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Chicago Transit Authority Rehab to Cheer Up ’Blue’ Line

Sat September 01, 2001 - Midwest Edition
Lori Lovely

Any commuter in Chicago who rides the Cermak Branch of the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) Blue Line can tell you it takes a lot longer to get “there” from “here” these days. Built between 1895 and 1912, the Cermak Branch includes 11 stations and provides rapid — or lately, not so rapid — transit for 10,000 daily passengers on Chicago’s West Side.

Extending from the southwest edge of downtown Chicago to the suburb of Cicero, the branch serves one of the most economically distressed areas of the city, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation (ILDOT). Customers along the corridor within the half-mile radius of the 11 stations include approximately 54,000 workers, the University of Illinois’ 25,000 students and 115,000 residents.

But age has been catching up with the 100-year-old branch, which has deteriorated to the extent that nearly half its 6.6-mi. (10.6 km) length has been reduced to “slow zones.” It now takes roughly 45 minutes to travel from 54th and Cermak to downtown Chicago.

The CTA created the “slow zones” to keep disaster at bay until reconstruction can begin. CTA’s Noelle Gaffney explained, “Along the structure of the Cermak Branch, the support is eroding. The concrete is wearing away in spots — you can literally pick off chunks of it. For safety reasons, we created ’slow zones’ where the trains are required to reduce their speed to 15 mph (versus the normal 55 mph) in order not to vibrate the structure and cause possible further damage. We realize the ’slow zones’ can add 20 minutes to a commute.”

Wear and tear on the aging line has caused escalated maintenance and operating costs as well as declining service. The CTA, which is the country’s second largest public transit system, serves Chicago and its 38 suburbs, providing 1.5 million rides across seven rail lines and 139 bus routes every weekday. Studies indicate increased demand in the last three years, reversing a 15-year trend that saw declining numbers. In 1999, ridership totaled 441.9 million, an increase of 23 million rides, or 5.4 percent, from 1997.

The heavily traveled transportation system has undergone periodic updates and renovations. The Orange Line was overhauled in 1993, the O’Hare Line in the mid-’80s, and the Green Line was rebuilt in 1996. Now it’s the Blue Line’s turn to be brought up to speed.

Wheels in Motion

The CTA has already retained the construction management firm O’Brien and Kreitzberg, out of California, to serve as project manager for the job, overseeing the CTA’s Capital Improvement Program that includes the Blue Line Cermak rehabilitation project.

Renovation of the Cermak Branch, which is one of three branches along the Blue Line, was put out for bid to Kiewit/Delgado, a joint venture, in late March. The scope of work entails replacing five miles of track; reconstructing eight stations along the route (54th and Cermak, Kildare, Pulaski, Central Park, Kedzie, California, Western and Hoyne); installing escalators at the Polk Street station and new rail traffic signals and communications equipment to improve the operation of the rail system; and reconstructing the rail yard at 54th and Cermak.

“We’ll be completely rebuilding that section,” said Gaffney. “It’s the largest capital improvement project in CTA history: a $482-million project. There will be structure and steel work, along with rebuilding and replacing track and signal along the line. We have to dig caissons for the new supports — it’s going to be a lot of, work.

“Where possible, we want to build center platforms,” she continued. “They provide for smoother operations as well as better safety. We’ll renovate eight stations along the route. Six will be rebuilds, and two other stations will get improvements. We will add more sheltered areas and improve accessibility.” Most stations also will receive improved lighting, heating and communications systems.

Work scheduled at the Western station alone is enough to keep crews busy for months. A new masonry station will replace the old facility. Two new elevators and complete handicap accessibility make up part of the checklist. A platform, canopy, stairs and kiosk all have to be built. Crews also will install new electrical and communications systems, and an HVAC system. Sidewalk work will also be accomplished before the project is complete.

A sampling of the work to be done includes new telephone and public address (PA) systems for O’Hare, in addition to new platform flooring and improved lighting. Kedzie will see its ramps, storefronts and customer assistance booths revamped, as well as improved lighting and PA systems.

Work began this summer. According to Gaffney, the project completion date is scheduled for sometime in 2005. Gaffney explained that the CTA intends to keep the line open during construction, which means the majority of the work will take place during evening, weekend and off-peak hours.

“We had the Green Line shut down for two years during construction,” Gaffney said. “People find other routes; it’s hard to lure them back. We have surpassed previous ridership numbers, but it took us three years to do it. We don’t want to have to do that again. We want to keep our customers on the Blue Line, so most of the work will occur nights and weekends. Some work will go on during the day. This particular branch has less frequent train traffic, which will give crews time to work.”


The driving force behind the rejuvenation of the Cermak Branch is a multi-million dollar federal grant. The funds come from the Federal Transit Administration as part of a Full Funding Grant Agreement to assist the CTA in rebuilding the Blue Line. The agreement signifies the culmination of then-Vice President Al Gore’s forecast of the federal government’s commitment of federal financial assistance for reconstruction of the line, contributing $384 million toward the work. Another, $80.9 million will come from Governor George Ryan’s Illinois FIRST program, while remainder will come from regional funding.

A bipartisan effort led to the addition of language to the FY2001 Appropriation Bill, assuring that the CTA would receive the necessary funds. The legislation also allows for quick dispersal of funds so that work can start right away.

“This agreement is the result of many months of hard work by federal, state and local officials toward a common goal: the continued rebuilding of a world-class public transportation system in Chicago,” stated Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. “Through a bipartisan spirit of cooperation, we were all able to come together to fund the rehabilitation of the Blue Line branch. This will mean faster and more convenient public transit service for the communities along this branch and will result in a major reinvestment in these neighborhoods to improve their quality of life.”

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, who attended a celebratory ceremony in Chicago in January, agreed, saying, “This grant agreement is an excellent example of what we can achieve when we work together in a bipartisan fashion to address the needs of Northeastern Illinois.”

Chicago Transit Board Chairman Valerie B. Jarrett praised the Full-Funding Grant Agreement, “We mark the culmination of our efforts to rebuild a critical link in the CTA system. The funding this agreement provides is a critical piece of our capital program, which is essential to the revitalization of the neighborhoods served by the Cermak branch of the Blue Line. This rehabilitation project will mean a return to rapid transit rail service for the many communities who rely on the CTA for their transportation needs.”

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater also was in attendance at the celebration. After receiving thanks from the mayor on behalf of the Illinois Congressional delegation for releasing $4.2 million of discretionary bridge program funds for the Wacker Drive viaduct, Slater praised the government’s dedication to transportation improvements. “A safe, efficient transportation system is essential in strengthening America for the fresh challenges and limitless opportunities of this new century and the new millennium,” he said.

CTA estimates there will be a savings of 4.7-million hours in travel time for riders once the Cermak Branch has been refurbished.

Lori Lovely

Lori Lovely is an award-winning journalist, editor and author of the children's book Isadora's Dance. She has worked for newspapers, magazines and niche publications, covering a wide-ranging list of topics that includes motor sports, construction, MSW, energy, environmental issues, water, animal rights and issues, history, Native American issues and people, real estate and home decor, farming and more. Her degrees in History taught this dedicated professional to research thoroughly and ask detailed questions in order to winnow interesting facts that convey the essence of the story. As a seasoned writer and compassionate storyteller, she accurately portrays the subject in a manner that entrances the reader.

When she's not working on assignment, Lori is tending to her historic Indiana farm, where she raises alpacas. An inveterate animal lover, this vegetarian enjoys spending time with her animals and working in her garden.

Read more from Lori Lovely here.

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