Red Line extension needlessly caught in the switches due to CTA/City Council beef

If there’s any chance at all to rebuild and repopulate the Far South Side, the Red Line extension is key — and far too important to be caught in a standoff between the CTA president and the City Council.

SHARE Red Line extension needlessly caught in the switches due to CTA/City Council beef
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The intersection of 115th Street and Michigan Avenue could be reborn with new transit-oriented retail development and housing, all brought about by the planned CTA Red Line extension.

City of Chicago

The CTA’s $3.6 billion plan to extend the Red Line is among the most important projects the city has undertaken.

Or it could be, provided the CTA and the City Council work together to make it happen.

The transit agency wants to extend the Red Line 5.6 miles south from its 95th Street terminus.

But alderpersons — miffed at CTA President Dorval Carter’s baffling refusal to come before the City Council and address the system’s crime and service delays — are questioning whether to approve a $950 million plan to help fund the extension.

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If there’s any chance at all to improve Chicago by rebuilding and repopulating the predominantly Black and Brown South Side, the Red Line extension is key.

To threaten to stand in the way of this important project is flat-out wrong. It’s an insult to the South Side — and to the city as a whole.

A needed link on the South Side

The elevated Red Line extension would begin at 95th Street with new stations at 103rd Street, 111th Street, Michigan Avenue, and 130th.

The route would run through predominantly Black areas that have suffered historic population losses this century. Still, at least 100,000 residents live within striking distance of the extension.

That’s a population nearly the size of Elgin or Springfield.

“This community has had to suffer with the longer transit commutes and the associated disproportionate [negative] impact of their transit experience compared to just about everyone else in this city,” Carter told the Sun-Times Editorial Board late last month.

The CTA said the extension would shorten commute times from the Far South Side to downtown by 30 minutes. That means a faster link to jobs, education and opportunities downtown and northward.

It could also mean a rebirth for South Side communities near the extension. Department of Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox said his agency wants to help create 118,000 square feet of new retail and commercial spaces and 4,000 new units of infill and rehabbed housing, all within a half-mile of the line’s four new stations.

In addition, Cox sees three- to six-story mixed-use buildings being built on commercial streets close to the new transit nodes.

“A missing ‘middle density,’ so it’s not single-family detached, and not high-rise,” he said.

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This vacant commercial building at 115th Street and Michigan Avenue could see new life under redevelopment plans sparked by the planned Red Line extension.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Imagine: A large region of varied and affordably-priced housing, with neighborhood-scaled shops and amenities — all within a 40-minute public transit connection to downtown.

Who benefits? Chicago.

Time for alderpersons to get aboard

The planned $950 million Red Line transit tax increment finance district, proposed by Cox’s department, would help fund the extension with tax revenue increases captured from properties near the Red Line between Madison Street and Pershing Road.

The CTA needs the funding to get the feds to kick-in the remaining money to build the project.

And to get the federal cash, Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants the City Council to approve the Red Line transit TIF before Dec. 31.

But what about the CTA’s crime and service problems?

Speaking about the Red Line transit TIF, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) — one of the alderpersons balking over the funding request — told his City Council budget committee colleagues last month that “rewarding poor stewardship with a billion-dollar investment is difficult to rationalize.”

Oh yeah? In 2016, CTA violent crime jumped to 520 reported incidents from 417 in 2015 after years of declines.

But the City Council didn’t dare use that spike in crime to ponder holding up the $622 million transit TIF that helped the city get federal funds for the North Side’s $1.1 billion Red and Purple line rebuild.

Instead, they passed the measure 48-0 in November 2016 with nary a word about CTA crime or Carter’s City Council attendance.

“I’m not doing anything differently now than I was then,” Carter said last month.

The South Side deserves the same response.

And sure, Carter hasn’t helped his cause by snubbing the City Council. Catching flak in public from alderpersons is the cost of doing business for a public official, especially one who’s paid $350,000 a year.

But perhaps change is afoot. Last week, Carter wrote aldermen, promising to attend a City Council transportation committee hearing next Thursday.

Carter should show and take the aldermanic lumps that are likely to come.

And once that’s done, the City Council should get about the business of putting the Red Line extension on track by approving the transit TIF.

Lee Bey is the Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic and a member of the Editorial Board.

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