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Tempers Elevate During Work on ’L’ Stations

Tue June 19, 2007 - Midwest Edition
Lori Lovely

Officially known as the CTA Loop, sometimes referred to hesitantly as the “El” by outsiders, Chicagoans know the elevated rapid transit rail system as the “L.” Now, in its second century of operation, the story of the L began with the incorporation of the city’s first elevated railway companies in 1888, eventually becoming as much a Chicago landmark as the Sears Tower.

The L’s 1,190 rail cars ride on 222 mi. (357 km) of track, carrying 195 million passengers each year, making it the nation’s second-largest public transit system, behind only New York’s.

The CTA’s trains and buses serve Chicago and 40 of its suburbs in a mutually beneficial relationship. However, its popularity is part of its problem. In the 20 years from 1985 to 2005, it picked up an additional 31 million passengers. Unfortunately, outdated cars and patchy maintenance have resulted in delays, slow commutes and overcrowded trains, leaving the old system in desperate need of repair.

Part of the system — the Brown Line — is going to get it, at a cost of approximately $530 million. The Brown Line is an 11.4-mi. (18.3 km) route running completely above ground with 19 stations between Albany Park on the north and downtown Chicago. As one of CTA’s busiest rail lines running through some of the city’s most congested neighborhoods, it serves more than 66,000 passengers each weekday.

Before the CTA lines were color-coded in 1993, the Brown Line was known as the Ravenswood Line. The stations from Belmont to Kimball were called the Ravenswood branch and the shuttle service was the Ravenswood Shuttle.

Ravenswood branch was opened May 18, 1907, by the former Northwestern Elevated Railroad Company. It ran between the Loop and Western and Leland avenues in Lincoln Square. The addition of the Kimball/Lawrence terminal on December 14, 1907, completed the route, which has remained unchanged.

Previously, the Brown Line has received little more than cosmetic upgrades. The Kimball/Lawrence terminal was remodeled and a new bridge over the North Branch of the Chicago River was completed in the 1970s. The Western and Merchandise Mart stations were rebuilt a decade later.

What Can Brown

Do for You?

“One key purpose of the Brown Line project is to increase capacity and thereby improve service,” Wanda Taylor of the Chicago Transit Authority said. “Although the CTA has added service and extended hours on the Brown Line in recent years, capacity is still not sufficient to meet customer demand. During rush hour customers often cannot squeeze into a crowded train and must wait, sometimes for several trains.”

The CTA’s answer to that problem is longer platforms that can accommodate longer trains — eight cars instead of six cars. The Brown Line is one of only two, along with the Purple, that can’t accommodate eight-car trains.

Since 1979, Brown Line ridership has increased approximately 83 percent, and since 1998, it has increased by 27 percent — the highest growth rate in the system. Since the mid-1990s, the CTA has implemented operational changes to accommodate the heavy demand, including having Purple Line trains stop at Brown Line stations from Belmont to downtown, extending service hours, adding additional trips during afternoon rush hour, reducing headways and restoring Sunday service. However, the problem of crowded platforms persists.

Planned improvements such as wider stairways, additional entrances and exits and more turnstiles are intended to ease congestion during busy hours. A key aspect of the project is making stations accessible to people with disabilities as part of CTA’s ongoing commitment to making the transit system accessible to all customers. Prior to the start of the project, only two stations and the Kimball/Lawrence terminal on the Brown Line outside of the Loop were ADA-accessible.

The Work ’Lined’ Up

The CTA broke ground on the Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project on Feb. 20, 2006, with the goal of repairing its aging infrastructure and increasing capacity at the stations. The scope of the work for the project, according to Taylor, includes “the rehabilitation of 18 Brown Line stations; lengthening station platforms to accommodate eight — rather than six — car trains; station enhancements to meet the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); replacement or upgrading to traction power, signal and communication equipment.”

Part of the improved communication package includes a new fiber optic communication network.

New platforms amenities will include windbreaks, heaters, benches, information kiosks and canopies. Stations will be upgraded and made ADA-compliant with amenities such as audio-visual signs, Braille signs, tactile warning edges, accessible turnstiles and elevators or ramps. In addition, the right-of-way between Kimball and Rockwell avenues will be modernized.

The concept, development and design phases have been under way since 1998. Station construction began in the fall of 2004. The first two that were rebuilt — Kedzie and Rockwell — reopened on August 16, 2006. According to Taylor, the project remains on time and on budget, with scheduled completion by the end of 2009.

The project is grouped into eight packages; three are signal and communications work and substations and five packages are station construction. General contractors for each package are as follows:

• Clark Junction and Brown Line Signals — Aldridge Mass Joint Venture

•Substation Upgrades/Replacement — Aldridge Electric Inc.

• Belmont and Fullerton — FHP Tectonics

• Kimball, Kedzie, Francisco, Rockwell & Western — FHP Tectonics

• Chicago, Armitage and Sedgwick — FHP Tectonics

• Irving Park, Damen, Addison and Montrose — James McHugh Construction

• Wellington, Diversey, Paulina and Southport — FHP Tectonics

The CTA expects to advertise for bids on the Communications Equipment Upgrades package either late 2007 or early 2008.

Manpower expended through mid-April totals 520,423 man hours. The machinery equipment required to do construction includes: cranes, concrete pumps, skid loaders, front end loaders, backhoes and other equipment.

Paying for it

The overall budget for the Brown Line is $529.9 million. Funding is provided by a combination of federal and non-federal funds that includes a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) from the FTA. The FFGA guarantees the federal government’s commitment of financial support for the Brown Line project. The FTA signed the FFGA on Jan. 15, 2004.

