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New CTA budget would move Red Line extension forward with $310M, avoid fare hikes

Rendering of the south Red Line extension’s 103rd Street.

There was some maddening transportation funding news earlier this week, as the state of Illinois announced plans to spend $206 million on roads to a non-existent third airport in south-suburban Peotone. But there was also arguably some good news today, since the city announced that the proposed 2020 CTA budget includes $310 million for engineering and design work for the $2.3 million south Red Line extension, a project that South Siders have been asking for since the Nixon era. On top of that, the $1.57 billion operating budget doesn't include fare hikes.

Like Metra, which also recently announced plans to avoid fare hikes -- as well as $2.6 billion in capital improvements over the next five years -- the CTA is benefitting from the $45 billion Rebuild Illinois infrastructure package that the state legislature passed this spring under Governor JB Pritzker.

“Public transportation is the great connector of Chicago, and this City has a fundamental obligation to ensure all residents of all communities have access to affordable, accessible and equitable transportation options,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a statement. “From extending CTA’s Red Line south to ensuring every CTA station is 100 percent accessible, I’m proud to say this budget reflects not only our priorities but most importantly – our values.”

“This budget is a balanced and responsible spending plan that reflects our commitment to keeping Chicago public transit affordable for communities across Chicago, while also making CTA travel as fast, smooth and safe as possible,” stated CTA President Dorval R. Carter, Jr. “Despite the continued cuts by the state legislature to CTA operating funds, we are grateful to Mayor Lightfoot and Governor Pritzker for fighting to finally provide CTA with a capital program that will help improve and modernize our infrastructure.”

The CTA is proposing to spend $5.1 billion over the next five years on infrastructure, including rehabbing stations and building new ones, public art, modernizing rolling stock, fixing rail slow zones on the 'L', and adding new technology. The 2020 budget includes $78 million for the All Stations Accessibility Program, which has the goal of making all of the system's rail stops wheelchair-friendly by 2038, which will require adding elevators to 42 stations.

The Illinois capital bill will provide the CTA with $1.2 billion in bond funding over the next five years and includes $141.5 million in earmarked projects, including:

    • Cottage Grove Green Line station overhaul ($60 million)
    • Blue Line O’Hare Branch traction power improvements ($50 million)
    • Blue Line O’Hare branch station upgrades ("Your New Blue"), downtown to O’Hare ($31.5 million)

The $310 million for south Red Line extension and design will help tee up  the $2.3 billion project for federal funding. The initiative would extend the route by 5.3 miles and build new stations at 103rd Street, 111th Street, Michigan Avenue, and 130th Street. Many South Side residents have argued that the project is key for eliminating rapid transit deserts and spurring investment in the area.

Not everyone is a fan of this funding decision though. Transit planner Sandy Johnson argued that the $310 million could have been better spent implementing rapid transit service on the nearby Metra Electric District line and integrating it with the CTA system. However, that would require major collaboration between the two agencies, which hasn't been the norm in the past.

Other capital projects to continue or start in 2020 include:

    • Phase one of the Red and Purple Modernization Program, which broke ground this fall and will include the construction of the Belmont flyover and rehabbing four Red Line stations, and track and signal systems
    • Your New Blue Signal Improvements
    • Delivery of 20 new electric buses
    • Delivery of 10 prototypes of the new 7000-series railcars, with a combination of aisle-facing and forward-facing seats.

The city says the 2020 budget includes over $26 million in cost savings and operational efficiencies. Among the cost-cutting steps are a hiring freeze affecting 200 positions -- an increase of 50 positions over 2019. However, that could be counterproductive if it reduces the CTA's capacity for strategic planning or other important aspects of running the system. The CTA has also locked in power costs at "historically low prices."

Despite the new state capital funding, the CTA continues to hurt  from cuts made to its operating funds by the state of Illinois. “CTA losses since the state cut our operating funds will total $180 million through 2020," Carter stated. "We continue to call for the restoration of full operating funding for this agency so that we may better serve our customers.”

A public hearing will be held on Wednesday, November 13, at 6 p.m. at the CTA headquarters, 567 W. Lake Street, in the second floor conference room. Written and oral comments will be taken into consideration before the adoption of the proposed 2020-2024 Capital Program of Projects, 2020 Operating Budget and Program, and the Financial Plan for 2021 and 2022.

You can make your voice heard at the public hearing or by correspondence addressed to Gregory P. Longhini, assistant secretary of the board, Chicago Transit Authority, 567 W. Lake Street, Chicago, Illinois 60661. Input can also be sent via e-mail to: glonghini1@transitchicago.com or fax to 312-681-5035 or phone 312-681-5022. The deadline to submit written comment is Wednesday, November 20, 2019, by noon.

The proposed 2020-2024 Capital Program of Projects, 2020 Operating Budget and Program and the Financial Plan for 2021 and 2022 will be available for public inspection on Thursday, October 24, 2019, and will continue to be available between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. through Wednesday, November 20 at the CTA reception desk, on the second floor of the CTA headquarters. These same financial documents will also be available during this period on the CTA’s website.

Here are other locations where you can check out these docs:

    • Regional Transportation Authority, reception desk, Suite 1650, 175 West Jackson, Chicago
    • Archer Heights Branch Library, 5055 South Archer Avenue, Chicago
    • Austin Branch Library, 5615 West Race Avenue, Chicago
    • Harold Washington Public Library, 400 South State Street, 5th floor, Chicago
    • Jefferson Park Branch Library, 5363 West Lawrence Avenue, Chicago
    • Avalon Branch Library, 8148 S. Stony Island Avenue, Chicago
    • West Town Branch Library, 1625 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago
    • Woodson Regional Public Library, 9525 South Halsted Street, Chicago
    • Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Avenue, Evanston
    • Evergreen Park Public Library, 9400 South Troy, Evergreen Park
    • Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake Steet, Oak Park
    • Riverdale Public Library, 208 West 144th Street, Riverdale
    • Skokie Public Library, 5215 West Oakton, Skokie

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