Blue Line rehab, Metra extension get federal push


By Jon Hilkevitch

Date of Publication: March 18, 2000
Source: Chicago Tribune


Federal officials on Friday "highly recommended" full-funding grants in next year's budget for the Chicago Transit Authority's planned rebuilding of the Blue Line's Douglas branch and for an 11-mile extension of Metra's SouthWest Service to Will County.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) also endorsed, in its fiscal 2001 funding report, preliminary engineering plans to extend train platforms on the CTA's Brown/Ravenswood Line to accommodate ridership increases, to build a second track on a 12-mile stretch of Metra's North Central Service through Lake County, and to extend Metra's Union Pacific West line to Kane County.

The full-funding grants for the CTA Blue Line and Metra SouthWest Service projects, while expected in light of recent support from the Clinton administration, send an important message to Congress when the political dealmaking takes place later this year on which transit projects will get special consideration among the hundreds competing for federal funding. Over time, the federal government pays for 80 percent of the costs for projects that have a so-called full-funding grant agreement; state and local governments provide the 20 percent match.

Still, the recommendations are not binding on Congress.

The CTA's ability to garner the FTA's highest rating for the rehabilitation of the 104-year-old Douglas branch of the Blue Line is noteworthy, because the proposed funding allocations for 2001 are drawn from a "new-start program," a category that traditionally is made up of new projects or the expansion of current service. The designation represents a coup for CTA president Frank Kruesi, an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Transportation before joining the CTA in 1997.

Assuming congressional approval of the Douglas branch appropriation, the $450 million project to rebuild the deteriorating elevated structure and the 11 stations on the 6.6-mile line, from just west of downtown to suburban Cicero, is scheduled to start later this year or early in 2001. The FTA recommended that the CTA receive $17 million in fiscal 2001.

The CTA's engineering plans for the proposed $310 million upgrade of the Brown/Ravenswood rail line were highly recommended by the FTA. Noting that 90,000 jobs and 200,000 residents are within walking distance of the line, the FTA gave a strong signal that it supports efforts to increase capacity on the 9.3-mile line. The CTA intends to expand stations and platforms to accommodate eight-car trains and straighten curves on the line to improve running times and better serve the 6,000 new daily riders projected by 2020. The FTA recommended that the project get $8.8 million in fiscal 2001.

Metra's long-term plans to extend the SouthWest Service serving Union Station downtown, from the current terminal in Orland Park southwest to Manhattan in Will County, received a "highly recommended" rating from the FTA for the second consecutive year. The $177 million project, which will serve a rapidly growing number of far southwest suburban residents, includes 3 miles of double-tracking, signal improvements and the construction of new stations in Manhattan and New Lenox. Also, Metra will acquire two more diesel locomotives and 13 bilevel passenger cars for the line. The FTA recommended that the project receive $10 million in fiscal 2001.