Federal funding is divided into categories for fiscal years 2000 and 2002 to 2009: Federal New Starts Funding, $245.5 million; Federal Formula Funds, $35.5 million; and Federal Fixed Guideway Funds, $142.1 million.

Non-federal funding comes from the Regional Transportation Authority ($56 million), the Illinois Department of Transportation ($49.7 million) and the CTA ($105 million).

Recent work on the Brown, Red, Blue and Green lines has been funded with federal dollars and the proceeds of Illinois First bond issues. But the Illinois First money is nearly gone and a new source has to be found in order to qualify for matching federal funds.

Money has been an ongoing issue. Reliance on fares and sales tax since 1983 hasn’t generated enough revenue to perform more than spot-maintenance, despite two fare increases by 33 percent in the past three years. The Regional Transportation Authority is asking state lawmakers to approve a $10 billion infusion of state and local funds over the next five years to bring the entire system into shape.

Mayor Richard Daley hopes that winning a bid for the 2016 Olympics will help secure federal funds for much-needed improvements to the system. But at the same time, he threatens services cuts unless lawmakers provide capital and operating assistance and relax rules on pensions and private contracts. He believes unionized labor and demands for pension contributes drain the operating budget.

A bill passed in 2006 requires the CTA to make annual pension contributions beginning in 2009, estimated at $200 million annually. If the CTA fails to make the payments, the state will take money from its operating funds.

In answer to public outcry about a decrepit train system sliding deeper into decay and the CTA’s estimate of $6 billion to repair the entire system, CTA President Frank Kruesi told the New York Times the L is “living on borrowed time,” blaming chronic budget shortfalls that forced them to defer routine and critical maintenance year after year.

Chicago doesn’t accept that excuse.

Robert Paaswell, former CTA manager and now director of the Urban Transportation Research Center at City University of New York (CUNY), blames bad choices and delayed capital investment. Criticism has raged over the “glitz over grit” policy of diverting money needed for repairs to high-profile expansions, such as the $130 million super-station on State Street to anchor express service to O’Hare so travelers can check their luggage downtown. Money was shifted from equipment purchases and viaduct work in Evanston, but the service still awaits a private operator to bring $1.5 billion in capital.

Meanwhile, no new railcars have been added since 1993. Some new cars have been ordered, but won’t arrive until 2010, when the average age of the 1,190-car fleet will be 27 years. The Federal Transit Authority’s recommended maximum is 25. Spot repairs to maintain the cars cost $50 million. Signal upgrades also lag. Replacement of mechanical signals with electronic equipment, which CTA critics say would expedite service better than expansion, would cost $727 million. As ridership increases (up 25 percent since 1999), so, too, do the challenges faced by the CTA.

Challenges: Time and Tempers

Taylor doesn’t want to admit to any unusual challenges on the Brown Line project, but does confess that “doing the construction work while maintaining rail service and working in close proximity to buildings and residences” isn’t easy due to limited access. Commuters aren’t so delicate about enumerating the challenges they face for the next two years; for them, the challenge involves limited access to trains and schedules that have become meaningless due to delays caused by slow zones, complicated track-switching maneuvers and a reduction in the number of trains running.

On April 2 the CTA reduced track capacity by 25 percent on a portion of north side corridor served by the Red, Brown and Purple Express lines. According to the CTA, one of the four tracks along the platforms at each station must be taken out of service while the platform is rebuilt and tracks are reconfigured to make room for installation of elevators. The result is crowded trains and longer commutes.

Red Line service has been reduced from 44 to 39 trains during the evening rush hour due to the elimination of one of the two northbound tracks at Fullerton and Belmont avenues. Total capacity from 3 to 6:30 p.m. will be reduced by a total of 31 trains on the three lines, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune. The New York Times estimates capacity reduction could reach 40 percent during peak times.

Prior to commencement of construction, commute times had already increased, due to deteriorating ties that forced trains to travel as slowly as 15 mph along certain stretches. In addition to expanded slow zones, increasing frequency of breakdowns has hobbled service. Two cars on the Blue Line derailed on April 4, leaving passengers — some with minor injuries — stranded 18 to 24 ft. (5.4 to 7.3 m) above ground, waiting for a cherry picker to rescue them.

The combination of construction zones, reduced lines and trains can only exacerbate the problem. Approximately 185,000 people ride the three lines. CTA officials warn that travel times could easily double during construction, and are advising the use of alternative transportation.

Metra’s Union Pacific North line added three trains, which parallels the north side CTA rail corridor. More than 40 bus routes also run parallel to the north-south rail line.

Although fewer trains will operate, the CTA will stage additional Brown Line trains along only the most heavily used portion (between Belmont and the Loop) to ease the crunch and provide room for riders who board closer to the Loop.

Despite the reduction in trains, in the initial weeks of construction, CTA ridership remained stable.

Rush hour numbers were down on the three lines, with some riders switching to the bus (ridership up 13 to 15 percent) but most altering their commuting patterns by changing their morning schedules to an earlier time and delaying their trips home until later in the evening.

That helps relieve the long commutes, because, as Kruesi explained, with fewer trains on fewer tracks, it’s the wait time to board available trains that will significantly increase the total commute time, not the actual travel time once riders find a space on one of the trains. Staggering departure times also helps alleviate a concern about overcrowded platforms. The Brown Line platforms are 100 years old and some locals worry they might not be able to handle the additional weight.

CTA personnel and Chicago police are deployed at the rail stations, blocking people from entering if the platforms are too crowded, thereby reducing additional weight — and wait — on the platforms.

The wait has just begun for Chicagoans. CEG

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