West Side groups are wary of plan
By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune transportation reporter
Date of Publication: July 19, 2004
Source: Chicago Tribune
The Chicago Transit Authority is studying new rail service--tentatively called the Silver Line--linking the Blue and Green Lines in neighborhoods near downtown and forming the first piece of the ambitious Circle Line concept.
But residents of the West Side who have long sought better transit in their communities say they fear that the proposed Silver Line would prompt further service reductions on the Cermak branch of the Blue Line, where train schedules were cut in 1997 and have not been restored.
Transit-dependent residents say the situation has already become a hardship, making it difficult to travel to work at off-hours or get medical help if illness strikes when the trains aren't running.
"I think the CTA is discriminating against us. Not because I am black, but because we are a poor neighborhood," said Gladys Woodson, 58, who relies on Cermak trains to get from her Lawndale home on West 21st Place to medical services and appointments downtown.
CTA President Frank Kruesi has tried to ease concerns that the transit agency would effectively rob Peter--in this case, mostly minority communities along the Cermak branch--to pay Paul--areas adjacent to downtown that are being gentrified and whose well-heeled new residents would benefit from Silver Line service.
Kruesi is expected to face tough questioning Monday at a City Council Transportation Committee meeting about how the agency plans to deploy service in different parts of the city.
The Silver Line would send Cermak trains over a little-used 109-year-old stretch of elevated track being renovated, called the Paulina Connector, just west of Ashland Avenue. The Silver Line would connect the Blue Line at the Harrison junction--where the Blue Line's two branches meet--with the Green Line at the Ashland station.
New CTA stations are proposed at Madison Street serving the United Center and at Van Buren Street, which would be a transfer station with the existing Blue Line Medical Center station on the Forest Park branch of the Blue Line.
Kruesi and CTA Chairman Carole Brown said it has always been their goal to enhance West Side rail service after the $482 million renovation of the Cermak branch, which is also called the Douglas "L." The project is scheduled for completion by January, and the CTA has launched a wide-ranging study assessing the need for rail and bus improvements along the entire West Side corridor.
Yet CTA officials, trying to rein in a projected 2005 deficit that could reach $100 million, have refused to set a date for restoring the late-night and weekend service that was eliminated seven years ago on the Cermak branch. Requests from West Side aldermen and frequent protests by community members at CTA headquarters, City Hall and even outside Kruesi's house have failed to sway the transit agency.
CTA and Daley administration officials, meanwhile, say the Silver Line would provide more attractive transit options in neighborhoods undergoing a revitalization boom adjacent to the central area by offering more Near West Side residents speedier service to downtown via a connection to the Lake Street "L" tracks.
The Silver Line would become the first new CTA rail service since the Orange Line to Midway Airport opened in 1993.
It would also represent the first phase of building the Circle Line, a more than $1 billion project aimed at improving rapid transit in the central area and surrounding neighborhoods and to major employment corridors and recreational destinations. Kruesi calls the Circle Line the "single most important transit improvement in the region," making it possible for trips between the CTA and Metra's radial lines to become more competitive with automobile travel.
The Circle Line would link all CTA rail lines, except the Skokie Swift, as well as Metra lines in an area six times larger than the Loop "L" system. It's touted as a remedy to rush-hour gridlock downtown while also serving as a catalyst for development beyond the central area and better transit connections throughout the six-county region.
Although the Silver Line plan has not yet been officially unveiled, it continues to cause alarm among residents and business people in Little Village, Pilsen and Lawndale. People in those West Side communities are concerned that the Silver Line would divert at least some Cermak branch trains away from their current route to the Loop.
"We say this is totally demeaning to our communities, where there also is gentrification going on," said Juan Miguel Turnil, coordinator of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. "It doesn't make sense for the CTA to cut our service."
CTA officials say that using the Paulina Connector would allow the CTA to provide more frequent service on the Cermak branch--not less--perhaps using shuttle trains between stations on the Cermak branch. Currently, Blue Line service to downtown is split between the Cermak branch and the Forest Park branch, both of which continue on to O'Hare International Airport.
CTA officials also say the Silver Line represents one piece of a comprehensive program to overhaul rapid-transit for the next generation of riders.
A project the city hopes to build in several years is a transit superstation on the long-vacant Block 37 downtown. The station would be located between the Red and Blue Lines and offer rail connections to the Orange Line. Express trains to O'Hare and Midway Airports would serve the $213 million station development, bounded by State, Randolph, Dearborn and Washington Streets.
Other ideas under consideration include adding stations on the Green Line, connecting the Orange Line that serves Midway with the Brown Line serving the Kimball Avenue terminal and hooking up the Blue Line at Ashland with the Orange Line, officials said.
Kruesi said no final decisions about the Silver Line have been made, but the agency spent $34 million overhauling the Paulina Connector and appears to be leaning heavily toward starting the new service.
"We have the opportunity to do the Silver Line once the work is done," Kruesi said. He declined to confirm the project would move forward, but added: "The easiest thing to do is nothing. But I don't want to miss opportunities."
Some transit watchdog groups say the CTA is delaying badly needed capital improvements, such as extending the Red Line to the south suburbs, that might not be as exciting as huge projects like the Circle or Silver Lines. They also say the public is being cut out of the decision-making process.
"Public funding is being used, but it seems like the CTA has made decisions without public dialogue," said Jackie Leavy of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group. "The CTA is saying, `This is what we assert will be the best for you.' People don't appreciate that style of transportation planning."
Perceptions of heavy-handedness in past projects are being addressed, CTA officials said.
Starting late this month, the CTA will hold community workshops to gather information on the travel habits of residents of the West Side and the near west suburbs. People interested in participating can call 312-681-2716 to sign up, officials said.
"They are not public meetings in the traditional sense of a presentation and one question at a time from the audience," said CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney. "Instead, these will be smaller, interactive workshops where participants will work on teams to develop service plans."
While the outreach may be welcomed, many CTA customers on the West Side said they never asked for the Silver Line and just want their service on the Cermak branch back.
Maurice Redd, executive director of the Lawndale Neighborhood Organization, said that with the Cermak reconstruction almost completed, there is no reason not to restore service now at some level.
Members of the Blue Line Transit Task Force were expected to renew their call at Monday's City Council committee meeting for the CTA to immediately restore 24-hour, seven-day service on the Cermak branch.
"We cannot get to the city summer festivals downtown on weekends except by driving and paying $20 to park," Redd said. "The West Side is the only area in the region without weekend service. Intentional or not, it's discriminatory."
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