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Analyzing the effects of shutting Red Line for 5 months on South Side

Some say better service, jobs await at end of bumpy road

Jon Hilkevitch

Getting Around

May 6, 2013

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The Chicago Transit Authority's next big project and its impact on riders were the focus of conversation Friday afternoon at Carter's Barbershop in the city's North Lawndale neighborhood.

Bert Downing, the owner of the shop at 3622 W. Cermak Road in Chicago, said everybody in the African-American community is talking about the five-month shutdown of the Red Line's Dan Ryan branch for a track-replacement project that begins May 19.

"Some are optimistic, some are naysayers, some are praying on it," Downing said as he gave a straight-razor shave to a customer whose head was lathered up with foamy white shaving cream.

"It's something everybody from students to people needing to get to work will have to deal with," Downing said, wiping the blade clean. "There are going to be some bumps in the road" because of travel inconveniences during the project, he said, but "a lot of people are looking forward to better service, jobs and opportunities for change."

"It's time. It's just time," Downing said.

Richard Steele, a journalist at Chicago public radio station WBEZ-FM who has been riding the CTA since he was a youth in the 1950s, thinks it's time too. So Steele dedicated Friday's installment of his weekly "The Barber Shop Show" to the Red Line project and other Chicago transit issues.

The radio show airs live at noon each Friday from Carter's Barbershop on WBEW-FM and WBEQ-FM. Friday's show can be streamed at vocalo.org.

Your Getting Around reporter joined Steele; Claudia Ayala, a public transit activist with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization; and Brenna Conway, who manages the Riders for Better Transit campaign to organize transit riders at the Active Transportation Alliance, a nonprofit group that advocates for improvements in public transit, bicycling and walking.

Steele said a question he has heard from a lot of riders concerns why the CTA decided to shut down the Dan Ryan branch for five months instead of choosing a less-painful option.

"Was this primarily a financial consideration — the five-month deal as opposed to weekend-only closures that would be less painful for riders, but would take longer?" he asked.

Money was a factor, but it was not the most important issue, according to the CTA. Completing the top-to-bottom replacement of the Dan Ryan branch by keeping the line open on weekdays and closing it on weekends would have added $75 million to the current $425 million project, officials said.

But a weekend-only shutdown of the Red Line would drag out the project for four years instead of five months. Although average weekend ridership is about half or less of what it is on weekdays — about 39,000 riders on Saturdays and about 29,000 riders on Sundays versus about 80,000 riders on weekdays — a line closing affecting 208 weekends would create a more severe hardship on transit customers.

It's why when the CTA consulted with South Side aldermen before making a final decision, the unanimous response from the aldermen was essentially to "rip off the Band-Aid" and get the project wrapped up as quickly as possible, officials said.

"We have a lot of communities where we're not 9 to 5; it is three work shifts a day or weekends," Conway said. "Sometimes, those weekend closures could be just as painful as weekday closures. But we do need to keep in mind that it is going to be a huge inconvenience for these five months."

Riders for Better Transit is collecting signatures for a Red Line South Bill of Rights, which states that riders deserve quality service even during the construction project. The campaign also is signing up supporters for more improvements on the Red Line, including the planned five-mile extension of the south branch to 130th Street and an overhaul of the North Side Red Line from about Belmont Avenue through Evanston.

"We want to see a world-class Red Line top to bottom through the entire city," Conway said. "But right now with the Red Line in the state it is, the entire South Side is very underserved for transit. It's one of the reasons that we direct riders to talk to their elected officials and tell them this is what we need."

Steele noted that minority-owned companies are receiving more work on the Red Line Dan Ryan project than they did during previous transportation projects on the South Side, according to the Chicago Urban League, which has been working with the CTA to create opportunities for businesses and job-seekers in the black community.

"It seems that at this point there has been a very positive step toward inclusion" to provide jobs in the African-American community, Steele said.

He quoted a recent piece in the Chicago Defender written by Andrea Zopp, president and CEO of the Urban League. She reported that of the contracts for Red Line station work, African-American firms received 92 percent of those awarded to minority- and women-owned companies that are qualified as Disadvantaged Business Enterprises.

In addition, DBE contracts for track work totaled $66.5 million and $40 million went to African-American firms, Zopp said.

Your Getting Around reporter noted that CTA chairman Terry Peterson "has a lot of skin in the game because his credibility is on the line."

Peterson has pledged up to 30 percent minority participation in the Red Line track-replacement project. The CTA has also hired many South Side residents to fill hundreds of part-time bus driver and customer assistant positions for the Red Line project. Many of those jobs will transition to full-time positions, transit officials said.

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.