By Jon Hilkevitch, Deanese Williams-Harris and and Kristen Mack
9:25 PM CDT, June 4, 2012
In deciding to close the south leg of the Red Line for five months starting next May, CTA officials bet that short, intense pain will be easier to suffer through than several years of track construction migraines.
South Side aldermen – previously briefed on the merits of speeding repairs with a complete shutdown of the Dan Ryan branch rather than a weekends-only one that would stretch over four years – came out in support of the “rip-off-the-Band-Aid” approach.
But Mayor Rahm Emanuel stayed conspicuously away from the news conference where transit officials announced the $425 million project, which will close almost 10 miles of track and nine stations, from the Cermak-Chinatown stop all the way to 95th Street.
On Red Line platforms Monday, the plan wasn’t selling.
“I will be stranded. I won’t have a way to work or to drop my kids off at day care,’’ said Conchetta Davis, 22, who lives on the South Side and works in Blue Island.
Katherine Smith, who rides the Red Line each weekday, wondered why it seemed the South Side was getting different treatment than the North Side. “If they shut the Red Line down, I am going to be late every day -- and that’s not fair,’’ she said. “The buses make you late.’’
The daring plan to close the entire Dan Ryan branch had been a well-kept secret, allowing transit officials to muster their talking points and their alternative routes.
The plan features strong aldermanic support of the accelerated work rather than closing the Dan Ryan branch only on weekends until 2016. “I’d rather peel the Band-Aid off than do the same work over an extended period of time,” said Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th). “It’s not going to be pleasant. But I’m glad we got the word out now and ultimately the service is going to be better for riders.”
The Dan Ryan branch, which is dominated by straight-aways that would permit 55 mph top speeds if the track were in good repair, has the highest percentage of slow zones among all eight CTA rail lines. Slow zones would increase to 60 percent next year if the project were delayed, officials said.
New steel rails, ties and ballast will be installed and drainage improvements made between the State Street subway portal, which is north of the Cermak-Chinatown station, and the 95th Street terminal at the end of the Red Line, according to the CTA’s plan.
CTA board chairman Terry Peterson lamented that currently “a cyclist can travel faster than our trains do on that stretch.’’
“It will be a brand new railroad’’ when the work is completed around September 2013, Peterson said. “There is no way you can do a project of this scope and size without impacting service,’’ he said.
During the renovation work, extra alternative transit service will be provided, including free express shuttle buses between the Red Line stations at 69th, 79th, 87th and 95th streets and the Garfield station on the Green Line, where shuttle riders will board trains for free, officials said.
Red Line-like frequent service will operate on the normally less busy Green Line section between Ashland/63rd and Roosevelt, officials said. A doubling of bus service – plus 50-cent fare discounts – will be implemented on many regular CTA bus routes serving the South Side and connecting with the Green Line.
Fans looking to catch Chicago White Sox games can still take the Green Line and Metra to get to US Cellular Field, said Scott Reifert, senior vice president of communications. Last year, about 16.5 percent of all fans used the red line to get to White Sox games, he said.
The team will have several months before next year’s season to work with the transit authority to come up with “alternate” transportation options for White Sox fans. Reifert added that the team was briefed about the city’s plans prior to the news conference this morning.
“In some ways it’s good because we are talking about this now in June,” he said. “It’s not like it's happening tomorrow.”
The promise of hundreds of construction jobs and up to 200 permanent new CTA bus driver jobs to South Side residents will likely generate support for the project, officials said. Peterson vowed that the CTA will hire minority-owned companies for up to 30 percent of the work under the disadvantaged business enterprise program.
The offer of jobs to low-income Chicagoans stands in stark contrast to a Metra project. Metra is embroiled in a dispute with U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and other African-American congressmen over the commuter railroad’s handling of an upcoming train bridge project in the Englewood neighborhood. The lawmakers say not enough minorities would be working on the $141 million project.
The CTA will also save an estimated $75 million by consolidating the work, CTA President Forrest Claypool said. It means money will be left over to improve stations, including installing elevators at three stations, Garfield, 63rd Street and 87thStreet, he said.
Even though commutes on the south Red Line will be shortened by up to 20 minutes when the track-replacement project is completed and slow zones are lifted late next year, many affected riders, from Chinatown to the Roseland communities, couldn’t help but worry Monday about the upcoming pain.
Lucinda Myles said slow zones caused by deteriorated track have made the ride unbearable. Trains must travel at speeds as slow as 15 mph on 40 percent of the Dan Ryan branch because of deteriorated track.
The track project “is going to be a pain,’’ said Myles, 33, a daily Red Line rider who works in the food industry, “but in the end service will hopefully be better.’’ She said she will figure out another way to commute for five months.
The need for the track reconstruction, which also serves as a precursor for the planned extension of the Red Line from 95th to 130th streets whenever federal funds are made available, prompted other aldermen in addition to Sawyer to line up behind the five-month timetable to cease service.
“I’m not excited about the inconvenience residents are going to have, but I am excited about the all new rails and permanent jobs and 100 additional buses to accommodate commuters,” said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Stretching out the repairs over four years would “set the Red Line extension back,” Beale said.
The track modernization will help foster economic development and build the case for the estimated $1.4 billion Red Line extension, “but we remain watchful to unwarranted cost over-runs and a disagreeable service delivery plan for South Siders during the five-month shutdown of the Red Line south leg,’’ said John Paul Jones, a community organizer with the non-profit Developing Communities Project.
The Red Line track project follows a 2006 project on the south branch that upgraded signals, a portion of the power system and included some work on tracks and stations.
The strategy to close the 43-year-old Dan Ryan branch for the overhaul marks only the second time in many years that the CTA will shut a whole branch or line.
In 1994, the Green Line was closed for more than two years for a $300 million rehabilitation. Several stations were closed permanently after the Green Line reopened in May 1996. The station closings were intended to streamline service by eliminating some closely spaced stops, but many riders were riled. It took several years for ridership to rebound after the Green Line reopened, as many commuters found alternative ways to travel and abandoned the rail service.
More recently, the CTA kept the Brown Line running on the North Side during a $530 million project to modernize stations and extend platforms to accommodate longer trains. Portions of the Blue Line to O’Hare International Airport were temporarily closed during track replacement work a few years ago, but the line remained open. In addition, a station upgrade project that is just beginning at seven North Side stations involves closing only one station at a time, officials said.
Beale said the CTA learned from its mistakes during the projects on the Green and Brown Lines.
But Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) said he still wants to see numbers to determine whether it’s truly beneficial to fast track the repairs and whether the alternative transportation provided to commuters will be adequate.
Tribune reporter Naomi Nix contributed@jhilkevitch
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