On a cold day in November Mark Dawson stood outside the Western Avenue elevated station and distributed fliers warning riders of a CTA proposal to close the Ravenswood line in 1996 for a two-year rehabilitation project.
The CTA has released only tiny bits of information about the $210 million project, so no one knows how long the line will be closed or how many stations, if any, will be permanently shut. But Dawson, a Ravenswood resident, is taking no chances. He and his allies are gathering all the muscle they can muster in an attempt to do what other neighborhoods facing similar transit projects could not: force the CTA to include them in planning.
"We haven't had a problem with the CTA and I am not trying to pick a fight with them," says Dawson, president of the Greater Rockwell Organization. "But we don't want them to ignore us when it gets around to planning a project that has a huge impact on our community."
What Ravenswood riders hope to avoid is the mess the CTA made when it set out to rebuild the Green Line, which runs from 63rd Street to the Loop and angles west at Lake Street to Oak Park. By most accounts, except for the CTA's, the Green Line case should be taught in planning classes as a textbook example of how not to deal with the public.
Residents and riders didn't know the CTA had plans for the line until late 1991. That was when a secret CTA memo was leaked saying that the agency was considering permanently shutting down the Green Line because it would be too expensive to repair.
"When that memo was leaked we went to the CTA and said, 'Look, you can't shut it down, it's too important; let's see how we can save it,'" says Howard Greenwich, research associate for the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a not-for-profit advocacy organization. "But [CTA president Robert] Belcaster refused to work with us or even meet with us."
A coalition of business, neighborhood, and industrial organizations held protests and rallies and led public officials on tours of the line to show how essential it was to the economic vitality of the west and south sides. In the late summer of 1993 a gossip column reported that the CTA would repair the line after all.
"We had to read about their decision in the newspaper--that's how uninvolved the community was," says Greenwich. "Belcaster refused to work with us in the early going when he could have built community support."
The CTA eventually appointed a task force of riders, merchants, and business leaders to study issues relating to the project. West-side riders in particular wanted the line to remain open during construction. The CTA did not, arguing that keeping the line open would increase the project's cost from $330 to $800 million. The CTA decided, after several heated meetings with residents and riders, to keep the Green Line closed throughout the project, which began in January and is not expected to be completed until sometime in 1996.
"The problem with how the CTA handled the Green Line is that for the longest time there was simply no information," says Adam Kerman, president of the Transit Riders' Authority, another advocacy group. "And there were a number of alternatives to what they were doing that were never explored. It sort of resulted in a choice between the CTA telling people, 'We're either going to shut down the line permanently or shut it down for two years while we rebuild.' There were no choices. And the reality is that there are always options."
CTA officials disagree. "The ideal way of doing that project would have cost three times as much," says Jeff Stern, media coordinator for the CTA. "I don't think we did that badly on the Green Line project. I don't think we neglected [the communities]."
Nonetheless, the Ravenswood line's advocates can't help but note some troubling similarities. For one thing, the CTA never publicly announced its plan to rehabilitate the line. The first many people heard about the project was in the form of rumors from disgruntled CTA employees.
For a while, for instance, it was said that the CTA already knew which stations would be closed after the project was completed. Some information was contradictory. Some union employees told riders the line was in horrible shape. Others said the line didn't need to be repaired at all, that the CTA only wanted an excuse to cut its operating budget by laying off conductors during reconstruction. There was also a rumor that the project was part of a multimillion-dollar development deal to convert several stations into minimalls loaded with stores and shops.
"We heard so many different things," says Dawson. "That's why it's important for the CTA to meet with us and let us know exactly what their plans are."
Of course there are many differences between the Ravenswood and the Green Lines. Ridership on the Green Line had fallen over the last few years, and it serviced mostly poor black communities.
The Ravenswood, in contrast, services some of the city's most prosperous neighborhoods, including Lincoln Park and Lakeview. Daily ridership is about 32,000, up from 25,000 in 1984. Shutting it down for two years or even closing any of its stops would ignite a large and well-organized outcry.
The CTA already has been more responsive than it was with the Green Line. In early summer Belcaster met with Alderman Eugene Schulter (47th) to discuss the project. On July 19 Belcaster wrote Schulter a letter addressing "several erroneous rumors about CTA's plans for the Ravenswood Line . . .
"We have no plans to eliminate it," Belcaster wrote. "On the contrary, we intend to rehabilitate this line, elements of which are almost 100 years old, at the earliest opportunity."
The project would start in 1996 when the city begins "the renewal of the Wells Street bridge over the Chicago River," Belcaster's letter continued. "With this in mind, CTA expects to shut the southern portion of the line in the first quarter of 1996 for a two-year reconstruction similar to what is now being done for the Green Line. We also intend to reconstruct the northern portion of the line. Planning has not advanced to the point that I can say with assurance when that work will start, but we expect to do this work either simultaneously or immediately after the southern portion."
Belcaster also pledged to start "seeking community input in mid-1995 on questions such as station locations and design, alternative service, and construction impacts. CTA established a community based task force to help us plan and implement the Green Line project. In 1995 we will ask the CTA Board to create a similar task force for the Ravenswood project."
But for many residents, Belcaster's letter raises as many questions as it answers. Why does the line have to be closed until the completion of the project? Can't the CTA work around construction? And what does Belcaster mean by the southern and northern portions of the lines? And why wait a year to bring in the community? Why not schedule meetings now?
Dawson certainly wasn't going to wait. In September he helped organize a meeting, and since then he's been trying to form a coalition around the Ravenswood line; many local organizations, including the Lake View Citizens Council, the Ravenswood Community Council, the Ravenswood Manor Improvement Association, the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce, and the Lawrence Avenue Development Corporation, have expressed an interest in the issue.
On October 15 Gary Gray, president of the Lake View Council, wrote Belcaster a letter inviting him to meet with residents. On October 24 Belcaster wrote back, declining the offer. "The Ravenswood project is extremely important, however, our main focus in the coming months will be completing the major Green Line reconstruction issues, the CTA's 1995 budget and a new fare structure," Belcaster wrote to Gray. "We will be happy to start meeting with you and other organizations next year. This will allow ample time to insure the right kind of job is accomplished."
The CTA's Stern says there's no new information to add. "It is still too early to be getting concerned about this," says Stern. "I have a letter which Mr. Belcaster wrote to Mr. Gray. That's all we have to say."
Meanwhile, Dawson and others have distributed over 2,000 fliers at el stops along the line asking residents for their opinions about the proposal.
"We've received about 300 back," says Dawson. "Most of the people are concerned about the inconvenience it would cause. We get responses like: 'It will probably add 45 minutes one way to my commute. I could live in the suburbs and have a shorter commute.'
"I think Belcaster is doing a good job at the CTA and I like the idea that they're rehabbing the Ravenswood. But I don't want to have to wait until next May or June, because I figure by then the CTA will have made their decisions about this project and let their contracts. We have to remain persistent."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.