3 Transformative Chicago Infrastructure Projects That Never Came To Be

    A 1960s plan would have added a new CTA subway line under Monroe St, seen here crossing above today’s Blue Line subway at Monroe & Dearborn.

    We recently took a look at three potentially-transformative suburban infrastructure projects that never came to be. Now, let’s take another look within city limits.

    Crosstown Expressway (I-494)

    Chicago’s unbuilt Crosstown Expressway (I-494)

    Easily the most high-profile unbuilt highway in the region, the most common Crosstown proposal spanned most of the city north-south, closely paralleling Cicero Ave and an adjacent rail corridor. 

    Proponents argued it was the missing link in the city’s newly-built expressway network, and would allow huge amounts of industrial traffic especially to bypass downtown expressway congestion. Opponents, having witnessed the negative drawbacks of the other expressways (such as destroying once-thriving neighborhoods and using their routing to racially segregate large swaths of the city), weren’t buying it. 

    While congestion relief was used as a common argument in favor, opponents pointed out that building the road would induce new traffic onto it and surrounding areas–an urban planning principle known as induced demand–making congestion even worse.

    First proposed in 1967, the fight raged on for the next decade until the Mayor Jane Byrne finally dug its grave in 1979. Nearly $2 billion in federal funding that had been allocated for this and the Franklin Street Subway (more on this in a bit) were redirected to other road projects and extending the “L” to O’Hare and Midway.

    Unrealized potential impacts: Whether it really would have eased congestion, or attracted more traffic to the West Side than ever before, will never be known. However, it is fair to speculate that the highway would have encouraged car-centric suburbanization of the city neighborhoods it passed through.

    CTA Circle Line

    CTA’s unbuilt Circle Line

    Similar to Metra’s layout, the CTA’s hub-and-spoke rail network can make crosstown travel inefficient. Crosstown CTA bus lines are abundant, but travel at a fraction of average train speeds.

    The Circle Line would’ve created a virtual “outer loop”, bordered by North Ave, Ashland Ave, and 31st St. Insufficient funds killed the proposal, although the first phase of the Circle Line was a service improvement we now know as the Pink Line.

    Unrealized potential impacts: The central core of the city has grown at explosive rates in the past decade, in all three directions from the Loop. Clearly, this wasn’t dependent on the Circle Line coming to fruition. 

    However, the Circle Line was all about shortening lengthy commutes from outer neighborhoods, such as from the South Side to the West Side’s Illinois Medical District without having to go through downtown. Opening up tens of thousands of new jobs to disadvantaged communities could have had a large impact towards the economic equity of the city.

    Elevated Loop Demolition/Subway Conversion

    Chicago’s unbuilt plan to replace the elevated Loop with new subways.

    The iconic Chicago elevated rail system is perhaps nowhere more unique than downtown, where trains cruise through urban skyscraper canyons before turning 90 degrees abruptly to sneak into another canyon. 

    However obscure, it also remains incredibly functional, and this combination has earned it an irreplaceable spot among Chicago lore.

    Amidst a declining downtown in the 1960s and 70s, however, the narrative around the Loop “L” wasn’t so bright. An ambitious subway plan would have replaced the elevated Loop entirely with a subway loop under Franklin, Van Buren, Wabash, and Randolph streets. 

    A new east-west subway would also have run under Monroe St, possibly branching north towards the Gold Coast and south along the lakefront. Many buildings built along the Monroe line’s route at this time, including the Willis Tower, included provisions for subway connection in their basements.

    Chicagoans did eventually rally to defend the “L”, and it remains as essential as ever to the downtown ecosystem.

    Unrealized lasting impact: Didn’t prove to be necessary, at least not yet. The Loop remains the dominant economic center of the Midwest even without this. 

    A web of new subways underneath it would have been slightly more efficient than its elevated counterpart. But that counterpart still does its job quite well, and how much do you weigh the intangible value of one of the most “Chicago” things ever? For residents of the city, apparently a whole lot.

The Deal's newsletters give you the latest scoops, fresh headlines, marketing data, and things to know within the industry.