CTA weighs two options for Red Line extension route

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The CTA has narrowed to two the routes for a long-awaited Red Line extension from 95th to 130th Street — one down the middle of busy Halsted Street, the other mostly running along existing freight tracks.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), whose South Side ward would be most heavily affected by the extension, was briefed on the options Tuesday. The chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee emerged with a ringing endorsement of the alternative that steers clear of Halsted.

That option for the $2 billion, 5-mile-plus extension generally follows freight tracks operated by the Union Pacific Railroad. A large portion of the tracks run along Eggleston — four blocks west of the existing 95th Street station — and curve eastward as they move farther and farther south.

The CTA’s plan calls for four new stations: at 103rd, 111th, 115th and 130th, with a combined total of up to 2,000 “Park & Ride” spaces, the alderman said.

In addition, construction of a new, $240 million station at the end of the current Red Line, at 95th Street, is due to begin this year and follows massive improvements to Red Line track from Cermak to 95th, completed last October.

“Halsted Street is wide open. Putting elevated tracks down the middle of the street would disrupt the integrity and cosmetics of Halsted. It would hurt existing businesses. I don’t think anybody wants that,” Beale said.

CTA President Forrest Claypool could not be reached for comment on Tuesday’s briefing.

Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said Tuesday that the CTA approached the railroad about the possibility of extending the Red Line about a year ago and “we haven’t heard anything back since.’’

However, Davis said, “If they want to approach us again, I’m sure our team would be happy to talk with them.’’

Davis noted that CTA trains, which are powered by an electrified third rail, cannot travel on the same tracks as diesel freight trains.

That means the option Beale favors would require the CTA to build its own tracks, either alongside the UP track or above them. Elevating the tracks could present its own set of problems, considering the hazardous materials freight trains sometimes carry. Davis did not immediately know whether any hazardous materials are transported on the portion of UP track in question.

Either way, the CTA would be required to obtain right-of-way from the railroad, Davis said. Another question is whether UP owns a wide enough right-of-way to allow another set of tracks to be built.

“From a safety standpoint, putting a commuter train next to freight lines — you need wider areas. It’s a complex negotiation to make that happen,” Davis said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel campaigned on a promise to rebuild the 95th Street station and extend the Red Line South to 130th Street.

The mayor also sold aldermen on his risky, $425 million plan to close the Red Line for five months with the argument that the line needed to be rebuilt before it could be extended.

Now that the possible routes for an extension have been narrowed from five to two, the next step is an exhaustive set of community hearings to decide which option South Side residents favor and how much parking they want at each station.

Beale called it “phase four” of seven or eight hurdles that must be cleared before construction can begin — in three or four years, at the earliest.

The biggest question is whether the CTA can persuade the federal government to bankroll the $2 billion project.

Beale believes the chances are good and not just because of the clout Emanuel carries as a former North Side congressman who served as White House chief-of-staff under President Barack Obama.

“That’s a huge ask from the federal government. But, we’ve been talking about the Red Line extension since I was a kid. Since I’ve been chairman, I’ve made this a priority. So has the mayor. I have all the confidence in the world it’s going to happen,” Beale said.

“95th Street is not the end of the city. What about people who need access to jobs downtown and deserve the right get there in a timely manner? Now that we’ve completed the Red Line upgrade and the [$240 million] 95th Street Station reconstruction is about to start, we can walk right into the extension that will finally complete the Red Line from one end of the city to the other.”

If federal funding falls short, Beale said the Red Line extension could be a candidate for Emanuel’s much-ballyhooed Infrastructure Trust to persuade private investors to bankroll projects Chicago can’t afford to build on its own.

That option would likely require CTA riders to pay higher fees to guarantee private investors an attractive return on their money.

“If we have to, we can look at it, but only if it’s the only way,” Beale said.

“We don’t want to put an extra fee on top [of CTA fares]. If we can get the money from the federal government, we can keep the fees down. We’re gonna lean on the federal government for funding first. My emphasis is on the federal government — not the trust.”

The extension of the Red Line is part of the CTA’s “Red Ahead” project to extend and enhance the CTA’s most-traveled rail line. The project includes improvements on the Red Line as well as upgrades to the line it connects into at its north end — the Purple Line — all the way to the last stop, at Linden in Wilmette.

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