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Public Transportation Fri Aug 26 2011

Growing Pains: The Red Line Extension

by Christopher Gray

Eddie Davis waits in his dapper suit for customers to arrive at Bass Furniture, but buyers and even browsers are few and far between these days for the Roseland landmark at South Michigan and 115th Street.

Business has been down for years, while Davis continues to pay the mortgage on his store and warehouses, which have sold new furniture on the Far South Side for generations.

"As much as I would like to stay in the 9th Ward, if I had the resources, I would move," Davis said.

The days when far South Michigan Avenue was a thriving commercial corridor with competing department stores are long gone, but Davis said business was much better even 10 years ago when a strip mall sat cater-corner to his store.

The mall was bulldozed for redevelopment in 2004, and the neighborhood has been waiting ever since for a grocery store to anchor the neighborhood on 115th. Roseland is completely without a supermarket, making it one of the city's largest "food deserts."

"It has impacted our business tremendously," Davis said. "We need foot traffic. We need people."

An Aldi store may yet anchor that location within the next year, but Bass Furniture could some day benefit from another development: a new El station a few hundred yards to the south, part of the proposed Red Line extension.

"We've been here 70 years," Davis said. "If it takes 10 years for the train, we hope to be here in 10 years."

Mayor Rahm Emanuel campaigned on an overhaul of the Red Line as his highest transportation priority, and within his first 100 days in office, the CTA has showed the beginnings of that process: the agency won $8.4 million in federal dollars to conduct environmental studies for Red Line improvements.

The environmental studies will take two years, and push out the finish line of a Red Line extension until at least 2017, but Joe Iacobucci, a strategic planner at the CTA, said any delay is hardly the biggest obstacle the project faces.

"The two main barriers are finding capital funds and operations costs," Iacobucci said. "We're still a ways to go, but we're still pushing this through as fast as we can."

When Richard M. Daley was mayor, the Red Line extension had to share CTA planning time with extensions to the Yellow and Orange lines as well as a new inner-city connector route called the Circle Line. Under the new mayor, those projects appear shelved, and only the Red Line extension remains active. But now the extension is sharing funds with improvements to the existing Red Line on the North Side.

In the spring, the CTA initiated its "Your Red" campaign, which, reflecting Emanuel's Chicago 2011 Transition Plan, takes a three-pronged approach to the Red Line: overhaul the dilapidated north branch of the Red Line and the suburban Purple Line for $2.4 to $4 billion; replace the rails, ties and ballasts of the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line for $700 million; and extend the Red Line to 130th Street, through the Roseland neighborhood to Altgeld Gardens, for $1.2 billion.

The first prong would modernize the most heavily used branch of the city's El system; the second would help the existing South Side corridor overcome slow zones that have overtaken 41 percent of the Dan Ryan branch. The South Side branch of the Red Line is in such bad shape that trains can only go 15 miles per hour for nearly five miles of the route.

The third project, on the CTA's wish list since Richard J. Daley was mayor, would bring new rapid transit to one of Chicago's poorest and most isolated areas, the predominately black Far South Side.

"Politically, it's something that the center can get behind. It encompasses the North and the South Side -- it's a holistic approach," Iacobucci said. "They're all on the Red Line. They all need pushed forward."

"I believe for the unskilled eye it's a threat," said John Paul Jones, a field organizer for Developing Communities Project. "We can welcome and find mutual benefits in supporting the two ends. There are legitimate needs on the North Side."

DCP is a faith-based community organizing group that has led the grassroots push for the Red Line extension since 2003. The organization got its start with a young Barack Obama in the 1980s.

Jones said he thought combining the South Side and the North Side improvements along with enhancing service in Evanston and Wilmette was a shrewd move on the part of the CTA. He had faith that Sen. Dick Durbin would push for federal dollars to extend the Red Line, but Sen. Mark Kirk would be more inclined to support projects closer to his backyard on the North Shore.

"I think it was added to satisfy [Kirk]," Jones said. "It has two senators who agree on transit investment. The Civil Rights movement can help ensure there's real parity in transit spending."

The travel times for transit riders that would be served by the extension are currently among the longest in the city, averaging more than an hour. According to a 2005 University of Illinois-Chicago study [PDF], one-fourth of the households along the new route are transit-dependent, meaning without cars.

"During the Clinton period, when the economy was supposedly experiencing an economic boom, there were areas of the country that the economic boom bypassed, and the greater Roseland area is one of those areas that were bypassed," said Lou Turner, a political consultant for DCP. Turner believes one reason the Far South Side has struggled so much is because it is cut off from jobs in the rest of the city.

The area once relied on nearby steel mills and factories such as the Pullman Company, but most of those industrial hubs are long gone, and the city's job centers have shifted north to the Loop and beyond. The Red Line extension would shave 20 minutes off the commute to the Loop from 130th Street, not including transfer time and frequent traffic tie-ups on Michigan Avenue and 95th Street.

"I'm not looking to that as a savior, but it will move people faster, and it'll give people access to get jobs," said Ladell Edwards, the owner of Edwards Fashions, which sells men's dress clothing on Michigan Avenue near Bass Furniture. "A lot of the jobs are not in Roseland."

The theory pitched by DCP is that the Red Line extension would boost Roseland by helping residents get to jobs that will exist up north as the city rises from the recession. The dollars those residents brought home could then be used to build up businesses near the new stations with transit-friendly development.

