Communities wage battle to keep Douglas "L" open


By Teresa Puente

Date of Publication: March 23, 1999
Source: Chicago Tribune


When CTA officials threatened to shut down the Douglas branch of the Blue Line if they did not receive state funding for improvements, some community leaders came forward with their own threats.

Community groups from the Pilsen, Little Village and Lawndale neighborhoods announced Monday that they filed letters of complaint with the Office of Civil Rights of the Federal Transit Administration. And they did not rule out the possibility of taking legal action against the CTA.

They said shutting down the Douglas Blue Line would adversely impact African-Americans and Latinos, in violation of civil rights laws. Two studies have shown that almost 75 percent of those who use the Douglas Blue Line are minorities, said leaders of the Douglas L Coalition.

"It's racist. It's discriminatory. And we will hold the CTA accountable," said Oscar Iracheta, a coalition member and president of the 18th Street Business Association.

Joining Iracheta at a news conference were a dozen community leaders still upset that weekend and late-night service on the Douglas Blue Line was reduced last year. Closing the line would leave many commuters with few transportation options and devastate local businesses, they said.

"It's an attack on minority communities," said Joe Ann Bradley, a Douglas L Coalition member and executive director of the Lawndale Community Action organization.

The federal agency's civil rights office is trying to decide if it will move forward on the letters of complaint, said Gail Taylor, a transportation spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.

Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, riders of public transportation are protected from discrimination, but it is too early to determine whether that law was violated in this case, Taylor said.

But CTA officials said Monday that the possible closing of the Douglas Blue Line had nothing to do with discrimination. They said it boiled down to safety.

"If the Blue Line has to shut down, it would be a safety issue, not a service issue," said CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney.

Gaffney said that at certain points along the tracks, the trains must reduce speeds to 15 m.p.h. when they should be traveling at 55 m.p.h.

"One of the reasons ridership was lost is because it's no longer rapid transit," Gaffney said. "We have to operate slowly to operate safely."

To compensate for partial cuts in Douglas Blue Line service, additional buses run along Cermak Road on weekends, Gaffney said.

It is the CTA's top priority to rebuild the Douglas Blue Line, but that hinges on whether state officials can come up with the funds to match federal funds, Gaffney said.

On Thursday, CTA officials told Gov. George Ryan's state infrastructure task force that without matching state funds, the agency would close the Douglas Blue Line within five years. CTA officials are seeking $138 million for the Douglas Blue Line and Ravenswood Brown Line improvements, to support a $550 million federal commitment for capital improvements.

Two weeks ago, Mayor Richard Daley and Ryan went to Washington to seek federal funding for various city and state projects, including funding to improve the Douglas Blue Line.

The state's infrastructure task force is looking for ways to finance the needed transportation improvements, said Ryan's spokesman, David Urbanek.

"It's a matter of continuing to keep the pressure on everyone who will listen," Urbanek said.

By May 1, the 10-member task force will make suggestions to Ryan and the legislature about ways to finance needed improvements.

Several local businesses already have suffered from last year's cutbacks on the Douglas Blue Line and fear what could happen if it shuts down.

At Artesanias d'Mexico, an artisan shop along 18th Street in Pilsen, business has dropped 35 to 40 percent. "People aren't coming out like they used to," said the owner, Efrain Loza, his store shelves stocked with pottery, wood carvings and silver jewelry. "I am thinking about closing the store."

A local health clinic has started looking for rides for patients and has on occasion sent staff members to pick up patients from their homes.

"How can we say to a mother, `Don't bring your baby to the clinic?' " said Raquel Balcazar, a case management coordinator at Alivio Medical Center on Western Avenue. "They need the public transportation."