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What About the Red Line Extension Project?

As project on South Side stalls, CTA starts $2.1B project on North Side

By Erick Johnson

All aboard. The CTA has started the largest project in its history. At a cost of $2.1 billion it will dramatically change the lives of thousands of passengers on the North Side. But for years on the South Side, many low-income passengers have felt they’ve been taken for a ride.

It’s a familiar situation that many have experienced all too frequently in the most segregated city in the country.

school and wilton renderingFor years, city leaders have promised to bring the CTA’s Red Line to the far south suburbs, where there is little to no public transportation for moderate and low-income residents struggling to get to work.

City residents heard the campaign speeches, chimed in on mayoral debates, and waited for decades for a new Red Line to whisk them to work in a much shorter time than the usual two-hour trip with three buses.

At an estimated cost of $1 billion, CTA officials, mayors and politicians have blamed a lack of federal funds for stalling a project that has yet to get on track.

Take a ride to the North Side this fall and you will see CTA workers busy laying groundwork for a project that will soon begin.

It’s the $2.1 billion Red-Purple Line project. The CTA’s largest capital improvement project in its history, the CTA will rebuild the nearly century old stations at Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr.

The biggest part of the projects will erect a tall bridge to allow the Brown Line to cross over both lines. Currently, the tracks for the Brown Line physically cross those of the Red and Purple Lines in an “S” shape formation. Passengers on the Brown Line feel they are being jerked around as the slow-moving trains pass over the curves. Over the years, this portion of the Brown Line has required constant maintenance.

“It’s very important to me that the community understand what we’re doing,” said CTA President Dorval Carter during a special tour of the construction.

Now, in years to come, passengers will ride in comfort and convenience with the help of CTA and city leaders, who secured over $1 billion in federal funds. They also came up with chunks of CTA funds and $600 million in TIF dollars generated from an affluent neighborhood, where numerous community meetings have been held to discuss the project. The result is public transportation that separates the haves from the have nots.

The project was years in the making. In January 2016, days before President Barack Obama left office, then Mayor Rahm Emanuel rushed to push through a grant request for a $1 billion federal grant from the Federal Transit Administration while the Democrat was still in the White House.

Emanuel wanted to use the money towards the Red-Purple Bypass Line project. And a chunk of the TIF money towards the project is the result of a City Council approval of a special TIF district that is expected to generate some $823 million for Red Line North in 35 years. Emanuel was able to secure the $1 billion federal grant by leveraging the $600 million generated by the special TIF district.

These efforts helped make the Red-Purple Line Bypass a reality. But what efforts did Emanuel and other past mayors exert to make the Red Line Extension a reality?

How much did Emanuel seek in federal funds for the Red-Line Extension project while his former boss was in the White for eight years?

With Trump now in office, the chances of securing federal funds for the Red Line Extension project are slim. And with the lower property values of the Red Line Extension Project area, the Metropolitan Planning Council has estimated that, at best, an RLE transit TIF would raise only $200 million over the next 35 years.

To his credit, Emanuel spent $280 million to rebuild the 95th Street Red Line station that opened last January.

When compared to other projects on the North Side, including the latest Red-Purple Bypass project, the South Side projects looks like peanuts and another example of the inequity of services between the North and the South Sides.

During the mayoral campaign many candidates including Lori Lightfoot, in political forums, acknowledged that federal funding is the only real option for financing the Red Line Extension Project. But none had come up with creative alternatives for a project that has been on the back burner for so long.

Last summer Governor JB Pritzker passed his $41.5 billion capital spending plan, which would be spent on public roads, transit, schools and other public, state-wide projects. Transportation would get $28.6 billion and $3.4 billion will go to mass transit. There was no mention of funds going towards the Red Line Extension project and no one made a fuss about it, not even Black leaders.

Shortly after he was elected, Pritzker said funds for the Red Line Extension project would come from the Illinois Transportation and infrastructure funding bill, which is part of his passed $41.5 billion capital spending plan. Since then, Pritzker has been largely silent. With Trump in the White House and little funding and vocal leadership, Pritzker seems the only leader whose administration can keep the Red Line Extension project from being a dream deferred.

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