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Red Line Construction: CTA Boss Says 'Facts' Make Case for Makeover

By Mark Konkol | May 18, 2013 12:03pm

CHICAGO — Forrest Claypool lives on the North Side.

Before becoming the CTA boss, he commuted to work in a beat-up, gas-guzzling blue Buick.

He’s a journeyman political operative, pals with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and a Cubs fan.

And despite all that, I believe Claypool when he says that his decision to shut down the Red Line — the barely beating heart of Chicago’s struggling South Side — isn’t just a way to save $75 million cash fixing up the rail line on the backs of poor, black commuters.

Claypool knows that some people say the CTA would never completely shut down the Red Line to make improvements on the mostly white, affluent North Side.

Folks remind him that CTA didn’t close the Brown Line — a windy stretch of track that snakes through trendy, well-to-do neighborhoods — when stations were overhauled 10 years ago.

So on Friday, two days before the Red Line shuts down for five months, I asked Claypool an obvious question: How can you overcome the perception that poor, black neighborhoods are getting treated differently, if not unfairly?

Every veteran reporter in town knows Claypool is a well-spoken politician — and an expert at staying “on message.”

So, Claypool’s answer was not surprising.

“With the facts,” he said, plainly.

And then the CTA president rattled off a laundry list of well-rehearsed talking points:

• The Brown Line was a station rehabilitation project and the Red Line’s tracks have to be completely replaced.

• Without the shutdown, riders would have suffered through slow zones, bumpy rides and weekend closures for four years instead of five months.

• The shutdown saves the CTA $75 million, part of which is being used to fix-up crumbling stations.

• CTA Board President Terry Peterson, a former alderman and longtime Daley operative, reached out to South Side business leaders and community groups to get “overwhelming” support for putting the project on the fast track.

• Minority firms and local workers would benefit from contracts and jobs. Minority firms have been awarded about 30 percent of station renovation contracts and 40 percent of track replacement work. And the project created 400 bus driver and 100 traffic control jobs.

When I asked him about sending commuters to the Green Line, which meanders through the heart of some of the most-violent, gang-infested neighborhoods on the South Side, Claypool said new security cameras have been installed and police plan to increase patrols near stations.

Claypool was ready for my question about businesses that might suffer during the Red Line shutdown, too.

Businesses near Green Line stops and temporary shuttle stops will likely benefit from foot traffic caused by the transit detour, he said.

But none of those “facts” gets to the heart of why South Sider commuters and business owners should believe why Claypool decided on the five-month shut down.

But here’s a fact that does: “This is the first time a line of this size has been completely shut down and replaced in such a short period of time. It’s the biggest, most ambitious public works project in the country.”

Let me translate: This is Mayor Emanuel’s big, fat public infrastructure project.

The mayor’s “vision,” Claypool called it.

Mayor Emanuel has proven in his first two years that he’s a guy who plans to tackle Chicago’s big issues — school consolidation, pension reform and now the rickety Ol’ Red Line — all at once and as fast as he can. That’s the reason why South Side commuters will spend the next few months taking buses and Green Line trains to work and school.

Even if you don’t agree with the mayor’s approach, that’s the Chicago we live in.

For a lot of South Siders, commuting downtown will be a giant pain until the fall.

But after years of neglect, it’s hard to complain about a $425 million improvement project to the slowest, loudest, bumpiest “L” ride in town.

“South Side riders are sick and tired, as they should be, of riding a rickety, slow railroad that gets them late to work and school,” Claypool said. “The people who are inconvenienced deserved the benefits of doing this project right.”

That means on time, on budget and reaping the benefits of contracts, jobs and future economic opportunities, Claypool said.

Claypool knows one more truth: South Siders — and his boss on the fifth floor of City Hall — will hold him to that.