By Robert C. Herguth
Date of Publication: September 11, 2000
Source: Chicago Sun-Times
Plans to revamp the CTA Blue Line's Douglas branch seem to be progressing at the speed of the L trains on that route--excruciatingly slowly. But they are, indeed, moving.
Within a few days, the agency plans to submit formal designs for station and track improvements to the Federal Transit Administration as part of the application process for funding.
The federal government has virtually assured the CTA that it will get $320 million under the New Start program to rebuild the dilapidated, century-old West Side branch. But before the CTA can get the cash, it must fulfill certain requirements of what is called a "full funding grant agreement." Submitting designs is one of the final steps.
"We're almost there," CTA President Frank Kruesi said.
The Douglas branch parts from the Congress branch, which runs along the Eisenhower Expy., west of Racine. It stretches 6.6 miles, roughly from Polk in Chicago to Cermak in Cicero. Most of the branch, 4.4 miles, is elevated. Three stations are at ground level; eight are elevated.
The Douglas was built between 1895 and 1912, and because of the age and lack of repairs, nearly half of the route has "slow zones" requiring trains to creep as slowly as 15 mph, lest they disturb the rickety structure bracing the tracks. Top speeds should be 55 mph.
Many riders have abandoned the branch, finding quicker ways to get around. Many others would ride it more, if the CTA restored weekend and night-owl service, dropped in 1998 because of declining ridership and deteriorating tracks.
"I think they ought to have the weekend service back," said Bill Fabiani, 37, a Cicero resident using the California station Friday.
"They can't ask the federal government for money to open it Saturdays and Sundays?" asked Nora Watson. The 64-year-old West Side resident exited the train at California, one of six stations that would be rehabilitated, so she could see a doctor at Mt. Sinai Hospital several blocks away.
CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney said her agency will consider beefing up hours of service after the project is completed. CTA officials had hoped to start work late this year, but concede that probably won't happen until early 2001, providing the federal government signs off on everything as expected. The project would take three to four years, Gaffney said.
The stops at Hoyne, California, Kedzie, Pulaski, Kildare and 54th/Cermak would be rebuilt, to varying degrees. The proposed improvements include new stations, center platforms, lighting, handicapped-accessible elevators, signs, wind screens, benches, fare collection equipment and artwork.
The Polk station would get a new escalator, and Kildare's main entrance would be relocated to Kostner.
Designs show the Douglas would become one of the most architecturally distinct pieces of CTA property. Triangular canopies, angled wind screens and greater visibility are among the design features.
"It's going to look nice," said Efrain Maldonado, a 37-year-old CTA customer assistant who works at the California station. Referring to the tiny depot, he added, "It's due for an improvement."
"It looks like it's about to fall apart," said Patricia Anaya, an 18-year-old Pilsen resident and student at the University of Illinois at Chicago who lives near the same stop. Shown an artist's sketch of what the new station may look like, she said, "It's very appealing, very attractive."
"I hope they don't close it down while they rebuild it," she added.
Gaffney said those details are still being discussed.
But Kruesi and CTA Chairwoman Valerie Jarrett have said they don't intend to shut down the entire branch during construction, as happened with the Green Line reconstruction several years ago.
While the station improvements would be the most visible change for riders, the reconstruction of the pillars that keep trains, tracks and stations elevated would "lead to the improvement in the quality and speed of the ride," she said. The support structure between Polk and Keeler would be almost totally replaced.
The entire project, which will require the CTA to obtain 20 parcels of land near the branch, is expected to cost $420 million. The New Start money would total $320 million, and the CTA would receive $14 million in other federal money and $86 million from Gov. Ryan's Illinois FIRST public works program.
The CTA also hopes to get federal funds to rebuild part of the Brown Line.