Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Chicago Accelerates Renewal of Key Transit Line

I’ve long been on record as being in favor of, to use an Indiana term, “hyperfix” construction projects on transportation infrastructure. That is, closing a road entirely in order to complete a major project on a very accelerated schedule that avoids long periods of user pain and saves a ton of money to boot. The predictions of catastrophe if a road is closed seldom if ever come to pass.

Now Chicago is using the same approach for transit in fixing the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line L. This branch will be closed entirely for five months for complete track and track bed replacement. This avoids four years of weekend disruptions, pulls forward major benefits in terms of huge time savings from slow zone elimination, and saves $75 million that will be pumped right back into station ADA retrofits. Sounds like an all around win-win-win.

The CTA previously closed the Green Line for two years to rehab that line, but given the extended closure period, that can hardly be considered an accelerated project. This looks to be far superior to that previous project.

No doubt there will be complaints that the only reason for a full closure is that this is the South Side, which is largely black, and that North Siders would never be asked to step up to this. But this doesn’t hold water. For example, the CTA did not close the Brown Line during the expansion project there. But that was a station project, not a track project. And in fact the bulk of Brown Line stations did close entirely while they were being replaced – and for upwards of 18 months at a time. Also, the North Main L line carries over twice as many passengers as the Dan Ryan branch, so closing it for the future reconstruction project there would be more problematic. The Dan Ryan L also has a close parallel branch of the Green Line to absorb the traffic, in addition to multiple Metra lines. And the Dan Ryan Expressway itself and many underutilized arterial streets can be used for expanded bus service. All of these are much more problematic on the North Side. (Despite that, for all we know the CTA will ultimately close the North Main as well). So I think any complaints are off base, particularly since it is South Siders who are going actually going to benefit from the closure in terms of what I talked about before: faster benefits, shorter disruptions, and upgraded stations from savings.

Where I think the CTA does owe an account is on why this project is needed after a major project on the Dan Ryan branch a few years back. We hear today that this previous project was just for power systems. But that is not at all what I remember the spin was at the time. Given the number of times the CTA has had to clarify this when describing the current project tells me I’m not the only one who didn’t get a clear picture of what that previous project was like at the time.

To be direct, the CTA has a record of deceiving people about what’s going on with their projects. For example, the CTA told north side neighbors that stations would be kept open during the Brown Line reconstruction project. Then they decided to close them to save money but didn’t tell people until it was too late to influence the decisions. (Even aldermen complained they were “lied to” ).

I’m not saying that the CTA is lying about this project, which I think is great in any case. But clearly being scrupulous, transparent, and forthcoming with the facts is critical to maintaining public trust. It’s easy to see why South Siders wouldn’t trust the agency on this given its track record. So let this be a way to start earning back that trust. One way to do that would be to examine the communications about the previous project, and if they did not 100% fairly convey what it was all about, to admit that.

In any event, this accelerated project looks on the surface like a winner. There’s plenty of time to inform and take genuine feedback from the public on it, especially around the alternate routes. By the end of 2013, it should be the end of slow zones on the Dan Ryan L, and riders will likely quickly forget the pain of the closure.

6 Comments
Topics: Transportation
Cities: Chicago

6 Responses to “Chicago Accelerates Renewal of Key Transit Line”

  1. James says:

    They said that the Dan Ryan branch (built in 69) has outlived its life cycle. But I don’t recall them having to shut down the Eisenhower blue line, which was built in the 50s. I agree that there isn’t a lot of transparency with the CTA.

  2. Roland S says:

    James, track renewal on the Forest Park branch is ongoing, because the engineers back in the 50s left a ton of extra space in the median for four future tracks. This means CTA has plenty of room to set up equipment and track segments and replace slow zones as they pop up. Not so for the Dan Ryan branch, which is squeezed between two Jersey barriers and 14 lanes of screaming traffic.

    The Red Line project a few years ago was basically an attempt by CTA to piggyback on the Dan Ryan (expressway) project, during which CTA could actually close traffic lanes to set up temporary tracks. The project was never planned to be a full-scale replacement, and the state didn’t send enough money to CTA to do the whole enchilada anyway.

    Essentially, we’re paying the price today for CTA’s shoddy planning and Springfield’s shoddy budgeting 6 years ago.

  3. david vartanoff says:

    Rather than try to summarize various comments, here is the link to a discussion of this project at The Transport Politic.
    http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2012/06/04/chicago-plans-to-shut-red-line-south-to-perform-quick-rehab/#comments
    Not all of us are thrilled by the plans.

  4. JM says:

    Is there not a reasonable South Side complaint about the serial underinvestment in its L infrastructure that these long closures (red and green line) are made necessary at all? Sure, the Agency is undercapitalized, but as someone who rides on both the north and south side lines a lot, there does seem to be significantly less investment made south of Madison. The stress on the system requires continued and ongoing investment, but it seems that occurs less on the South Side. Look at the North Side station closures occuring this summer for rehab projects. I am sure other commenters will tell me that is wrong, because it is apples and oranges (it is), but the optics look very bad.

  5. @JM, no. The CTA renovated the Green Line and now the Dan Ryan branch. This would completely fix (except for some red line stations) the entire south side L infrastructure. By contract the North Main is in the worst shape in the entire system despite having the highest ridership by far.

  6. Anna Tarkov says:

    If the CTA has a record of being deceptive about their projects, then how could a south side Red Line rider be sure that this project is going to take only 5 months? Might it not take considerably longer?

    Also, I lived along the Brown Line while it was being repaired and yes, my station closed for a whole year. Much worse than 5 months, sure, but my neighboring stations were open. One was within what I consider to be walking distance as far as the city goes. It would be quite a different story if an entire swath of the line was closed. Sure, I could take buses instead. I would expect it would be a miserable experience, even in an area where many people can resort to driving (not the case on the south side).

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