The city unveiled plans Thursday for the largest modernization of the CTA Blue Line since the O’Hare branch was built 30 years ago, a four-year overhaul that officials say will shave 10 minutes off travel between downtown and the nation’s second-busiest airport.
But things are going to get slower before they get faster.
The $492 million track and station rehabilitation project beginning in the middle of next year will mean rolling delays for the more than 80,000 weekday commuters who board at stations on the branch as well as visitors who ride the train into the city after landing at O’Hare, transit officials said.
The CTA will try to minimize the hassle by offering travel alternatives such as shuttle buses and will schedule shutdown-causing track work for overnights and on weekends. But what is key to the upcoming project, and what sets it apart from the recently completed Red Line reconstruction, is that the Blue Line will stay open.
“There will be some temporary closures and impacts to customers,’’ said Christopher Bushell, CTA chief infrastructure officer. “We need to get a little further into the schedule development. But there won’t be any major changes to service.”
Unlike the recently completed $425 million reconstruction of the 10-mile stretch of the Red Line Dan Ryan branch, which was completely shut down between mid-May and mid-October, the 12.5-mile overhaul of the Blue Line O’Hare branch represents much different priorities and challenges that will result in a longer-term pain for riders until they reap the gains, officials said.
By eliminating slow zones and allowing trains to operate at top speeds of 55 mph on longer stretches, CTA officials predict that travel times between downtown and O’Hare, which now take at least 45 minutes, will be cut by up to 10 minutes each way.
It’s the same time savings that Red Line South branch riders now enjoy between downtown and the 95th Street terminal.
But that’s where the similarities between the two projects end.
The Red Line South project was mostly at ground level along the median of the Dan Ryan Expressway. And the branch does not serve a major airport. Work during the five-month line shutdown involved building essentially a new railroad from the sub-base to the tracks and signal system, along with improvements at eight stations. Construction will begin in the spring on a $240 million project to rehab and expand the 95th Street terminal.
The O’Hare branch of the Blue Line includes elevated structure, subway tunnels and ground-level track on the median of the Kennedy Expressway. The upcoming project, called “Your New Blue,’’ is not a complete track replacement, as was done on the Red Line South. Instead, the work involves a series of track and station improvements between the Grand and Cumberland stations.
CTA officials said they never considered a complete shutdown of the O’Hare branch, which according to the CT has seen a 25 percent ridership increase in the last five years.
“It’s really a completely different kind of project,’’ Bushell said. “It requires a different approach in terms of closures (because) it’s a different kind of program that appeals to a broader base.’’
The signal system will also be upgraded between the Jefferson Park and O’Hare stations to help increase train speeds, and an improved electrical power supply will provide increased capacity for the CTA to run more trains, as well as to improve service reliability, officials said.
“Turnback tracks’’ will also be constructed at Jefferson Park and UIC Halsted to give CTA rail dispatchers the option to short-turn trains to pinpoint service to meet the heaviest demand during peak travel hours, officials said.
The project schedule has not been finalized, officials said. But it is expected to begin with track work, followed by renovations at 13 stations, power upgrades and signal improvements, Bushell said.
Wireless infrastructure will also be upgraded to support 4G service for passengers using mobile phones and other electronic devices in the Dearborn Street and Milwaukee Avenue subways, officials said.
In addition, renovations, similar to the facelifts conducted in 2012 and early this year at seven CTA stations on the Red Line north branch, will be done on the Blue Line stations at Grand, Chicago, Division, Damen, California, Logan Square and Jefferson Park, the CTA said.
Less extensive repairs will also be carried out at the Irving Park, Montrose, Harlem and Cumberland stations, officials said.
An elevator will be installed at the Addison station to make it accessible to individuals using wheelchairs.
Deteriorated track will also be tackled to eliminate slow zones in the Dearborn subway tunnel, from Grand to Division, and the Milwaukee subway, between Damen and Belmont, the CTA said. Both subways will also be repaired to fix water leaks, officials said.
At Thursday’s news conference on the Blue Line project at the Logan Square station, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the new service will be fit for “the 21stcentury economy.’’
One thing it won’t be is an experience rivaling much-pricier airport express rail service operating in London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and other world-class cities, an idea that Emanuel’s predecessor espoused as recently as 2010.
It was then that Richard M. Daley said he was talking with potential investors from China, Japan and the Middle East about building and operating O’Hare “bullet trains.’’ He also envisioned building a magnetic levitation, or maglev, train to O’Hare, after he rode aboard one in Shanghai reaching a top speed of 268 mph.
Chicago’s plans for a premium, privately operated O’Hare express train, outfitted with airline-style seats and upscale amenities, have sat dormant for years, along with the uncompleted Block 37 “super station’’ in the Loop that was supposed to serve as the downtown hub.
“Just think, it's seven minutes, they can get almost to downtown,” Daley said in 2010. “Seven minutes. That is unbelievable.”
Gov. Pat Quinn has also quietly dropped an idea he floated in 2011, one asking Amtrak to examine the logistics and costs of operating nonstop passenger service between Union Station and O’Hare.
The ridership simply wasn’t there to support the estimated $20 million to $50 million cost, not including building new tracks on right-of-way owned by the Canadian National Railway, to accommodate the trains, Joe Shacter, director of public and intermodal transportation at the Illinois Department of Transportation told the Tribune on Thursday.
The estimated $492 million cost of the upcoming Blue Line project will be covered by federal, state and local funds, officials said.
The local component is about $344 million, the CTA said. It includes city and CTA funds as well as a “small amount of anticipated private investment’’ related to cellular infrastructure upgrades in the Blue Line subways and “transit-oriented development opportunities at Logan Square,’’ CTA spokesman Brian Steele said.
The state is contributing about $100 million and the Federal Transit Administration will provide about $47 million, Steele said.
The project is expected to create about 1,300 jobs, officials said.
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