By Jon Hilkevitch
TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Date of Publication: April 20, 1999
Source: Chicago Tribune
Regular riders of the CTA--some chuckling, but most just shaking their heads--looked on Monday morning at the bustling Clark and Lake "L" station downtown as a delegation of state lawmakers set out to tour, and maybe even to save, the dilapidated transit system.
But before climbing aboard a train or a bus, most members of the blue-ribbon panel of fact-finders had to be taught that their complimentary CTA transit passes could not be inserted backwards or upside down into the automated fare-collector.
"No, other way. Other way," a CTA customer service representative stationed next to the turnstiles at the Thompson Center rail stop called out repeatedly. One bystander in the crowd asked sarcastically whether the VIPs would have the same problem inserting their car keys to start their vehicles.
Once inside a northbound Brown/Ravenswood Line train that was delayed at the station to board the lawmakers, State Rep. Willis Harris (D-Calumet City) tried to lighten the mood by asking, "Where's the dining car?"
State Rep. Jay Hoffman, a Downstate Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, piped in: "Does this train go to Collinsville?"
It was easier to crack jokes than to reach a consensus on cracking open a checkbook to help a transit agency vital to the economy of northeastern Illinois. The CTA needs nearly $1 billion a year over the next 10 years to rebuild crumbling elevated structures, fix rusting tracks and replace hundreds of buses and trains that have outlived their recommended life cycles yet are still in service.
"We are not striving to rebuild the CTA as a state-of-the-art model for comfort. We're just trying to keep the system running," CTA Chairwoman Valerie Jarrett told the lawmakers.
They were handed bottles of Poland Spring water as they transferred from train to bus--a meticulously scrubbed CTA charter bus free of graffiti and smelling of pine cleaner.
CTA officials, sensitive to pressures on Downstate legislators to fix potholes and improve transit in their own districts, rolled with the punch lines, trying to keep the participants focused. The visitors were brought to the Fullerton rail station, which needs about $60 million in improvements. They also toured a stretch of the Douglas branch of the Blue Line where trains travel at 15 m.p.h. through areas where the steel bridge supports can't tolerate faster speeds.
"The legislature needs to move on funding this spring or all the federal money will be gone," CTA president Frank Kruesi told the lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Transportation and Appropriations before the tour.
The CTA says it needs a minimum of $138 million in local matching funds to secure a promised $552 million in federal money that Congress has authorized to rebuild the 102-year-old Douglas branch and to lengthen platforms, run longer trains and provide access to disabled riders on the Brown Line.
In addition, lobbyists for the CTA are pushing lawmakers to consider a major bond program this session. The transit agency is $2.2 billion short of the $4.2 billion it says it needs over the next five years to repair and replace aging infrastructure. The state has not approved a funding package for transit since 1989, while the federal government has passed two multiyear transportation funding plans since 1990.
Mayor Richard Daley, who spoke at a briefing, said he believes Downstate residents care about CTA funding because the issue is linked to funding for highways.
"Those days are over that we don't care about roads and bridges and they don't care about mass transit," Daley said. "We can learn from each other. We help each other."
Daley declined to say whether he has gotten personal assurances from Gov. George Ryan that CTA funding will be increased.
Ryan campaigned aggressively last year for improving the condition of highways and building a third Chicago area airport in the south suburbs. He has assigned a task force to come up with a proposal by early May for a transportation plan to address roads and transit needs.
"Ryan has to take the lead on financing. We can address the need, but I've got to take care of my own people," said Hoffman, whose district near St. Louis is seeking funding for an expansion of transit services.
Rubi Paul, whose house sits below the Douglas branch elevated tracks near the Western Avenue station, followed the crowd of visiting dignitaries, commenting that she has seen too many politicians make and then break promises to revive transit.
"They saw today how bad the system is," said Paul, standing in an alley that was cleaned up Monday morning for the tour. "If they are really serious about helping this neighborhood, fix the trains and bring back our weekend service. Then I will say it's more than a publicity stunt."
Tribune staff writer Gary Washburn contributed to this report.