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One Central Is Still Worth Building—If It Includes High-Speed Rail

November 02, 2021

Guest Blog by Michael Podgers who serves on the High Speed Rail Alliance’s Young Professionals Board.

One Central—the proposal for a major redevelopment on Chicago’s south lakefront, with multiple towers and a transit hub to connect CTA, Metra, the South Shore Line, and Amtrak trains in a single facility—has taken strong criticism lately. The Chicago Sun-Times weighed in, and so did the Chicago Tribune, with both an editorial and a guest column. They all question whether One Central can justify the $6.5 billion in state financing that the proposal requests.

As the High Speed Rail Alliance has said before, One Central makes sense and holds great promise—if it includes high-speed rail.

Since 2019, the developer behind One Central—Bob Dunn and his company, Landmark Development—have put forward a bold vision for the 32-acre site near Soldier Field and the Museum Campus. Their proposed commercial and residential space built on a platform capping an existing rail yard, Landmark argues, could transform mobility in Chicago’s central area and regionally.

Notably absent from the list of services mentioned to date, however, is high-speed rail. That needs to change, because the way to answer criticism of One Central’s cost is to ensure that it provides for high-speed rail.

It’s possible that Landmark has not yet included high-speed rail in the list of transit options serving One Central because there are currently no fixed plans to establish a comprehensive HSR network in the Midwest. (Yet—but they are emerging.) While a few projects have inched forward in Illinois and Michigan to increase passenger train speeds, there is little that could be considered “shovel ready.”

This is exactly why projects like One Central should set the stage for shovel ready high-speed rail projects, as soon as the resources become available to make investments in this transformational mode of transportation.

Local and state governments must insist on high-speed rail for projects of this kind. Despite cost criticisms and the city and state’s cautious reception to the One Central plan, this project provides a great opportunity to change how many U.S. cities, Chicago included, approach large-scale metropolitan and regional planning and development projects. 

Landmark Development is well positioned to meet this challenge. The company has a proven track record delivering successful urban development projects, including many that have stadiums or transit as a central component. One of the most successful, the development of the site around the Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, includes both.

It is especially important that One Central include high-speed rail because of its critical location. The rail yard Dunn wants to build a deck over to construct One Central also happens to be the point at which a particularly vital link will have to be built to ensure the success of any Midwest HSR network.

The One Central site is the eastern terminus of a discrete rail right-of-way less than a mile long that slivers through the densely developed South Loop. Despite its short length and limited use, the right-of-way, also called the 16th Street Connector, is the best option for completing the High Speed Rail Alliance’s proposed CrossRail Chicago project. CrossRail is another critical project for the Chicago area. It would allow high-speed trains to run through Chicago and facilitate an air-rail link at O’Hare International Airport for travelers throughout the entire Midwest. Doing this would put Chicago and its economy in a commanding position.

This is why it is essential for local and state governments to begin considering future high-speed rail development opportunities wherever relevant. Dunn’s One Central proposal is a perfect example of how considering HSR at this stage of development can support long-term efforts to support new and more sustainable growth. One Central should not only make it easier for high-speed trains to move through Chicago. It should provide an excellent train station. People should be able walk into One Central and get on a train to cities like Detroit or Indianapolis—and potentially much more of the Midwest, if we can make the HSRA’s full CrossRail vision a reality.

Another vital component of a successful HSR network is integration with other services and projects. Questions that remain unanswered about One Central represent opportunities to do just this: How will extending the ‘L’ to One Central along the 16th Street Connector improve potential intercity passenger rail capacity that may have to share that corridor? Which ‘L’ and Metra lines will terminate at the new transit hub, and how will this improve transfers to other regional and intercity passenger rail services? What planning needs to be done to address how One Central will interface with another major development on Chicago’s Near South Side: the 78?  

Dunn and his team at Landmark Development deserve credit. Landmark is wise to center transit in its mobility plans and should be commended for proposing a plan that finally links Chicago’s many transit options under one roof for the first time. But we must also consider how HSR will be integrated into this project.

Landmark can help with a forward-looking approach to high-speed rail, but the burden of responsibility remains with the city and state. Chicago and IDOT ought to make necessary investments in long-range planning capacities for efficient, sustainable growth, to meaningfully guide this and other similar projects. 

Bay Area commuter rail service Caltrain provides an example of what to do in such situations. Forward-looking planning resulted in the early electrification of the Caltrain route that will be used by California’s HSR trains. This reduces an additional barrier to full HSR service being established between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Furthermore, it means once the segment of HSR tracks under construction between Bakersfield and Madera is linked to the Caltrain line, partial service can begin, providing a preview of the benefits of HSR. This will help build public and political support for these projects.

This is the type of thinking we need to begin seeing nationally. In Chicago, planning One Central with a high-speed future in mind is an incredible opportunity to push local planning culture in this same positive direction. Let’s move forward on One Central, with plans for it to help provide the Midwest with the fastest and most convenient travel options we can.

Written by Michael Podgers who serves on the High Speed Rail Alliance’s Young Professionals Board.