"From a planning perspective, the city would be looking at the zoning around all the stations," said Peter Strazzabosco, the spokesman for the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development. "Transit-friendly development is not just about transit. It's about land-use policies as well."

Each new station stop along the Red Line would be quite different from the next, but all of them would offer more development opportunities than the current south Red Line stations, which are cut off from their neighborhoods by the Dan Ryan Expressway.

At 103rd Street, the station would likely offer only a convenient place for current residents to hop on the Red Line. The station will be located in the middle of a residential area, and aside from a couple small stores such as a Dunkin' Donuts or potential apartments right off the stop, the neighborhood development wouldn't change much.

The station at 111th Street would be just blocks away from Roseland Hospital, which benefits from Gov. Pat Quinn's recent designation of the hospital as Chicago's second official medical district.

While the medical district decision was made independent of the potential Red Line, having the El nearby could make the district as easily accessible as the current medical district on the West Side.

The South Side district won't be on the same plane as that campus, which includes two medical schools, but it could allow for a new trauma center and more medical services than the current hospital. "They needed something in proximity to the South Side, and the Roseland area is underserved," said Larry Luster, spokesman for the Senate Democratic Caucus in Springfield.

The terminal at 130th Street would connect the most isolated area of the city, the Altgeld Gardens housing project to the rest of Chicago. That area has room for a switching yard to replace the one at 95th Street and the most room for a parking garage to serve south suburban commuters. The CTA hopes the extension can create 1,500 park-and-ride spaces.

But the most transit-oriented potential exists near Bass Furniture and 115th Street, Strazzabosco said. City planners worked with the alderman and developer of the new Aldi to fit the store in with the planned station.

The South Michigan strip was first oriented along an old streetcar line, and Strazzabosco said the CTA may designate the stop a major-activity center, like the Garfield or 35th Street stops on the Green Line, or even, he said, the Damen stop on the Blue Line, the transit hub at the heart of once-derelict Wicker Park.

"Obviously, it's not like that today, but it could aspire to something like that," the city spokesman said. "There's really no comparison now. But that area may have potential to be a more intense and dense activity center."

Until an Aldi or some other development comes to the large, vacant lot at 115th Street and South Michigan, the area has little activity and little to draw people, and the area east of Fenger High School has a reputation for street violence. The police stopped me just for taking pictures in the area.

A movie and game store came and went across the street from Bass Furniture and other than a pair of taquerias that recently popped up near the Latino neighborhood south of 115th, very few new businesses have come in for decades, according to Edwards and Davis.

"I'm wondering if that's going to help the traffic on Michigan Avenue," said Edwards, appearing doubtful at the transit-oriented development prospects for Roseland. He felt less dubious about whether the extension, planned since the 1970s, would finally be built this decade. "It sounds like an enormous undertaking, but I think they'll follow through."


Christopher David Gray's work has appeared in Gapers Block since May 2009. He lives in Rogers Park and writes articles that focus on the South Side. His work has also appeared locally in the Reader and Time Out:Chicago and sites in the north suburbs. He moved to Chicago from Oregon in 2008 to complete his master's in journalism at Northwestern University. His work has been accepted for publication byThe Nation and his articles have appeared previously in the Roseburg (Ore.) News-Review and CityBeat, a Cincinnati alt weekly.

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TomDArch / August 29, 2011 11:47 AM

There's a reason the Red Line South extension has been on the books since the 70s but hasn't been built: When you line it up against other transit infrastructure/capital projects, it has never been the best place to put billions of dollars. It's either ironic or tragic, but because the south side has lost so much density of both residents and businesses, it doesn't justify Rapid Transit ("L") construction, particularly compared with other proposed projects. It's too bad that the Chicago area has completely lost street car/light rail as a transit mode. Some sort of street car connector that could bring area residents to the Red Line at a lower capital cost might have been built years ago.

You'll note in the article above that the "cheerleaders" are Rham and Larry Luster, spokesman for the Senate Democratic Caucus in Springfield - in other words, politicians. In the quotes above, the planners at the City seem to be saying, "uh, well, um, we'll try to make the best of it" not wanting to criticize such a high level political decision.

Yes, the south side has been caught in a vicious cycle of poverty, racism, exploitation and neglect, and this project may go a small way towards countering the neglect. Democracies aren't inherently efficient, and so saying "It's the south side's turn after all these years" is part of that less-than-perfectly-efficient system.

But the overall problem isn't that of the local politicians or the residents and businesses on the south side, it's the national lack of transit funding. We have poured countless billions of dollars into our road network, while neglecting the maintenance and expansion of transit, and in particular rail transit. Unlike roads which need to be resurfaced constantly by politically connected contractors, once you build a rail line, it works for decades (with a little maintenance, of course), it tends to be a skreetchy wheel, but not a squeaky one, and thus hasn't been getting "the grease."

Anonymous / November 19, 2011 1:26 PM

Extending the Red Line to 130'th Street has a non-obvious benefit: The opportunity to exit Cook County to buy cigarettes without having to have a car to drive. The county border is at approx 122'th Street. Currently, smokers without cars have to send a friend or ride Metra to exit Crook County. Using Metra requires careful mission planning due to infrequent trains, while an out of county mission is easy.

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