Red Line rehab: lessons from the Brown Line
When Grill Inn manager Eddie Ishoo was looking for a location four years ago, he knew that being close to the El was a good business move. The short-order restaurant, which celebrated its third anniversary in October and sits just a block from the Morse Red Line station, relies on foot traffic for most of its business.
He saw the Rogers Park neighborhood “as a diamond in the rough,” he said. “Being right on a train stop, you can’t go wrong.”
The CTA is wrapping up a study on the Red and Purple line, with the goal being a plan to improve the 9.5-mile stretch from the Belmont station in Lakeview to the Linden station in Evanston. Included in the study is how to improve stations, including three of the four in Rogers Park, to increase accessibility for the disabled and make needed repairs to the aging tracks.
Ishoo was unaware that the station down the block may soon be under construction, but he’s in favor of the project. “I’m all for it,” he said. “Anything that improves the neighborhood.”
According to the CTA’s website, the goals of the project are similar to those of the Brown Line renovations, which wrapped up earlier this year. In a project costing $530 million, the CTA made every station on the Brown Line wheelchair accessible, and extended the platforms so that every station on the line could accommodate eight-car trains instead of the old standard of six.
The current plan for the Red Line improvements adds elevators at Morse and Jarvis and widens the platforms at the three Rogers Park stations. The plan also includes replacing track and bridges along the line. All of the stations on the Red Line can already accommodate eight-car trains, so lengthening the platforms won’t be necessary.
Yonah Freemark, a graduate student at MIT studying the interaction between politics and transportation, said that the scope of the two projects was unique among transit agencies in the U.S. “What’s interesting about Chicago’s method of renovating its heavy rail lines is it’s chosen to focus on rehabilitating the lines entirely and making them brand new, including tracks and stations,” he said.
Most transit systems, including the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City, renovate their systems piecemeal, a station or stretch of track at a time. The complete overhaul approach that the CTA uses allows the city to apply for funding otherwise reserved for new systems.
The CTA paid for the Brown Line rehabilitation with a New Start grant from the federal government, money that is usually reserved for new capital projects, such as building a whole new train line or extending an existing line. “When you’re renovating an existing line that’s decades old, you’re basically making a new system,” Freemark said.
Gary Hartig, owner of Midwestern Arts and Antiques, knows something about CTA projects. His business sits directly under the Brown Line across the street from the Western Avenue station. The cramped, musty store has been in the CTA-owned building for 21 years. Now that the project is completed, “it has brought more people into the neighborhood,” he said. With the addition of a larger bus depot, transportation into and out of the neighborhood is much easier, Hartig said.
Tracy Kellner opened her second Provenance Food and Wine location in Lincoln Square just three years ago, in the midst of the Brown Line renovation. The Western Avenue station nearest to her specialty shop was never closed completely, but the stations on either side of it were. “I know that there are at least a couple of people that I can think of who would say ‘I usually got off at Montrose but now I get off here and walk,'” Kellner said. She thinks this may have helped grow her business.
Brown Line passenger Aaron Renn’s assessment of the project is less than glowing. He lives close to the Paulina stop. When the project was proposed earlier this decade, the CTA told passengers that they would not need to close any stations. The original plan ran over budget and the CTA had to renegotiate some of the contracts, cutting back on some of the original plans.
“The things that they cut were the things that make it better for riders,” said Renn. He said passengers were promised canopies over the platforms to keep out the weather and escalators in the stations. The new plans also included closing most of the stations on the Brown Line, one at a time, for 18 months while renovations took place. The problem, he said, was relying on engineers to make the decisions. “Engineers see passenger amenities as fluff,” Renn said.
The CTA plans for the Red Line project to include some of the passenger amenities that were left out of the Brown Line renovations. It also acknowledges that the structural improvements to the tracks and viaducts will be more extensive on the older north branch line, parts of which date to the 1920s.
For Ted Fronimos, manager at the Morse Fresh Market a block from the El, the upcoming station renovations are welcome. The city department of transportation just finished a road construction project right in front of his business, Fronimos said, which was hard on business, but “in the long run it was good. It had to be done to develop the community.” He has both customers and employees who use the El, he said. “Anything to upgrade the area is good for business.”