Track Changes

photo by Camden Bauchner

photo by Cam Bauchner

“We know there will be some glitches along the way,” Forrest Claypool, CTA president, said of the South Side Red Line closures in a recent press conference. The five-month, $425 million project has shut down nine Red Line stations, from 95th Street to Chinatown, with the promise of improving commute times by up to twenty minutes round-trip. The Red Line is often called “the lifeblood of the South Side,” and the decision to shut down the entire Dan Ryan branch until a planned reopening on October 19 has been unpopular among many riders.

For the thousands of inconvenienced commuters, the CTA is spending $13 million of the total cost on alternative transportation. Free shuttles lead from every Red Line stop south of Garfield to the Green Line’s Garfield station, and the western fork of the Green Line, which terminates at the 63rd and Ashland station, is instead running Red Line trains. Trains on both the Green and new “Red” Lines are running more frequently, and hundreds of temporary bus drivers have been hired to bring fifty percent more buses to popular South Side routes. The CTA anticipates hiring 400 temporary drivers on as permanent employees after construction ends in October.

As the changes were implemented this past week, the commute north did not appear too disrupted. At the 95th Street station on Friday, there were still many confused riders, but CTA staff were on hand to make sure everything ran smoothly, directing people to the correct buses.

Maurice Cade, who regularly commutes to 87th Street in the evening, said the “shuttle system is actually working pretty good.” He’s even getting to his job earlier than he used to. “At first I was pretty skeptical about the shuttles, ’cause I wasn’t sure how they were gonna run it, but it’s actually turning out that I’m saving time,” he said. It’s saving him money, too–about twenty dollars a month–since he hasn’t had to pay for the shuttles or trains at the Garfield station. In fact, most people we talked to agreed that their commutes were now faster; only one woman said her commute had increased by more than ten minutes.

Overcrowded buses and train station platforms, however, were definitely an issue, especially on the morning commute from 95th Street to Garfield. One woman, who asked not to be named, said that the stations were “more crowded than they should be,” and that the crowding alone made the shutdown not worth it. Yet the northbound trains came swiftly to the Garfield station, and the clogged platform would empty just in time to swallow the next round of commuters.

One member of the newly deployed CTA personnel told me it can get very busy around the rush periods at Garfield and the 95th Street station, where 9,000 people usually jump from buses to the rail each day, but that the crowding is nothing the shuttles and the extra drivers can’t handle. “I thought it was gonna be more complicated than it is,” he said, but he thought that the amount of extra staff the CTA had placed at the stations and bus stops was really making a difference. He told me he and his colleagues were intent on providing a “personal touch,” answering everyone’s questions as they stepped off the buses or went through the turnstiles.

At least one woman relied on the extra attention, talking to a driver for several minutes before deciding she was on the right shuttle. “Lord Jesus, this is so confusing,” she said, as she finally walked down the aisle.

Another rider called the replacement transit system “highly organized and efficient,” but she thought the decision to shut down the South Side branch for five months instead of doing weekend construction was political–a reflection of City Hall’s dismissive attitude toward the South Side. Michael McKie, a security guard, agreed that the shutdown was a poor decision, saying, “I understand that this needed to be done, ’cause some of the tracks are very old, but I think it would have been better if they would have done it during the weekends, cause it really is inconveniencing everybody, especially for people on the west South Side.”

The alternative, however, may have never been feasible. Chrissy Nichols, director of the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council, said that it is very difficult to do construction on a stop-by-stop basis. Laying completely new track, she told me, is a significant enough process that the city needed to be able to have the whole South Side branch closed in order to stay efficient. She called the $75 million in overall savings “a huge incentive” to do a complete service suspension, saying that the immediacy and impact of the fixes were both worth the inconvenience. (The city claims the savings will be channeled into sprucing up the existing stations.) Of the CTA, she said, “I think they’re definitely working their hardest to make sure people get to where they need to go.” Claypool has promised that the CTA will respond quickly and fine-tune the interim system as necessary.

Though there have been questions about whether the project can actually be completed by the city’s October 19 due date, Nichols was confident that the crews would come through, citing the pay incentives for an early finish, and the penalties for a late one, included in the contract between the city and the construction companies working along the rail.

Whenever the construction is completed, nearly every rider will be happy to see the upgrade done. The current tracks have been in place since the rail was first installed in 1969. Gwendolyn Rice, executive director of Developing Communities Project, a nonprofit in Roseland, said that the modernization was long overdue, and that the running times of the trains had gotten much worse even over the past few years. But she also acknowledged that concern over a late completion date was consistent with “the history of public transportation taking longer than expected” on the South Side, in reference to long delays that plagued the CTA’s Green Line overhaul in the mid-nineties. “Typically communities like ours–socially disadvantaged, low-income communities–often get short-changed for other projects further north, in other neighborhoods,” she said.

photo by Camden Bauchner

photo by Camden Bauchner

One big item on DCP’s agenda is extending the Red Line south, into the Greater Roseland area, to 130th and Cottage Grove. Though most people think of the ten miles of track already built when they hear “Red Line south branch,” the repairing of the current rail lines has brought attention to the extension issue, something DCP has been advocating for since 2002. The project is currently estimated at around $1.4 billion, and could cut commute times from 130th to downtown by twenty minutes.

A report from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the government organization tasked with land use and transportation planning in northeastern Illinois, said that an extension would “generate a catalytic economic impact” in the area, bringing fifty-five percent more jobs within an hour’s commute. As things stand, DCP claims that Roseland is “the most job-inaccessible community in Chicago.”

Because Obama included the extension in a federal housing bill in 2005, an Environmental Impact Study–a necessary step toward securing funding–has been underway in Roseland, and Gwendolyn Rice expects it to be done by the end of this year.

But the city currently has no timeline for an extension. DCP has said that the mayor’s office has avoided addressing the issue “on excuse of lack of funding.” Chicago, Chrissy Nichols believes, lags far behind almost every other major U.S. city in finding ways to fund public transportation projects. “We have so many projects on the docket right now that we should be taking advantage of all of these tools,” she said. Though the extension would get somewhere between sixty and eighty percent of its funding from the federal government, Nichols claims the city still wouldn’t have enough funding available, taking into account the traditional funding methods it currently uses. The money has to come from somewhere.

Unfortunately, a researcher from the Voorhees Center told me that the property values in the Greater Roseland area might be too low to respond to any of the funding methods that are popular in other major metropolitan centers across the country. The average home is valued at $85,000–only half the average for the city of Chicago.

For now, however, the city’s attention is focused on the issue at hand. If the Red Line truly is “the lifeblood of the South Side,” an extension could only make the community healthier. Until then, the aim is to keep things moving without this lifeblood in place. Though many feel the CTA has demanded a lot from riders for the duration of the construction, South Siders at least seem to be prepared. “Most folks in this community just roll with the punches,” said one woman. “As long as we get to work we don’t care.”

Additional Reporting by Sharon Lurye.