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CTA plans $1 billion L overhaul to quicken commutes, fix stations

With both card readers out of order, passengers riding the Red Line at Wilson and Broadway make their way to the platform through an open door. The Uptown station is one of the CTA stations that will be totally rebuilt due to $646 million secured in state funding. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

CTA Red line commuters will get faster, more reliable service and improved stations – but only after enduring three years of construction that might include station closings – thanks to a long-awaited overhaul unveiled Thursday.

With $646 million in state funding now secured, the CTA can start rebuilding the workhorse line that carries nearly 40 percent of the system’s rail passengers, but travels as slow as 15 mph through much of the South Side.

Once those “slow zones” are eliminated, Red Line commuters could shave as much as six minutes off a one-way trip from downtown to 95th Street. Tracks between 18th and 95th will be replaced. Three electrical substations will be upgraded to improve reliability, officials said.

Two stations – Wilson and Clark/Division – will be totally rebuilt. Stations between Cermak and 95th are in line for less extensive upgrades.

The Red Line project is expected to begin next year and be completed by 2015.

In addition to the Red Line work, ties will also be replaced on Purple Line track between Belmont and Linden. That should eliminate slow zones that currently limit 24 percent of express trains to a maximum speed of 35 mph.

The entire project carries a $1 billion price tag, with the state kicking in $702 million, while $255 million is coming from federal sources and $44 million from the city.

Gov. Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel rode the Red Line to a news conference Thursday to announce the plans at the 35th Street station. They were joined by nearly a dozen aldermen whose wards are served by the Red Line and by union leaders whose members stand to benefit from the 2,700 jobs.

While Emanuel campaigned on a promise to also extend the Red Line south to 130th Street, he defended his decision to go ahead with this project but wait until negotiations on a new federal transportation bill begin to seek funding to build the extension, which is currently in the planning stages.

“If you put the whole system on hold until that happens, you’re shortchanging everybody else [who] relies on the system today when you can move forward. So rather than hitting the pause button, we’re hitting the play button and moving forward,” the mayor said Thursday.

CTA President Forrest Claypool said most of the improvements to Red Line stations can be done without closings. The exceptions are Wilson and Clark/Division, which will be totally rebuilt.

CTA riders Thursday were pleased with news of the overhaul – but also concerned about potential delays in their own commutes if the stations are closed.

At the Wilson stop, as if on cue, two street-level turnstiles malfunctioned Thursday afternoon, frustrating travelers just hours after the announcement that the stop would be rebuilt.

Simbiat Soaga, 23, of Uptown, said the station is “a hub” that “makes Uptown Uptown.” Yet, she says, there is vagrancy in the surrounding area that gives the station a somewhat shady atmosphere. “It would change the scene,” she said of a rebuilt station.

At Clark/Division, the walls in the subway tunnel are blackened, the ceiling is in shoddy condition and the floor is stained by filth.

Asked to describe the station’s condition, 16-year-old Matt Shepard of Lincoln Park said, “Uh . . . gross.”

Contributing: Adeshina Emmanuel