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The Train That Never Comes

The CTA got $593 million to extend the Red Line south of 95th Street. Now what's the holdup?



Last August President Bush came to Aurora to sign into law a transportation bill laying out more than $590 million for the much-anticipated, long-delayed Red Line extension project. So any day now construction crews will be working to extend the line from 95th to 130th Street, right? "Very funny," says Lou Turner, research and public policy coordinator for the Developing Communities Project, a south-side community group advocating for the extension. "That's a good one."

As Turner and other south-siders have come to realize, having money authorized is one thing; actually moving on a project is another. Funding is only the first step in a politicized and exceedingly slow bureaucratic process. There's still no guarantee that the Red Line extension will ever be built. "I always tell people that transportation planning is rocket science," says Turner. "Believe me, it's byzantine."

The Red Line is a combination of the north-side Howard Line and the old Dan Ryan line, which ran from the Loop to 95th. Folks at the CTA old enough to remember these things tell me that years ago the first Mayor Daley wanted to extend the Dan Ryan line farther south but ran out of money. Cynics say Daley intentionally stopped the line at 95th because he didn't want to spend so much on a line that would primarily serve black people.

"I can remember when I was a kid hearing people talk about extending the Dan Ryan line," says Michael Evans, associate director of the DCP. "Down here it's one of those urban legends. You still find people out there who'll say, 'They'll never extend it to the city limits. They'll never spend all that money on the south side--95th is just as far as it's going to go.'"

Over the last four decades the extension project has simmered on the CTA's back burner as other projects--the Orange Line to Midway, the Blue Line to O'Hare, the Green Line reconstruction, to name a few--were completed.

"There are two basic ways projects get off the ground," Turner says. "They're either pushed by the transit planners or, more likely, by politicians. For years everyone just sort of forgot about the extension plan."

In 2002 the DCP seized the issue. Over the last four years they've held rallies, written letters, attended meetings, and circulated petitions hoping to cajole, embarrass, or pressure politicians and transportation planners at the local, state, and federal level into advancing the project. At their urging Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. endorsed the project three years ago. And last year Jackson teamed up with Senator Barack Obama, who worked as an organizer for the DCP in the 80s, to get it included in the massive $286 billion transportation funding bill adopted by Congress.

"That was a huge victory," says Turner. "But it was really only the start of a whole new process."

The federal authorization of $593 million covers only about 80 percent of the extension's estimated $741 million cost. The city and state have to come up with the remainder, roughly $148 million. And that's where things get tricky. The Red Line extension is only one of several local projects competing for state funds. There's also the Orange Line extension to Ford City, the Yellow Line extension to Old Orchard, the Ogden Corridor trolley line, and the Circle Line, a new train service that would run in and around the Loop from Bridgeport to the near north side. The state can't fund them all. In fact, CTA insiders tell me it's unlikely that the state can afford to fund more than one major project in the next decade.

If you ask Turner and Evans, the Red Line deserves to be funded first. Under the current proposal the new line would drop south from 95th, just east of Halsted, along existing rail lines--so there would be no need to buy and demolish homes or businesses, usually the nastiest aspect of any major transportation project. At 111th Street the line would swing east to Michigan Avenue, stopping at 115th Street, then head farther east to 130th near Stony Island. In all it would include four new stops and run for some 6.1 miles through Roseland, Pullman, and Riverdale, servicing roughly 130,000 people.

These are some of the city's poorest and most underserved neighborhoods, with the greatest need and most to gain from a new transit line. They've certainly been waiting the longest for a line. The plan was embraced by roughly 98 percent of the voters in a referendum held in the 9th and 34th wards back in 2004. "The extension would connect people down here to jobs in the Loop or in the suburbs," says Turner. "There's a legitimate transportation need for the extension."

But plans aren't made based on need alone, as transportation planners well know. If Mayor Daley has a vision for public transportation, it's that he wants it to seed tourism and development in and around the central business district. He strongly favors the Circle Line and the Block 37 megastation, eventually intended as the hub for express service to both airports. He hasn't taken a strong public stand one way or another on the Red Line extension, something that could rebound against him in the 2007 mayoral election, when Jesse Jackson Jr. may well be one of his opponents.

In the meantime the Red Line plan is slowly working its way through the system. At the moment the CTA is working on putting together an "alternatives analysis" of the extension. The analysis, required by federal law, lays out various routes the line could follow. CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney says the authority hasn't even put the analysis out for bids from planners yet. "Actually, the bid is in our purchasing department," says Gaffney. "We're doing final tweaks before we put something out on the street."

Turner, however, says that his inside sources tell him the delay has a different source: the negative atmosphere brought about by recent fare hikes and budget tussles between the CTA and the state legislature over the past year. "We were told that the CTA doesn't want to have hearings on new projects right now because they don't want the public to think that their budget crisis isn't really serious," says Turner. "They think that if they start holding hearings on new projects people will want to know how you can add new service if you're broke. I think they're waiting for the right moment to release their analysis."

Of course, once the CTA completes the alternatives analysis they will have other bureaucratic hurdles to clear. In addition to holding public hearings to solicit community reaction, the authority will have to commission an environmental impact study, and Springfield will still have to be persuaded to come up with the money. Each step in the process is a potential killer for a project that's nearly 40 years behind schedule.

"Personally, I think they'll do the Red Line extension," says Turner. "But we'll have to ride them every step of the way. And even then they'll do it on their time."

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