Menu Home

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…

Categories: Chicago Transit Authority Huffington Post Chicago Reprints Planning Politics TRANSIT

Tagged as:

Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

My Bio | My Conversion | My Family Reunion


25 replies

  1. Oops! Another more serious loss, on top of the $300K and the connection between the Red and Blue (other than at Jackson) is that the Washington Red Line station was ADA accessible. There should at LEAST be an ACLU lawsuit burning a hole in some Public Interest lawyer’s pro bono case logs.

    1. In actuality, Richard, it was the Randolph/Washington mezzanine entrance to the Red Line that was and still remains accessible. (In the Loop, the subway entrances are located midblock, not at intersections.) The entrance connects to both the Lake and Washington stations, and elevator access from the street down to the Lake platform was retained throughout the construction of Block 37. Of course, that still doesn’t mean Mayor Daley doesn’t owe Chicago its ‘L’ station back.

      1. Ummm… OK. (?) But wasn’t there an elevator from the mezzanine down to the Washington >>platform<< or was that shared the State/Lake as well?

        Now, you've got me interested in going back there, with my camera, reporter's pad and pencil! 😉

        1. …and if you can NOT walk (or roll) NORTH from the Washington or Monroe areas of the platform to the Lake area of the platform (where there >is< and elevator…), then how do you exit if you're in a wheelchair? I guess you have to only use Lake or Jackson, since Monroe is not ADA accessible. (?) That leaves a bit more of a gap between those stations, which the OLD map implies was filled by an ADA-accessible Washington. (?)

          1. Richard, I believe that was just a badly done map on the CTA’s part, trying to indicate elevator access was from the Washington/Randolph mezzanine while at the same time indicating that access was to the Lake station, to the north. The only elevator down to the platform level at the Randolph/Lake mezzanine goes to what is now Lake. It should be noted that previously, Lake did not exist as a station stop. So the confusing placement of the wheelchair symbols on the old map may simply be an artifact of the pre mid-1990s time when there was only one station stop here.

  2. I moved to Chicago in August 2008, when the little dot for Washington (and Wellington, and Pualina…) was replaced by a little construction hat, as they did with the alternate Brown Line stations that were closed for being widened. Being new to Chicago and somewhat naive to the political machinations, I assumed that if the little construction hat meant “Closed for Construction” that really implied that it would RE-open someday.

    HA! After one or two new maps were issued, as the writer says, any and all mention of Washington is now gone. No little construction helmet signifying construction under way, no new little dot with a wheelchair symbol, like at the now reopened Wellington, Paulina, and all the other Brown Line stations off the loop.

    But it’s still THERE. (The station. Maybe not the pedway connection.)

    Today, when going to Millennium Park and not remembering whether Lake or the next stop was best, I rode south past Lake, through the old Washington, and got off the Red Line train at Monroe. I was in the rear (North) car since I board at Granville, where the entrances are only on the far North end of the platform, and since I knew that the platforms are continuous, I just walked north, around the columns, onto the Washington platform. It’s DEFINITELY still there, and it looks fine, other than some plywood boxes covering what I guess are the stairways leading down to the pedway under the Red Line connecting to the Blue Line one block west. The signs are still up, on the walls and the ceiling, the escalators and stairways are there… they’re just closed off with wrought iron gates.

    However, you can NOT walk NORTH from Washington to Lake, as I guess you could before the Daley Express Boondoggle construction (destruction?) was done. So, I had to turn around, walk all the way back south through Washington, and exit at Monroe, which was where I started. Oh well.

  3. It sounds like, given stop spacing, the following would be appropriate:
    (1) Interconnect Clark/Lake and State/Lake with an in-system pedestrian walkway. (Use the Chicago Tunnel System tunnels?) This provides the northside interconnection for commuters.
    (2) Profit 😉

  4. Ms. Bea Haven, the Wellington stop is still on the map and according to all accounts is scheduled to open this summer. I think if that project had also been mothballed, it would have been taken off the map as well, but it’s still there.

    Thanks for the information, Mike. Last spring I had the pleasure of going to a lunch where Ron Huberman spoke about fixing “bus bunching” and rather pie in the sky ideas about bus stops. I always wondered how buses got top priority when work on L stations had stalled or completely stopped (I hadn’t seen workers at the Washington stop for over three months at that point.) Maybe he should have diverted the money from the Gum Busters to the L project.

  5. I was just thinking about this AM as I was riding to work, Mike. Do you think that maybe they are just waiting to reveal to the world another of Al Capone’s Secret Vaults?

    P.S. The Brown Line Wellington stop disappeared too. Since it was younger than the Washington stop, I think it just ran away to join the other punky youth that hang around The Alley.

  6. Ah, but Mike–it is kind of the city’s fault we stopped shopping on State Street. This is probably before your time here, but State was closed to vehicular traffic from 1979 until the early 90s. It was a disaster for stores downtown. I don’t quite get why since I don’t drive and you couldn’t pay me to drive into the Loop, park, and shop, but it was. Here’s the first news story I found in a Google search about it:

  7. They closed it in Fall 2006 if I recall; it used to be my stop for work. Then the platform stood empty for a year, no work. Then they plywooded it shut when they mothballed it. I want to get in there. I dont think any demolition has even been done. Just the exits to the block 37 building. Something stinks about this real real bad.

  8. The Orange Line to Midway is insanely fast — better airport connection than any other city I’ve lived in (and when you look at how much ground you’ve covered in no time at all, it’s extra exciting). Our airport connections make Boston and DC systems look 3rd world. I can’t help but think, however, that all that wasted money could have gone to improve the connection between the Midway STOP and the actual airport itself — the ride is great but the approx. 8 mile luggage-laden trek through the frigid airport parking lot leaves a lot to be desired!

