Brown Line work won't start until '03, CTA says


By Robert C. Herguth

Date of Publication: July 17, 2002
Source: Chicago Sun-Times


Major renovations that were supposed to begin this year on the bustling but aging Brown Line L probably won't start until 2003, the CTA is acknowledging.

And the preservation battle at the root of the delay has pushed the transit agency nervously close to a deadline for federal funding.

CTA executives insist that a coveted federal funding commitment is not in serious jeopardy.

But, they admit, the "full-funding grant agreement" that would cover 60 percent to 80 percent of the $476 million project likely won't be finalized until this fall, perhaps December, months later than they originally anticipated.

Because that 60-percent-to-80-percent federal portion needs to be obligated before a transportation funding blueprint expires in fall 2003, the CTA is fast approaching not just the deadline, but the point where other transit organizations--noticing so much unused cash--might begin scrapping for it.

"As long as the money sits there, the money is at risk of someone else trying to take it," said Dorval R. Carter Jr., the CTA's executive vice president of management and performance.

Besides, with the CTA now looking ahead to other big projects for which it'll seek funding from the federal government's next blueprint, "You have a credibility problem" if the money from the last round isn't yet locked up, he said.

"I would say we're at the limit of our comfort zone," he said. "But there is time to get the things done that we need to get done."

CTA President Frank Kruesi also said there's no reason to panic, but added: "We're cutting it close, closer than I wanted."

Two years ago, Congress, with muscle from House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), agreed to an unprecedented five full-funding grant agreements for the Chicago region: two so the CTA could revamp the Brown Line and rebuild the Douglas Branch of the Blue Line; and three for Metra.

The Blue Line project is well under way. But the Brown Line grant agreement wasn't quickly finalized because preservationists opposed the planned demolition of historic Lincoln Park buildings and the proposed designs of some stations.

While the dispute continues with some residents who still are upset with plans for a new Fullerton station and aren't ruling out a lawsuit, the CTA, the Federal Transit Administration and certain preservation groups settled their differences. The FTA also recently approved an environmental review, another major hurdle before construction can start, Kruesi said.

FTA chief Jennifer Dorn, in town earlier this month, told the Chicago Sun-Times she expects the grant agreement, which the CTA originally hoped to be completed this past spring, to be finalized next year. CTA officials, however, said it'll probably be next fiscal year, which begins in the fall.

"If the full-funding grant agreement had been done in spring, we hoped to start work before the end of the year," said CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney.

But now, "construction will start some time next year, but I couldn't tell you when"--next spring or summer at the earliest, Carter said.

The delay--in terms of time, increased costs and design changes--cost the CTA $8.2 million, Gaffney said. That shouldn't increase the Brown Line's overall price tag, however, because savings will be squeezed out of other areas, she said.

Marty Oberman, a former alderman who is among the residents unhappy with the CTA's plans and tactics, said the CTA could have sped things along if officials had been more cooperative.

"I think the reason it's dragged on is, instead of working constructively, compromising and so on, they've worked to stonewall . . . trying to prove us wrong rather than working this out," he said.

"Everybody wants the thing to go through," he said. "We don't want them to run roughshod over our communities while they're doing it."

Ridership has grown markedly on the Brown Line in recent years, and much of the project involves improvements to accommodate those commuters, including longer platforms, better access for the disabled and new stations.