End of the line for Douglas L?


Date of Publication: April 7, 1999
Source: Chicago Sun-Times


The Douglas Branch of the CTA's Blue Line was never glamorous or high-profile. It was and is just a little alley L built 103 years ago through the vast unsettled prairies of the Near and Far West sides.

But rusting and rotten to the core, its structure cannot be saved. A rehabilitation such as was performed on the Green Line is not possible, CTA officials said.

The only thing at issue is whether it should be rebuilt from the ground up, at a cost of $393 million, or be torn down and forgotten.

It's hard today to appreciate what the Douglas L once meant to the region.

The Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad Co. began building the line named for Douglas Park around 1895, said CTA historian Bruce Moffat, author of The "L"--The Development of Chicago's Rapid Transit System.

It also branched off into the Congress and Logan Square lines.

Even today, a Douglas ride takes one through the backyards of hundreds of modest, antiquated homes, nearly all of them younger than the L. It goes over railroads, past machine shops and through a hospital--Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center.

The farther it goes, the more blighted are the neighborhoods it runs through--Pilsen, Heart of Chicago, Little Village and Lawndale--until, at the western end, it pulls into a relatively new bungalow community in Cicero.

It was convenient transportation for whole neighborhoods of Bohemians, Jews, Poles, Italians, African Americans and Greeks who didn't own horses, wagons or later, cars, Moffat said.

The Douglas, also known as the "Met" or "Polly L," was built as a development tool to spur housing and factory construction west of the Loop.

Having succeeded, the L became a blue collar work-train ride for the masses who labored in the manufacturing plants that sprouted through the West Side and western suburbs, Moffat said.

Now, the Douglas--which runs from Paulina Street and the Eisenhower Expy. (formerly Congress) to 54th and Cermak in Cicero--is so decrepit it must soon be demolished.

Unreinforced concrete supports are crumbling. Steel columns are rusting into nothing--some move up and down when trains pass overhead, said Glenn Zika, the CTA's vice president of engineering.

The ties are rotten and horizontal supports are severely corroded, he said. Once capable of handling 55 m.p.h. trains, much of the route today is safe only if trains slow to 15 m.p.h.

So trains creep along between the turn near 21st Street and its western terminus. Four miles of junky elevated structure are followed by 1.6 miles of at-grade tracks that intersect with a street on every other block.

In the late morning on a weekday, the ride from roughly Austin to the Washington/Randolph station is 35 to 40 minutes.w

With a large factory base at its east end between Kedzie and 18th Street, and on its Cicero end with the nearby Hawthorne Works Western Electric plant, it used to be a heavily traveled line.

In fact, in taking city workers to Cicero and Berwyn, and bringing people from there to close-in industrial sites, "train cars moving in both directions were packed all day and all night to support work on all three daily shifts," said motorman Ruben Quiles, a 24-year CTA veteran.

Ridership in 1926 was 15.8 million, and in the 1940s it was still between 14 million and 15 million a year, officials said.

"We've been riding it for years and years," said Harold Lehst, who was traveling from the Northwest Side to Sportsman's Park with his wife, Violet. "It used to be much busier and faster."

Today, many of the jobs are gone. And many houses and factories along its 6.6-mile length have given way to vacant, litter-strewn lots.

Annual ridership fell from 4.7 million in 1988 to 3.3 million in 1997, CTA officials said.

Prior CTA administrations were willing to write it off as a hopeless cause. But CTA President Frank Kruesi and Chairman Valerie Jarrett now want to save the Douglas--even though they have closed it to overnight service and on weekends.

Former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) and others from the Chicago delegation fought hard to have Congress approve $315 million to rebuild the line.

Transportation experts and officials said the CTA was boxed into saving the Douglas line because of Moseley-Braun's successful congressional powerplay.

But there's a difference between a congressional authorization and an appropriation. The former approves a project.

Getting the actual funding is the hard part, although another move in Washington gave the Douglas the edge over work on the Brown Line and over other transportation projects nationwide.

Moseley-Braun, perhaps with the aid of former Department of Transportation executives who now run the CTA, got the Douglas reconstruction earmarked for federal funding as a "new start" project.

That allows the CTA to dramatically shorten its lead time by doing away with environmental assessments and financial studies.

But it also puts the ball squarely in the court of Springfield legislators. Unless lawmakers give the CTA about $138 million this year, preferably this spring, both the Douglas and Brown Line projects could lose their federal funding commitments.

Federal law requires states to put up 20 percent of the money for a project. In this case, that 20 percent must be put up before Congress will send its check.

That's $78 million for the Douglas work and $60 million for the Brown Line.

If Springfield doesn't come through, other states will slip to the front of the line, and Chicago may find the pot empty.

Springfield has shown little interest recently in transportation issues. Now, however, Gov. Ryan has surprised experts with his drum-beating for more state transit funding. Groups such as the Business Leaders for Transportation, Douglas L Coalition, Neighborhood Capital Budget Group and organizations from Pilsen to Lawndale are turning up the heat on legislators.

But Springfield sources say legislators are whispering, "Not this session."

Where will it end?

For the Douglas, perhaps at Congress and Paulina, where the demolition would begin.