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Obama sends CTA $1.1 billion for Red Line improvements

A CTA train near the Belmont stop on the Brown, Purple and Red lines. The area is part of a proposed mass transit tax-increment financing district. | Sun-Times file photo

President Barack Obama has signed off on federal grant money totaling nearly $1.1 billion that will go toward improving portions of the CTA Red Line on the North Side.

The money will be used to reconstruct the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr stations as well as overhaul about a mile of nearby track and support structure, Chicago Transit Authority spokesman Brian Steele confirmed Sunday. The project is expected to create 6,000 jobs.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is expected to sign a funding agreement for the project Monday with Sen. Dick Durbin and Federal Transit Administration Acting Administrator Carolyn Flowers.

The stations, each built in the 1920s, will also each receive something they notably lacked: elevators.

$1 billion for Red Line could have easily gone sideways: Emanuel

The money will also be spent to create a “flyover” for northbound Brown Line tracks where they intersect with Red and Purple Line tracks just north of Belmont Avenue.

“It will eliminate one of the biggest bottlenecks in the entire CTA system and allow us to run more trains and alleviate overcrowding not only now but in the future,” Steele said. Red Line usage, which accounts for 30 percent of total ridership among the CTA’s eight train lines, is on the rise.

“The Red Line is the backbone of the system,” Steele said.

The flyover will allow the CTA to run up to 15 additional trains per hour on the Red, Purple and Brown lines.

“This type of investment in transit is an investment in Chicago’s residents and neighborhoods, connecting them to jobs, education and more. I want to commend everyone who worked throughout this process to make this project a reality,” Emanuel said in a statement.

Construction, which will also include Red Line signal improvements from Belmont to Howard, is tentatively slated to begin in late 2018 and will take four or five years to complete, he said. Planning and engineering will begin this year.

The federal money will be matched by several sources of local funding that will include CTA bonds and a newly created TIF fund that will collect money from property owners who live within a half mile of the Red Line between North Avenue and Devon.

The City Council unanimously authorized a transit tax-increment financing district in a special session Nov. 30 in hopes of nailing down the federal grants before Obama leaves office Jan. 20.

Crain’s Chicago Business first reported the grants had been approved.

City council debate concerning the passage of the special TIF fund included an argument about whether the city should be picking up the whole tab to match federal funds. Normally, the state kicks in, but in the absence of a state capital bill being passed, the city was forced to go it alone.

“It’s creating a precedent for how things get funded that shouldn’t be funded through TIF,” Lincoln Park Ald. Michele Smith said in November. “The Brown Line, the Red Line [South] and almost every transit project in the past has been funded by a combination of federal and state funding. Those are our tax dollars as well.

“This creates an economic burden for decades that limits our ability to raise money for other things [like recreational space]. Our taxpayers in the 43rd Ward are heavily burdened. They would like to see some return that more directly affects them,” Smith said.

Far North Side Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) hammered on the urgency of the matter.

“The line is 100 years old. The rail line is crumbling literally. It’s been patched and duck-taped. On an annual basis over the last 20 years, CTA has spent over $50 million to do repairs on slow zones. What we’re doing here is to solve that problem for the next hundred years,” Osterman said.

Passage of the TIF allowed the city to beat a down-to-the-wire deadline on showing the federal government it had a viable way of coming up with the money.

By the time the work is completed in 2025, Red Line tracks from Lawrence to Bryn Mawr may be five to 10 feet higher than they are now because they must be replaced and secured on rebuilt embankments, CTA officials have said.

Emanuel’s next hurdle will be to deliver on his campaign promise to extend the Red Line from 95th Street south to 130th. That long-awaited project carries a $2.3 billion price tag. The CTA has set aside $75 million for planning and engineering to start the ball rolling.