CN Dec 1 2016


No matter how you look at it, Wednesday, Nov. 30 was a big day for the CTA.

The City Council unanimously passed the largest single TIF ever, to raise nearly a billion dollars in 35 years that funds about half of a massive re-build of the Red and Purple lines. And it was all done within hours of a deadline to snag the other half, a billion-dollar matching grant from the waning Obama administration.

John Greenfield writes about transportation for both Streetsblog Chicago and the Chicago Reader, and a day after the big maneuver, he explained things to us.

“It’s a relatively new program called the Core Capacity Grant Program, and it’s for making improvements, capacity improvements to legacy systems. So we’re lined up to get a $1.1-billion grant, which will fund almost half of this massive $2.3-billion project,” he tells us. “It looks pretty clear that the federal government is going to give us this grant, and they’re going to award it by January 15th, which is five days before Donald Trump comes to office.”

That’s significant, because there’s no indication that the Trump administration will make any funding available to public transportation. He has instead proposed a “Trillion dollar infrastructure program” that has some Democrats saying this could be an area of mutual interest with Trump. Greenfied’s not buying it.

“But there’s a few reasons why I don’t support the Democrats going along with this infrastructure plan. For one thing the plan itself is really suspect. The financing is really sketchy. It’s starting to look like this isn’t really a plan about fixing infrastructure. This is a plan about building more infrastructure, specifically toll roads, and we do not need highway expansion in this country. We need to be making our transportation system less car dependent, not more car dependent. We need to be focusing on building inter-city rail, improving urban transportation.”

“The North Red line is basically at capacity during rush hours,” asserts Greenfield. “If you ride it during rush hour it’s sardine-like conditions.”

So why not just add some more trains? Well if it were that easy, the CTA would’ve done it decades ago. It turns out that there’s no way to get them through Clark Junction.

“The big log jam, the big bottleneck is this area just north of the Belmont Red line station where the Brown line tracks cross the Purple and Red line tracks at level. So what that means is when a northbound Brown line train has to go west just north of Belmont, Red and Purple trains have to wait. There’s basically a stoplight for the lines,” Greenfield explains.

The solution, which is part of this massive project, is the Red/Purple Bypass, which is also known as the Belmont Flyover. Think of it a a partial expressway cloverleaf. It lifts one track over and above the others.

It’s making some people in Lakeview livid. “Not only do some people object to the aesthetics,” Greenfield explains, “people have compared it to  a rollercoaster, it’s going to require the demolition of some 16 buildings, so that’s huge, you know.”

People  directly affected by it are understandably against it but the transit experts all seem to agree that it will allow huge increases in rush-hour capacity in the future.

At the south end of the Red Line, a more than $200 million reconstruction of the 95th Street terminal is already underway, and the City has now committed $75 million to engineering for the extension of the line from 95th to 130th, near Altgeld Gardens.

The route is controversial, because it will require the demolition of dozens of houses and businesses and will take ten years to complete. Greenfield says that while there’s no question about the need for the service, there are alternatives.

“There’s also a movement to create rapid transit style service on Metra’s Electric line, which basically serves the same neighborhoods, so it would be so much cheaper to just start running CTA-style service on the electric lines,” he tells us. “Also, the south Red line route goes through fairly unpopulated areas. You know it’s a lot of money to spend to provide transit access for thousands rather than hundreds of thousands of people. So you know, you can make an argument that maybe it would be wiser to just improve the Metra electric.”

If you’ve spent any time on the northwest side around Logan Square, you know  how rapidly the area is growing, and, some may say, gentrifying. In many ways this, too, is a transit story because the growth is clustering around Blue line stops. It has to do with TOD, or transit-oriented development.

“In 2013 the City passed a Transit-Oriented Development ordinance,” Greenfield explains. “And then they beefed it up in 2015, and as it stands now it basically waives the parking requirements for developments within a ten-minute walk of transit. And…it has really sparked a lot of development particularly on the northwest side along Milwaukee Avenue and the Blue line corridor, which is, you know these neighborhoods a lot of young people want to live in, a lot of tech workers, a lot of relatively affluent people who are new to the City.”

It is meeting stiff opposition further up the line, especially in Jefferson Park, where TOD projects have been fought for years. Many residents fear gentrification, which means that rents will rise and people will be priced out of their homes. “The counter-arguments,”explains Greenfield, “Made by organizations like the Metropolitan Planning Council is that increasing the amount of market rate housing in a neighborhood takes pressure off the rental market, because the more affluent people who move in the neighborhood won’t be competing for the same apartments.”

We point out that in Jeff Park, the arguments seem to be against both higher-income gentrification and lower-income housing.

“I mean these people are against both wealthier people moving into these places and they are also against having affordable housing in them, because they don’t want less wealthy people moving into them.”

Chicago has been acclaimed recently as a bike-friendly city. But  five people have been killed in Chicago in accidents with vehicles this year. So bike-friendliness is a mixed bag.

“They’ve been doing a lot of the right things to make Chicago a bike-friendly city,” Greenfield confirms. “But you know, the fact is on the ground here you’ve got to have a fair amount of nerve to ride a bike on the streets of Chicago. It’s definitely not what we call an 8 to 80 city. That means having infrastructure that’s safe for 8 year olds and 80 year olds to use.”

You can read a full transcript of this conversation HERE:cn-transcript-dec-1-2016


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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