around to starting work on the track connection to the O’Hare Blue Line or Washington/Dearborn might be missing from the CTA map, too.

Now I’m the last person to expect things to always go as planned on the ‘L’.  Just this week, I was riding home on the Red Line from my favorite crispy duck joint, Sun Wah, when a homeless rider walked through the car looking for food. I offered her my leftover soup. When she took it, swirled her fingers in it, and began slurping out the wontons, I thought I had done a good thing.  My opinion changed one stop later, when she handed the soup back, yelled, “I don’t like this!” and stomped off the train.

The moral of that story: sometimes beggars can be choosers.  The moral of this one is less clear.  I’m sure Mayor Daley and the CTA and civic leaders who went along with him in 2005 thought they were doing the right thing.  So did I when I surrendered my wontons.  But the fact remains Chicago’s still minus one transit station as surely as I was left minus one further-edible container of soup.  You’d think an “oops” like that would merit a mayoral mea culpa, not a sweeping of the disaster under the municipal rug.

Even after the events of 9/11 destroyed several subway stations in Lower Manhattan, NYC Transit left them on the system map until they could be rebuilt–including two stations (at Cortlandt Street) still shuttered eight years after the fact.  For the Chicago Transit Authority to respond to Mayor Daley’s physically and financially costly damage done to the Windy City’s transportation network by demapping a key downtown Chicago ‘L’ station as if to pretend it never existed is shameful.

Then again, me and my ADD brain might just be jumping to conclusions. Maybe this really is the heist of the new millennium.  But, you can’t get very far with a subway station in your pocket, so I bet Washington/State is around here somewhere.  It might be helpful to check your colleagues for curious rumbles coming from particularly pendulous purses and briefcases.  That unexpected vibration you thought you felt in the vicinity of your next-door neighbor’s garage?  Could be there’s an absconded Red Line stop hidden within.

Maggie Daley, if you’re reading this, do us all a favor and take a peek for Wash in Richie’s sock drawer, too. In this town, you never know where an errant ‘L’ station might end up.

UPDATE 2/15/10: Yesterday, Chicago Tribune transit reporter John Hilkevitch took a humorous look at the possibility that the CTA might allow a free transfer between the Lake/State and Washington/Dearborn ‘L’ stations via the newly opened Block 37 retail pedway to replace the shuttered transfer pedway at Washington. Doing so would go a long way to fixing Mayor Daley’s transit-planning faux pas on State Street. Though it won’t get Chicago taxpayers back any of their squandered $313 million…

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