Will state study be end of the line for $6.5 billion One Central transit hub?

Chicago has legitimate transportation infrastructure problems. The $6.5 billion transit station proposal solves none of them.

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A rendering of the One Central transit hub and part of the overall development, with Soldier Field shown on the right.

A rendering of the One Central transit hub and part of the overall development, with Soldier Field shown on the right.

Gensler

It’s often hard to kill a good urban design idea in Chicago.

Developers and planners dreamed of redeveloping Wolf Point — the spot downtown where the Chicago River’s Main Branch splits off north and south — since the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the last decades that skyscrapers finally started rising there.

And Lakefront Gardens, a downtown park and festival grounds that had been proposed since the 1960s, finally opened in the early 2000s as Millennium Park.

Meanwhile, the bad ideas, such as building a major airport in Lake Michigan, or replacing the downtown L with a subway, are usually sent to the ashcan of history.

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And that’s what should happen to the $6.5 billion state-funded transportation center that’s being proposed as part of the private One Central Chicago development scheme for west of Soldier Field.

No transportation agency, from the CTA to Amtrak, has voiced any real support for the center since it was proposed three years ago, which is telling.

But they haven’t slapped it down, either, which is troubling.

Now the state is evaluating which consulting firm will get paid up to $500,000 to conduct a feasibility study to determine if the center should be built — and ultimately paid for — by Illinoisans.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, we believe we know the answer already: a resounding no.

Part of a $20 billion development

Landmark Development President Bob Dunn wants to build the transit center as part of One Central, a nine-tower, $20 billion mixed-use development proposed for the Metra Electric Line from 14th Street to near McCormick Place.

Under Dunn’s plan, the state would reimburse him $6.5 billion for building the transit center, and would take over ownership of the facility after 20 years.

“You are able to build an international-caliber transit hub connecting all four systems that creates unprecedented growth in ridership, driven by private investment, in a location where you get tens of millions of people that intersect in the city day after day after day,” Dunn told the Sun-Times in 2021.

But what good is a multibillion-dollar transit complex that’s five miles from Metra’s and Amtrak’s hub at Union Station, two-and-half miles from the nearest CTA Red Line stop at Cermak, and yet only four blocks from the McCormick Place stop on the Green Line?

The Metra Electric would stop there, presumably, but with no other direct rail connections, the center reads more like a jumped-up bus station to us, transitwise.

Dunn proposed a tram-like circulator connecting One Central with Navy Pier and the museum campus, but who will pay for building and operating that?

If the proposed center somehow survives the state’s examination, we’d then like to see a thorough, independent transit study that takes a critical look at the actual need for such a facility.

Because as we see it, Chicago has legitimate transportation infrastructure problems. The $6.5 billion transit station solves none of them.

‘A $6.5 billion golden ticket’

The Illinois General Assembly voted in 2021 to fund the feasibility study. The vote came after State Rep. Kam Buckner (D-Chicago) put the kibosh on an legislative attempt in 2020 to win funding for the transit center.

“This was a $6.5 billion golden ticket that was thrown over the transom … without any real conversations with those of us who represent the area,” Buckner told WTTW in 2021.

The state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity issued a call for consultants to do the study and is evaluating submittals now.

The winning bidder will have five months to get the work done.

One of the key purposes of the study is to help the state figure out the fiscal impact of the center and whether paying for the complex is a good use of state resources.

The state has plenty other pressing issues to put its resources toward. We’re betting the study concurs.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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