$88 million from the feds continues the city’s slow reconstruction process
The Windy City has spent the last couple of decades working on the refurbishment of the oldest sections of its elevated lines, most recently with infrastructure improvements along the Brown Line. The principal purpose of these investments, most paid for through federal funds, is to speed trains up over track that had been allowed to degrade so severely that rapid transit vehicles move over significant portions of the system at 5 mph. But as in the case of the Brown Line, these projects also provided significant capacity increases and resulted in the renovation of station complexes, significantly improving the experience of the average transit rider.
Yesterday, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announced that the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) would spend $88 million of its total $240 million of stimulus funds on upgrading the Blue Line, which runs mostly along an elevated path from O’Hare Airport in the northwest portion of the city to Forest Park in the southwest suburbs, via a downtown tunnel. The line isn’t in the best condition, having experienced a major derailment in July 2006 in which 150 people were injured.
Blue Line improvements will replace wooden rail ties with concrete ones, improving rail stability and preventing the rot that has made trains so slow throughout the system. The CTA’s spending on the project is just a tiny element of the system’s overall need to put the network back in a state of good repair, which the city estimates at a stagerring $7 billion. Perhaps that figure is a bit inflated, but I suppose it’s not surprising that a system still relying on track segments built as far back as 1892 needs a lot of work.
What the stimulus won’t be paying for are new express trains to the city’s airports, a service that’s been in the planning phase for several years. The transit agency wanted to set up a downtown air terminal at the infamous Block 37 development currently under construction on State Street, with trains running with checked bags to O’Hare in 30 minutes, versus 45 minutes on normal Blue Line trains. Express service would have also been provided to Midway along the Orange Line in 18 minutes, versus 30 today. That project, however, remains in imaginations only, as CTA clearly has routine maintenance that’s of a higher priority. Money to build the new downtown station and passing tracks along the corridors, as well as buy new trainsets, remains out of reach. Improving the track on the Blue Line, however, can’t be bad as a first step towards eventually expanding services offered on the corridor.