By Dave Newbart
Date of Publication: September 10, 2001
Source: Chicago Sun-Times
CTA officials will break ground today on the long-awaited reconstruction of the Douglas branch of the CTA's Blue Line.
But while surveying and site preparation are under way, actual construction will not begin until sometime next month.
The L project's start has been delayed for years, as local leaders sought federal funding for the line that runs through the West Side and into Cicero.
The construction will finally begin when special equipment to drill the massive holes for the 700 cement caissons that surround the metal support columns becomes available next month, officials said.
At that time, crews will dig the holes for the caissons at Pulaski and work east. They will also begin work rebuilding the 54th Avenue station.
This spring, crews will begin rebuilding the steel structure that supports the train. They will redo eight stations and move all platforms to the center of the tracks.
Work on each station is expected to take 18 months to complete. Most work on the actual tracks will take place in a 45-hour window on weekends when the line does not run.
"It's a very slow process,'' said Jack Hartman, the CTA's executive vice president of construction, engineering and facilities.
In the end, five miles of the 6.6-mile branch will be replaced on the line, parts of which are 105 years old. All 11 stations will be made accessible to persons with disabilities. Four bridges on the line will be rebuilt.
In addition, the line will get new signals and communication and fiber optic phone lines, saving the $5,000 it pays Ameritech monthly to lease old copper lines.
But the construction will cause further delays on trains, which already must slow down to 15 mph over nearly half the track. Even if riders on the line are already accustomed to the delays, they and those who live near the line might not be as happy about the noise.
Hartman acknowledged crews might be extremely loud during the day and still making noise in the middle of the night on weekends.
"When you are moving that much steel, it's going to be loud,'' Hartman said.
The entire project is scheduled to take 51 months, a time span lengthened by the line remaining in operation throughout the project. But CTA officials are willing to take the extra time in order to prevent the loss in ridership that occurred when they shut the Green Line for two years in 1994. Many riders never returned.
"We don't want to do it that way this time,'' said CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney. "You are forcing your customers to find other options and it's hard to get them back.''
The Douglas branch has also lost a lot of riders because of its poor condition and decrease in service times. But Gaffney said the CTA will not consider increasing the Blue Line's hours until the project is completed in October 2005. Any new service would be added incrementally as demand grows, she said.
Despite the wait, residents are excited.
"Hopefully the Blue Line will make it easier for folks to come to our community, eat at our restaurants and shop at our stores,'' said Juan Ochoa, who lives near the line in Little Village and is the president of the Mexican American Chamber of Commerce of Illinois.