The CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) will hold one of a series of upcoming community meetings to discuss its West Side Corridor study at the Forest Park Community Center on Jan. 12.

Some of the changes that may emerge from the study could impact Forest Park and other areas served by the CTA’s Blue Line, as the CTA is considering rerouting some of the trains on the Cermak branch of the Blue Line to the Paulina Connector, an unused stretch of track above Paulina Avenue. The new stretch would then connect with the existing Green Line tracks and then circle around the Loop.

The changes, according to a PowerPoint presentation on the study first viewed by the CTA board in November, would open the door to increased service on the Forest Park Blue Line branch.

The presentation shows ridership at the Forest Park station, located at 711 Desplaines Ave. at about 4,000 riders per day on weekdays between September 2003 and 2005, second only to the UIC-Halsted station on the branch.

Overall, the study shows, ridership on the Forest Park branch of the Blue Line more than doubles that of the Cermak branch, which serves the Illinois Medical District and Pilsen.

“Customers who board trains on the Forest Park branch between the Medical Center and Forest Park would have improved frequency in all time periods including weekends, which may help attract additional CTA customers,” states the study.

Other potential benefits of the changes noted in the presentation could include increased frequency of service, faster service to and from the Loop and to O’Hare, and additional free transfer options.

Still, some critics are skeptical of the proposed changes. “The CTA has not demonstrated that it’s not possible to run additional trains with fewer minutes between trains the way it currently exists ” they have closed numerous stations along the line that would provide more stops and more access…I think its incumbent upon the CTA to show us why it can’t use its existing infrastructure more effectively,” said Jacqueline Leavy, executive director of the Chicago-based Campaign for Better Transit organization.

Leavy accused the CTA of “pitting one group of riders against another” by reducing efficiency of the Cermak branch and the Green Line in order to connect the two routes and potentially increase the efficiency of the Forest Park branch.

As part of the study, the CTA has reviewed employment patterns, population data and development trends, and held meetings with numerous elected officials and local organizations over the past two years, according to CTA spokesperson Robyn Ziegler.

Data was also collected during a series of nine interactive workshops during the summer of 2004, during which residents discussed ways that CTA could better link traffic generators and localized services.

According to Leavy, though this all may sound like an open, community-based process, the study was actually characterized by “extreme secretiveness.” She noted that meetings were often not posted on the CTA web site until the last minute, if at all.

Leavy also said that the majority of those attending the meetings were CTA employees, which defeated the purpose of the polls of attendees the CTA took in order to determine what should be its top priorities.

Leavy did not sound hopeful that this round of meetings would be any different, acknowledging that she had not heard that there were further meetings scheduled before being contacted by the Review.

The CTA board first was informed of the study’s findings during a November, 2005 meeting, according to Ziegler. During that meeting, Ziegler said, the board expressed interest in funding service improvements in 2006 based on recommendations from the study, but first directed CTA staff to get feedback from community members.

Following the upcoming meetings, a service plan will be developed for board approval, and implementation could follow as early as summer, 2006 as a 180 day experiment, a method the CTA commonly uses to evaluate the effectiveness of new routes and services.

Though the CTA has not acknowledged that the proposed changes are part of any larger, long term projects, Leavy said she suspects that this is the start of the long-discussed “Circle Line,” a downtown train that would connect several Metra and CTA destinations such as the Loop, North Michigan Avenue, Grant Park, the Museum Campus, Soldier Field, Pilsen, the Gold Coast, Chinatown and others.

The renovation of the Paulina Connector was discussed as part of that proposal’s first phase in 2002. Critics at the time felt that the idea focused too much on the downtown riders and did not address the issues of underserved residents on the west and southwest sides.

The meeting at the Forest Park Community Center, 7640 Jackson Blvd., will be held Jan. 12. Meetings will also be held on Jan. 10 at the University of Illinois Student Center, 828 S. Wolcott Ave. in Chicago, and on Jan. 11 at the 10th District Police Station, 3315 W. Ogden Ave. in Chicago. All meetings will run from 6 to 8 p.m.