CHICAGO — After five months, the $425 million rehabilitation of the Red Line South wraps up this weekend, and transportation experts, commuters and CTA leaders said the massive public works project couldn’t have gone any smoother.
Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation professor at DePaul University, said the Red Line's location — in the middle of the Dan Ryan Expressway with nearly parallel Green Line stops — simplified the massive project.
“It was almost perfect to be rebuilt. There aren’t pedestrians around and none of it’s under in a subway, really. And we’re incredibly lucky that there are convenient Green Line stops at strategic locations,” he said.
The Red Line South branch, which runs from the Chinatown/Cermak stop to the end of the line at 95th Street, will reopen to the public at 4 a.m. Sunday.
CTA leaders initially took some heat for deciding to shut down the route entirely, rather than maintaining some form of limited service, during the five-month project.
Schwieterman, who heads DePaul's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, said the choice — which CTA leaders said saved $75 million — may represent the “new reality” for rail repair projects because of citywide budget crunches.
"I think the CTA doesn’t have as many options as it used to. The financial situation is so severe that they had little choice but to pursue the shutdown option," he said.
About 10 miles of train tracks from the Chinatown/Cermak stop all the way south to 95th have been replaced, with construction workers sprucing up all eight stations along the way.
The station upgrades include new electrical work, fresh paint and the installation of train-tracking screens. New wheelchair-accessible elevators have been installed at the stations at Garfield Boulevard, 63rd Street and 87th Street.
The new tracks are expected to provide riders with a smoother and quicker ride — the CTA said it will shave 20 minutes off the round-trip from 95th to the Loop.
While Democratic politicians including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin boasted Thursday that quicker travel times will pave the way for new economic growth on the South Side, the Red Line South’s middle-of-the-expressway configuration can make for “awkward” attempts at transit-oriented development, Schwieterman said.
“You’ve got this incredibly wide highway and there’s noise at the station and unattractive development patterns along the corridor. You’re not going to have luxury condos popping up near the stations,” he said.
Areas that could benefit are neighborhoods like Chatham and Roseland near the route’s far south end, where plans are underway to construct $240 million transit terminal at the 95th Street Station, scheduled for completion in 2016.
"I think as you get down to 87th and 95th, there is a particular promise for those neighborhoods to get a shot in the arm," Schwieterman said.
Free Rides End
During the reconstruction effort, the CTA offered free rides to and from shuttered Far South Side Red Line stations to the Green Line Garfield "L" stop and temporary bus depots.
At the 79th Street shuttle depot this week, commuters were already mourning the loss of what’s become their new routine.
“I like how it is now — straight shot,” said James Elmore, 50, a Washington Park resident who used the shuttles to travel southward to his job as a night-shift maintenance technician for a bus company.
Michele Moore, 36, has a much longer ride.
The Truman College student has been boarding the shuttles at 79th Street since the construction began, riding them up to the Garfield station then boarding an "L" train to ride all the way to the North Side campus.
“Back and forth, every day. Right now there are no stops [from 79th] until [Garfield] and I think that’s way more convenient,” she said.
In Chinatown, the five-month project meant visitors had one less way to get to the tourist-heavy neighborhood's "L" stop.
The scarce street parking and neighborhood paid lots were "packed" on the summer weekends, business leaders say, but they're now breathing a sigh of relief as the project comes to a close.
"With the Red Line Chinatown Station opening this weekend, I think more visitors will come knowing that there is direct access to Chinatown," said Sharyne Tu, associate director of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.
Over at U.S. Cellular Field, located a short walk from the Red Line 35th Street stop, the White Sox front office said the renovations "will make [our fans'] trip more efficient moving forward."