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Metra gets an earful from aldermen

Several Chicago City Council members asked why Metra wants to upgrade the seven crossings — and build a new Fulton Market Station — on the Near West Side while Metra property outside the Central Business District is in sorry shape.

Metra may consider a schedule reduction amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Union Station is one end of the journey for many Metra riders, but several Chicago aldermen on Monday wanted officials with the transit agency to know that the Metra facilities in many of their wards have suffered from neglect.
Elle Lee/Sun-Times file photo

Chicago aldermen on Monday laid the groundwork for Metra to get $850,000 in tax-increment-financing funds to engineer improvements to seven grade crossings in Fulton Market, but not before giving the commuter rail agency an earful about neighborhood neglect.

During a Finance Committee meeting, a parade of aldermen demanded to know why Metra is talking about upgrading the seven crossings — and building a new Fulton Market Station — on the Near West Side while property owned by Metra outside the Central Business District is in such sorry shape.

“I’m glad to see you’re making an investment near downtown. But I’m not gonna support this with a `yes’ vote until I see Metra do better in my own neighborhood,” said Budget Committee Chairman Pat Dowell (3rd).

Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th) said the Metra stations in her Far Southeast Side ward “look like crap,” forcing her staff to pick up the garbage and whack the weeds.

“We have these beautiful, shiny things on the North Side. And on the South Side, we can’t even get them to clean up the trash. … The 87th Street Metra station ... is a pig pen,” as is the 93rd Street station, Sadlowski-Garza said.

“They don’t do anything ... to help. I’m tired of begging them to do something.”

Far South Side Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) added, “I know that Metra would not allow this in any other neighborhood. But for years, you just continue to neglect us. Maybe because we’re on the Far South Side. ... You haven’t gotten to us in 20 years.”

The complaints aired during Monday’s Finance Committee meeting were so universal, local Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) had to plead with his colleagues to salvage the $850,000 worth of engineering work at seven dangerous grade crossings that he hopes will be a prelude to a new Fulton Market Station on the Milwaukee District Rail Line.

“If it wasn’t for us having the money, don’t think Metra would just be doing this on their own. Please don’t think they’re doing me a favor. I’m doing them a favor. ... We’re the ones who are putting up the money,” Burnett said.

Metra officials testified in favor of the grade crossing improvements, but sat silently through the aldermanic tirade that mirrored Council complaints for decades.

The Finance Committee signed off on the intergovernmental agreement with Metra but only after Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) vowed to keep the heat on Metra by pushing to create a special subcommittee that includes the Transportation Committee and the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Also during Monday’s meeting, the Finance Committee:

• Signed off on a cargo expansion project at O’Hare Airport and the $55.6 million in bonds to bankroll the next phase of work after Aeroterm agreed to hire Black and Hispanic contractors to build the facility.

“This will be the first major air cargo facility at O’Hare International Airport to be constructed by an African-American-led construction team,” Greg Russell, Aeroterm’s vice-president of development, told aldermen.

“Specifically, that is Bowa Construction leading a team that also includes D’Escoto and Clayco. Bowa and D’Escoto, both well-respected local Chicago MBE firms, will represent over 60 percent of this prime contract.”

Four months ago, the cargo project stalled amid complaints Aeroterm had failed to meet hiring and contracting benchmarks on the first two phases. The hiring of Bowa and D’Escoto salvaged the project, as did the threat of liquidated damages if Aeroterm fails to hire Chicagoans to perform half the hours worked on the project.

• Authorized the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche to once again conduct the annual city audit with the promise that a request-for-proposals could pave the way for minorities to perform the work next year.

“Big [accounting firms are] not always best. Look at Enron,” said Ald. George Cardenas (12th), apparently referring to former accounting giant Arthur Andersen, which collapsed after being found guilty of illegally destroying documents relevant to the SEC investigation.

• Approved a $525,000 settlement and $44,808 in debt forgiveness to compensate Antwon Golatte, shot in February 2015 by Chicago Police officers who suspected him of selling drugs from his car.

Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeff Levine said the shots were fired after Golatte backed his SUV into the police car. But ballistics reports showed one of the five shots penetrated Golatte’s body from the rear of his rib cage. That supported the argument that the officers were “not in fear of serious injury” because Golatte’s vehicle was “not traveling toward them,” Levine said. The Independent Police Review Authority had ruled the shooting was not justified and recommended both officers be fired. Then-Superintendent Eddie Johnson disagreed, suspending the officers for one year and ordering them to undergo “two-to-three months” of retraining.