City must remake Far South Side to make the most of billions targeted for CTA Red Line extension

Decades of disinvestment have taken a toll on areas surrounding the Red Line extension. It’s time for large-scale city planning and neighborhood rebuilding to start taking center stage.

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Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson enters a press conference at the Red Line Extension Community Outreach Center in the Roseland neighborhood, where officials last month announced that funds amounting to $2 billion will help move forward the Red Line Extension Project.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The cost to extend the CTA’s Red Line from 95th Street to 130th Street was $2.3 billion when plans were announced in 2018.

Today’s price tag is $3.6 billion, with the CTA last week announcing the latest bundle of federal money earmarked for the project: a $100 million grant from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement/Carbon Reduction Program.

With that cash, along with the $1.97 billion in infrastructure funding pledged by President Joe Biden’s administration and more than $950 million in local tax increment financing, the project is virtually guaranteed to begin construction as planned in 2025.

But with the clock ticking and the meter running on the extension project, now is the time for Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration to make sure it fully spells out, and leans into, the city’s efforts to rebuild the rapidly-depopulating Far South Side communities that stand to benefit from the enhanced Red Line.

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The 5.6-mile extension and the planned four new stations with retail space are needed, for sure.

But the true test of the extension’s success will be what happens within a half-mile of the stations. Can the city successfully use this project to jump-start a model for transit-oriented development, transforming a long-disinvested part of the city into a vibrant, mixed-use community centered around a high-quality transit system?

Expensive, and necessary

The Red Line enhancements will set the table. But now’s the time for large-scale city planning and neighborhood rebuilding, that can take full advantage of this billion-dollar asset, to take center stage.

The nearly $4 billion Red Line extension is a reminder that correcting longstanding social and racial inequities is as expensive as it is necessary.

The CTA project seeks to provide the city and the predominantly Black neighborhoods of the Far South Side the quality transit system that should have been built when the southern half of the Red Line was created 60 years ago.

The Red Line extensionwill create new stations at 103rd; 111th Street near Eggleston Avenue; along Michigan Avenue near 116th Street; and the new terminus at 130th Street near Altgeld Gardens.

At least 100,000 people live within walking distance of the extension, a population nearly the size of Elgin.

But who is to say how many people will be living there by time the extension is completed in 2029? That’s why it’s essential for the city to focus on building up those communities, to keep existing residents and attract new ones.

In neighborhoods near the extension, the number of residents has plummeted since 1990. Roseland, for instance, had nearly 60,000 people in 1990, but only 38,000 live there now.

With those numbers, running a new multibillion-dollar rail line through there would seem like madness.

And it will be — without a proper, significant and visionary effort to repopulate and revitalize those communities.

Will the city build or incentivize the construction of schools, parks and other amenities that, along with transit, make communities more liveable?

Will there be a sustained push to preserve the existing housing stock and build new homes as well?

There’d better be.

Sure, there were city-subsidized plans, developing under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West program, to build new housing and amenities around the extension’s four planned new stations.

But Johnson has been lukewarm about continuing the overall initiative, vaguely promising to “rebrand” it and calling it an “unfulfilled promise.” And where will city-funded neighborhood rebuilding plans truly stand as Johnson stares down a half-billion-dollar city budget shortfall in 2024?

When the CTA last month announced the $1.97 billion commitment to fund the extension, Johnson said the money marked “a great day for the South Side of Chicago and for the entire city.”

That’s good to hear. But for that to truly be the case, the Red Line extension needs to be more than a very expensive rail project.

It must be part of a full-on effort to create a new city south of 95th Street. Otherwise, the rail project risks becoming a very pricey boondoggle.

Which is something neither Chicago, nor the Far South Side, needs.

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