Slippery When Cold/ Foiled by the Fine Print | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Slippery When Cold/ Foiled by the Fine Print

Less shelter and bad drainage make for hazardous conditions on the new and improved Brown Line.

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Les Kniskern probably knows as much as anyone about the CTA's Brown Line reconstruction project. A neighborhood activist in Ravenswood Manor, he's been attending meetings, dickering with CTA officials, studying documents, and writing letters to the editor and blogging on the subject for the last several years. So now that the first phrase of the reconstruction is done--including Kniskern's stop at Rockwell--I checked in with him for a progress report. Turns out that with the bad weather some problems have cropped up.

CTA officials were overly optimistic when they announced the plan back in 2001. They promised handsome new stations, all fully accessible to the handicapped, with lengthened platforms to accommodate longer, more efficient trains. They also said no stations would be closed during construction.

The CTA started backing away from these promises in the spring of 2004, when it announced that bids for the project were more than $152 million higher than expected. By the end of the year it made the bad news official: construction plans were going to be cut back and stations would be closed in various phases of the project, which wouldn't be completed till 2009.

One of the first stations to be shut down, Rockwell closed in February and reopened in August. "You have to give them credit for this--they only kept it closed for six months," says Kniskern, who's the president of the Greater Rockwell Organization, a local community group. "They said they would close it for no more than six months, and they kept their word on that."

Kniskern isn't entirely disappointed by the results either. He points out that though the old station was handicapped accessible, the new one is longer and easier for people in wheelchairs to traverse.

On the other hand, he says, "the platform sucks."

On the old platform a roof sheltered commuters from the rain, snow, and sleet. The new platform is mostly uncovered. There are two shelters, but they're both shorter than ten feet long, so they can protect few people from the elements. And "it would be nice to have some heaters, don't you think?" says Kniskern. CTA officials say construction costs ruled out larger shelters and heat lamps.

The platform's biggest drawback may be its inadequate drainage. When it rains, puddles form on the platform. On colder days the platform becomes slick with ice. At the approach of a train people who've been huddling inside the station dash across a skating rink.

After Kniskern and his neighbors complained the CTA sent over some workers to fix the problem. "They sawed an eighth-of-an-inch gap between every four boards on the platform," says Kniskern. "That helped. But then the gaps filled with sand, dirt, and debris and the drainage blocked again. For whatever reason, the old platform didn't have a drainage problem."

Overall, Kniskern says, he's glad the station's more accessible to people in wheelchairs, and he's happy the construction's over with. But if you ask me, it's ironic that in the name of progress the CTA inconvenienced a community and spent several million dollars to take a perfectly functional platform and make it a hazard.

Foiled by the Fine Print

For the last several months the magic number in the fight to pass the so-called 7 percent property tax cap stood at 61. "If we got 61 state representatives out of 120 to vote for it, we would pass it," said state representative John Fritchey, one of the bill's chief backers. (See chicagoreader.com/propertytaxes/ for background.)

On Wednesday, November 29, Fritchey and his cosponsor, state rep Louis Lang, got their 61 votes. So the property tax cap--which would extend the current home owner's exemption another three years, giving households protection against soaring tax assessments--passed, right?

Nope. Thanks to an overlooked if quirky legislative rule, Fritchey and Lang needed ten more votes to pass the bill. The vote took place during the fall veto session, when the assembly convenes to consider overrides of gubernatorial vetos. During this period any bill meant to take effect immediately can only pass with a "super majority"--or 71 votes.

So once again a bill supposedly supported by the state's political powerhouses--Cook County assessor James Houlihan, senate president Emil Jones, house speaker Michael Madigan, Mayor Daley, and Governor Blagojevich--died in the house. Had the bill simply been worded so that the cap went into effect in the spring or summer it could've passed with 61 votes.

Fritchey says when he and Lang discovered the problem it was too late to change the bill, so they had a choice: let it die or push for passage. "We pushed really hard for it," says Fritchey. In May, when he sponsored a similar bill, he points out, it only got 37 votes.

Still, what could account for such an obvious error? Lang says Madigan inserted the clause about going into effect immediately as a result of a misunderstanding with Houlihan. Apparently the speaker thought that Houlihan had told him the bill needed to be effective immediately so the assessor's office would have enough time to prepare next summer's tax bills. Houlihan insists he said no such thing. "It's a miscommunication between two very effective and fine public officials," says Lang.

Others suggest that Madigan is up to his old tricks. "You can't tell me Madigan didn't have a hand in 'forgetting' to take that 'effective immediately' language out," says one Cook County official, who doesn't want to be named.

From the start Madigan has seemed to play it both ways with the bill, using his considerable power in the house to water it down, bottle it up, and pressure other legislators into voting against it, meanwhile voting for the cap when it came to the floor.

He also inserted some language that may have turned off legislators. "In general, the assessment cap shifts the tax burden from fast-growing to slow-growing residential areas and from home owners to businesses," the bill reads. "The magnitude of the shift will depend on how rapidly home prices appreciate over time." To monitor this shift Madigan amended the bill to require that Cook County indicate on property tax bills "whether the property taxes are more, less, or the same as a result of the county's election

to implement an assessment cap"--a provision Houlihan's office wouldn't be pleased with.

Madigan has a point. Raising the home owner's exemption will shift the burden from one group of property tax payers to another--to the owners of

businesses and multiple-unit dwellings, for example. He might be doing us all a favor, at the very least forcing us to pay more attention to how the tax system works.

On January 7 the legislators return to Springfield for a three-day veto session, during which it would take only 61 votes to pass the bill. "That's because this upcoming veto session falls on a new calendar year," explains Steve Brown, Madigan's chief spokesman. "The constitution says that after the first of the year the requirement for having a bill become immediately effective goes back to a simple majority, even in a veto session."

But even if Fritchey and Lang get their 61 votes again, it doesn't mean the tax cap will become law. The senate passed a version raising the home owner's exemption to $60,000, and that version would have to be reconciled with the current house proposal, which keeps the exemption at the present $20,000.

"I suspect we still have a lot of negotiations to go," says Brown.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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