"L" rehab ready to roll
Blue Line's old Douglas branch to remain open


By Jon Hilkevitch

Date of Publication: July 10, 2001
Source: Chicago Tribune


Hoping to avoid the same mistakes it made during the Green Line rail renovation almost a decade ago, the Chicago Transit Authority on Wednesday plans to put the final pieces in place to begin the rehabilitation of the 105-year-old Douglas branch of the Blue Line.

Unlike the Green Line, which the CTA closed for two years during the reconstruction, losing thousands of riders in the process, the agency will keep the Douglas running during the four-year rehabilitation.

"If we were to close down this rail line (during the reconstruction), it blows the whole Southwest Side essentially," said Jack Hartman, the CTA's executive vice president in charge of construction, engineering and facilities. "Keeping the trains running takes twice as long and it's more money, but it's the right thing to do."

On Wednesday, the CTA board is expected to award a contract to the joint venture of Kiewit Construction Co. of Omaha and Delgado Erectors Inc. of south suburban Lansing as the Douglas project's principal contractor, transit officials said.

Kiewit/Delgado was the apparent low bidder, beating out two Chicago firms, McHugh Construction Co. and Walsh Construction Co.

The $482 million project, which saves a rapid transit line CTA officials once threatened to shut down, is shaping up to be an engineering marvel. When the work begins sometime between August and October, crews of up to 600 workers will erect a new transit line right next to the original track and the steel elevated columns that were put in between 1896 and 1912 by the Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad Co.

Those supports are so deteriorated that trains now are forced to crawl through the city's Pilsen, Heart of Chicago, Little Village and Lawndale neighborhoods at 15 m.p.h. In some spots, the track is propped up by temporary reinforcements called "pogo sticks" and steel bands wrapped around crumbling concrete.

Trains will share a single set of tracks on parts of the route, using switchovers to go between the old tracks and the new tracks and structure as sections of the line are torn down and replaced.

Caissons and other foundation work will be put in during the week, mostly late at night and during non-peak travel periods, Hartman said. On weekends, when the Douglas is closed, the heaviest work will be done, including attaching the new support columns to beams and girders.

But the long-awaited reconstruction of the rail line is beginning with all the speed of the trains that crawl along the dilapidated tracks. The work was supposed to have begun in the spring, but is now tentatively slated to kick off in late summer and go until October 2005.

CTA officials said the delay, which allowed the agency to get a better handle on the contracts, will help them avoid the pitfalls and the huge cost overruns of the Green Line reconstruction in the mid-1990s. The Green Line project was riddled with 29 design changes and was completed behind schedule and $110 million over budget. Today, six years after the renovation ended, work on Green Line stations is still being completed.


Lesson of lost riders

More important, the two-year shutdown of the Green Line resulted in a 40 percent loss of ridership that took five years to recoup.

For years, there were predictions that the Douglas project would never happen. The common belief was that Mayor Richard Daley's CTA wasn't about to embark on a massive effort to reconstruct a rotting, 6 1/2-mile-long line that serves fewer than 10,000 train riders a day, runs mainly through alleys on the West Side and ends outside Chicago's borders in the town of Cicero.

"I think there really were segments of the community who thought we would never do this project," said CTA Chairman Valerie Jarrett.

The CTA's safety-oversight chief once said that even with continuing temporary repairs, in three to five years he would be forced to shut down the faltering Douglas.

At every chance he got over the last few years, CTA president Frank Kruesi gave personal tours of the Douglas to members of powerful committees in Congress who visited Chicago. At least several lawmakers, upon seeing the route's decaying steel and concrete refused Kruesi's invitation to stand with him underneath the elevated tracks when a Blue Line train creaked overhead, Kruesi said.

But Congress did agree last year to write a big check to the CTA. The federal government will cover 80 percent of the cost of rehabilitating the Douglas. The remainder is being financed by the state's Illinois FIRST program and regional funding.

The project also includes six new elevated stations between Damen Avenue and 54th Avenue in Cicero that are equipped with elevators for disabled riders and designed so that police in passing squad cars have a clearer view into the stations.

The elevators and escalators at all 11 Douglas stations will be linked to devices that notify maintenance officials when the equipment breaks down.

"Everything will be new--no more coat hangers holding up the railings on stairwells," Hartman said, adding that cleaning crews using a high-pressure power-washer recently blew out a century-old wooden staircase at one of the Douglas stations.

Proper timing of the work is essential, Hartman said.

Douglas branch riders are all too familiar with the fact that the trains travel only 15 m.p.h.--instead of up to 55 m.p.h.--in slow zones on 47 percent of the track because of its shaky condition. But any construction delays that knock trains off their schedules will be felt across most of the three-branch Blue Line, because the Douglas trains meet with the Forest Park (Congress) branch of the Blue Line at Harrison Street and continue on to O'Hare International Airport after arriving in the Loop.

Despite monstrous cranes that will block alleys, the dirt the project will kick up and the disruptions it will cause over the next four years, people in the affected neighborhoods are eager for the construction and an economic stimulus to begin.


Service cuts hurt West Side

Community leaders say the West Side still hasn't recovered from the CTA service cuts of the late 1990s when late-night "owl" and all weekend service on the Douglas branch was eliminated in a cost-cutting move attributed to low ridership.

The CTA lost more than half its riders on the Douglas in the last 20 years, in large part because of the slow zones and the reduction in service hours. Many commuters shifted to cars or to CTA buses as the Douglas' ridership fell from 5 million total rides in 1979 to 2.4 million rides in 2000, the CTA said.

Guillermo Gomez, the chairman of the Pilsen Alliance, said a task force is being set up to serve as a watchdog during the project to press for alternative bus service for displaced riders and negotiate longer service hours after the work is done.

"Everybody knows that the service cuts were not handled in the best way. As you talk to merchants along 18th Street, they will tell you that their business has dropped 20 to 40 percent since the cuts," Gomez said.

"But rather than harp on the past, we are trying to look ahead," he added. "If all of us approach this in an honest and open way, we should do good."