CTA proposes Red Line revamp

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Massive transit project to make transit faster and less crowded. (Photo courtesy of CHICAGO TRANSIT AUTHORITY)

Massive transit project to make transit faster and less crowded. (Photo courtesy of CHICAGO TRANSIT AUTHORITY)

The Chicago Transit Authority plans a new and daring $2.1 billion modernization project of the northern segments of the Red and Purple ‘El’ lines, intended to relieve the chronic congestion that Chicagoans know all too well. The CTA has released the first of two phases of the larger project, and its details reveal an ambitious effort. The project plans to upgrade the stations of Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr with larger platforms and increased accessibility like elevators in stations that proved inconvenient for the disabled to traverse.

In between the stations, the CTA plans to lay new and more modern tracks to make the trip gentler. To reduce long wait times and crowding during rush hours, they think an additional 15 Red, Brown and Purple line trains would be suitable.

Among these track alterations is a flyover north of the Belmont station, which would take Brown Line trains above Red and Purple trains. The CTA estimates this portion itself to cost about $570 million, a little over a fourth of the project’s total cost.

Joseph Schwieterman, professor of public policy at DePaul, said “the whole route needs attention.”

“We simply can’t pack any more rush hour traffic on the Red Line without major changes in the geometry of the route,” he said.

And the stations are no better, Schwieterman said. “In the North Side we still have wooden platforms that are narrow, we have dilapidated entry ways and staircases that look like they’re straight out of the era of steam locomotives,” he said.

Yet in spite of overhaul’s potential, many residents at the public meeting about the project, held earlier this week at DePaul University, were outraged at that ever-constant issue: money. To fund the estimated $2.1 billion project Chicago plans to use a variety of methods, said Steve Friedman, president of SB Friedman Development Advisors, who outlined financing at the public meeting. The federal government has agreed to loan just over $1 million in grants; the CTA will dig deep in its coffers to use $428 million of its funding; and — what the citizens push against — a whopping $625 million raised from a funding method called Transit Tax Increment Financing, or TTIF.

TTIF takes a portion of the amount that property tax values increase over a set period of time in a specific area. In the case of the proposed ‘El’ project, the area from which these TTIF funds will be raised is along the Red Line from Division Street to Devon Avenue, and about a half mile wide on each side. According to the CTA, roughly 100,000 residents live within this zone, of which 48 percent who work ride public transit. Many of these residents are also DePaul students.

“Now it’s not a slam dunk. It is a tough project to justify, but the numbers suggest that you simply can’t move ahead with the Red-Purple modernization without fixing the Belmont project,” Schwieterman said.

The CTA estimates the TTIF would last up to 35 years, because the TTIF funds are in turn used to pay low-interest loans from the federal government, and can only be used for transportation projects.

Property taxes, an educated citizen might say, are used to fund public education. Luckily, the Illinois legislators who approved the TTIF method last August thought the same thing. They decided the amount public schools take from property tax increases will not be changed. Only a portion of the remainder, which the CTA also shares, will be used for the TTIF. Funds not used to pay back loans will be returned to the taxpayers from which they came from.

For all the detailed planning, however, there are still many parts of the plan that were left ambiguous. As residents at the public meeting noted, no one actually knows how much property values will increase in the next 35 years, which the TTIF is based on. If property tax values drop, the TTIF will not get its amounted portion and the ‘El’ project will not get funded. One can imagine the horror show if the construction was already well under way.

What is also unclear at this stage is when construction begins, when it ends and how it will affect the congestion that already exists along the Red and Purple lines. For those who frequented the Fullerton station from 1999 to 2010, they know all too well what it’s like to use the train in a station clogged with plaster walls and construction equipment.

“CTA is committed to conducting the project without significant delays,” said Schwieterman. “The line’s simply too busy to make this a prolonged agony for riders, because unfortunately that drives up the cost.”

The CTA says it will release an updated draft of the plan later this month, perhaps holding answers to these questions. In any case, the plan released by the CTA is but a draft. Revisions are sure to come.

The vision to revamp Chicago’s aging Red Line first occurred to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who launched in 2010 the campaign called “Read Ahead.” So far, the southern part of the Red Line has been modernized, and in many ways is the blueprint for its sister project on the North Side, CTA’s chief planning officer Carole Morey said.

However, the earlier Red Line project used state capital funds from the federal government. This time around Chicago could not get the same deal.

The earlier project also shut down stations that were under construction. It’s the cheaper and faster way, Schwieterman said, but during that time commuters have to use a different station.

“If you look at the time line for the (northern) project, construction could drag on for many years,” Schwieterman said. “It makes the shutdown, the 18 months of pain approach, look better when you consider how long this could drag out.”

For the time being, the CTA will continue to host a series of meetings on the project. The final approval of the Red and Purple Line modernization project is up to the City Council, who will vote sometime this year.