    I, too, think the CTA deserves props for what a great PR effort they put forth during all of the brown and blue line work the past couple of years. They really did a good job of letting people know when and where and how long the construction would take, and did a great job of constantly updating it on the web and on paper. The only time I was actually left high and dry was when the blue line tunnels flooded at O’Hare late last year — that was a brutal and unexpected 45 minute trap out on the tracks.

  9. Thanks Charles. I tried that a couple of times myself in the rain. Miss the shortcut.

    Donn, yes, but that wasn’t the city’s fault. That was, kind of, you know, us for not shopping there (at the long-gone Carson’s or teetering former Marshall Field’s).

  10. Look above ground. They managed to make a thriving store and rich piece of history disappear above that stop.

    [Ed. Note: The commenter is my friend, Donn, subject of the October 2007 post, Sole Man.]

  11. That was a fun read.

    I noticed the disappearance on the Red Line maps inside the trains just after the new year started. That’s when it dawned on me that I’ll never have my walkway back.

    You see, during our brutally cold winters, I used to walk into the Lake Street station, pay my fare, and walk down to the final exit at Van Buren when I was heading to the South Loop (somewhere like the library, for instance) – and I’d usually get there before a train ever came by. It kept me warm, even if it did cost me a couple of bucks (only 25 cents to walk back). And I didn’t have to deal with a dozen intersections or thousands of Clueless Suburbanites, so that just added to the value.

    Since the closure of Washington, I haven’t been able to do that the past two winters. I kept holding out hope that they would eventually reopen Washington, and I’d have my pedestrian bypass back. But my hopes were dashed when I saw the new system maps. Now I’m back to walking above ground (and those damned tourists) or waiting on the unpredictable arrival of a train.

    I, too, mourn the loss of Washington.

  12. Thank you for documenting one of my biggest irrational fears of why I don’t really like to eat in outdoor cafes: that a homeless person (or really any person) will stick their finger in my food. Granted this wasn’t an ourdoor cafe you were in, but still…

    But as for the “disappearance” of the Washington red line subway stop: considering the location and foot traffic of this location, this is a colossally stupid move.

  13. Jhimm, thanks for coming over from Twitter to read the blog. You’re right that the mezzanine entrances on State (and Dearborn for that matter) are close together. Before the closure of the Wshington-Madison entrance (which exclusively served the Washington/State Red Line station), ‘L’ entrances on State Street were a block apart from Lake to Van Buren.

    You’re also correct that Washington and Lake stations were very close together–that being because the Lake station was created in the late 1990s to make transfers to the Lake Street elevated lines easier (before hand, people walked up the platform from Washington).

    However, the CTA cannot operate 10-car trains, the maximum length is eight cars which is what operates on the Red Line for most of the day. And the Red Line is very close to its highest ridership ever–the last time the line saw such ridership, the city had 500,000 more residents than today. So I would argue the station spacing in the Loop meets customer need.

    More than that, the Washington station provided a key connection point to the Blue Line via lower- and upper-level pedways. Because of its closure, customers have one fewer opportunity to make transfers between the two lines.

    Customers travelling between the north and northwest sides are the most impacted. Without Washington, they must travel a combined half-mile out of their way to transfer at the Jackson further south. Besides adding about five minutes to their trips in extra travel time, often an addition eight to ten minutes is added as customers miss the connecting trains at Jackson they used to be able to meet at Washington. For these riders, 10 to as many as 30 minutes are added to their round trips–all from the closure of Washington/State.

    I don’t agree with your views about rapid ransit access to Chicago’s aiports. True, Blue Line access to O’Hare was quite painful during the slow-zone reconstruction projects. But they are finished, and it now takes 40 to 45 minutes to get to O’Hare from the Loop, as it used to. I’d also note, during the slow-zone work, the CTA made a strong effort to publicize the diversion schedule on the agency’s website and in stations. I can’t help but think riders who missed flights during the construction weren’t bothering to pay attention.

    The Orange Line, which you probably have never taken to the airport given your comments about airport rapid transit access, takes 25 minutes to get to Midway from the Loop. It is one of the most convenient and quick rail-transit airport connections I personally have ever ridden. You may want to try flying from Midway sometime to see for yourself.

    Finally, regarding your closing comment, I don’t see what mothballing Washington/State has to do with making the trip to the airport any faster. The station’s closure was a casualty of bad fiscal planning, not a planned element of airport express access.

    You might also be interested to know, the airport express trains–even with the necessary bypass tracks that never had funding to begin with–were estimated to shave about five minutes off of a trip to O’Hare. Personally, I’d rather have my downtown transfer back and bring a book on the Blue Line.

  14. two thoughts:

    1) red line trains are often so long that if you sit in the back, when the “train” is in Lake, you are actually still in Washington. all the State St underground stops are simply too close together given how often they run 8 and 10 car trains on there. buses are supposed to stop every block or two, not trains. it made sense to get rid of the Washington stop, even if Daley did it for other, stupid reasons. it isn’t really a key station at all. from those intersections you can throw rocks at about six other train stops. it simply wasn’t necessary.

    2) there is nothing like rapid transit to the airport(s) here. it can take hours. i’ve nearly missed flights. the real crime is that trying to take an airport cab is actually worse since I-90 is gridlocked 24/7. i’ve watched families break down into tears because family vacations were ruined due to missed flights because a blue line train sat and waited for -45 minutes- for clearance to continue onto O’Hare. it’s obscene. if they really are building express trains to the airport, they can’t come fast enough. if a completely redundant downtown station has to go to make that happen, great.

Leave a comment...