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How Much Would You Pay to Get to the Airport 15 Minutes Faster?

The City Council just approved a plan to spend $213.3 million on a station for new train lines nobody asked for and nobody can afford to build.



The city's broke, the CTA's broke, but on May 11 the City Council approved plans to build a $213.3 million underground superstation in the Loop--a hub for express trains that someday will run to and from O'Hare and Midway. Nobody pointed out that there's only enough money on hand to build the superstation. Nobody said where the city would find more money to build the tunnels and miles of new track for the express trains. So now millions of desperately needed dollars are earmarked for a project that may never be completed.

The superstation is the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of Block 37, which is bounded by Washington, Randolph, State, and Dearborn. In the late 80s the city bought the buildings on the 2.7-acre site, tore them down, and vowed to put in high-end shopping and residences that would fill the city's coffers with millions in sales and property taxes. But the site has been a steady drain on taxpayers ever since, as one development deal after another--a Harrods, a 100-story megastore, a luxury hotel--has fallen through. The city has bought and sold the land four times in the last 19 years, at a cost to taxpayers of well over $50 million.

Last October Mayor Daley proclaimed that the city finally had a winning project for the site. He unveiled a deal in which the Mills Corporation, a Virginia-based developer specializing in enormous shopping malls, will build a six-story upscale shopping center and three towers of residential units and offices. Deep underground, below the existing Red and Blue line tracks, will be the superstation. According to the city, the CTA will pay $130 million of its cost, the city $42.4 million, and the Mills Corporation $40.9 million.

It's not clear why the CTA's eager to build the superstation at a time when it's threatening to cut service, raise fares, and lay off employees. Pressure certainly hasn't been coming from CTA riders. The superstation wouldn't provide service to any of the communities around the city that urgently need it, like the far south side. It just provides more service to the Loop, already the best-served part of town--all the el lines already make stops near the superstation site. It won't decrease the demand for gasoline or curb pollution by getting more people out of their cars and onto public transportation. The CTA hasn't produced any market studies showing there's even a demand for an express service to the airports--especially at $10 to $15 a ride.

The superstation isn't even necessary for the development of Block 37. "The project is not contingent upon the station, but it certainly enhances it," says Rebecca Sullivan, director of public relations for Mills. "I believe the idea came from the city."

According to city and CTA planners, it was Mayor Daley's idea to have a speedy connection between the Loop and the airports. "The new rail station will be one of the most modern facilities in the country," he proclaimed in a press release, "providing communities with updated travel information and direct links to three of the most important locations in Chicago." Express-train riders will be able to check their luggage at the superstation and get to either airport in 20 to 30 percent less time than it now takes.

"This makes the Loop a can't-miss destination," says Ty Tabing, executive director of the Greater State Street Council, a business group in the Loop. "It will be an opportunity for someone to have an extended layover in the Loop rather than just languish at the airport waiting for a flight." He envisions the day when a traveler who's stuck at O'Hare because of the weather "can hop a train, get off underneath Block 37, walk across the street to the Oriental Theatre, see Wicked, go back to the station, and be back at O'Hare to catch his plane to, I don't know, Kansas City. That's a great service."

It's also a service that already exists. A traveler can catch the Blue Line at O'Hare and get off at Clark and Lake or Washington and Dearborn and walk a block or two to the Oriental, see the show, and go back to O'Hare. Or make a similar trip in and out of the Loop on the Orange Line. True, the Blue Line takes about 45 minutes to reach the Loop from O'Hare, and the express line will supposedly take only 30. But then the Blue Line costs only $1.75 to ride. (The Orange Line takes 30 minutes to reach the Loop from Midway.)

"This whole thing--the station, the service--is a silly waste of money," says Jacqueline Leavy, executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a watchdog organization that opposes the project. "Are they trying to keep business travelers from rubbing elbows with everyday people? What are they going to do with that station if they never get the money to build the tracks?"

CTA officials concede they have only enough money on hand to build the superstation. But they say the risk is worth taking because they hope to get federal money to complete the project sometime in the future. Yet they have no designs for the rest of the project, no cost estimates, no construction timetables.

Digging new tunnels and building new track somewhere parallel to the existing Blue and Orange lines is hardly easy. Given that there's no room for an extra set of tracks in the middle of the Kennedy, for example, the new tracks would probably have to be built alongside the highway. That would mean buying land and evicting property owners--and lots of heated opposition. "Let's say this mayor or any mayor's willing to put up with that," says Leavy. "What is the payoff? An out-of-town businessman can cut 15 minutes off his time getting in and out of the Loop? Give me a break."

Yet the superstation plan sailed through the City Council on May 11. "They really didn't tell us too much about it," one alderman sheepishly explains. "Most of us voted for it because we figured let's just get something going there [at Block 37]."

Noelle Gaffney, a CTA spokesman, insists the new station will provide "important and immediately tangible benefits" even if the express tunnels and tracks never get built. She points out that part of the $213.3 million will go for a spur that connects the Red and Blue line tracks. "It gives us a lot more flexibility in how we manage our equipment," she says. "It gives us one more way to access the Blue Line so we don't have to stop service during construction. Ultimately it will improve speed and tracks and signals."

Gaffney also says the new station won't be built at the expense of existing service, because the funds will come out of the CTA's capital budget, which is funded largely by federal grants that can't be used for operating costs. But as Leavy points out, operating and capital expenditures are intertwined. That's clear in last year's CTA budget: the CTA borrowed money to begin a project before the federal grants came in, and the interest paid on those loans came out of operating funds. Moreover, Leavy says, operating funds almost always follow capital expenditures. If express train routes to the airports are ever built, the CTA will have to spend operating money to run them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Laura Park.

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