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Massive 'L' Station Rehab Funding Plan Cheered for Expanding Accessibility

By Josh McGhee | September 27, 2016 8:39am
 The TIF district is necessary to secure federal money for the Red-Purple Line Modernization project, which includes renovating the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr stations, officials said.
The TIF district is necessary to secure federal money for the Red-Purple Line Modernization project, which includes renovating the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr stations, officials said.
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Flickr/Rex Babiera

EDGEWATER — A way to help fund a massive rehab of area "L" stations faced little opposition at a community meeting Monday in contrast to the plan's reception earlier this month.

The hour-long meeting focused on a proposed Transit Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district to help fund the first phase of the modernization of the Red-Purple line, referred to as RPM, which is "probably the biggest construction project within our community in my lifetime," according to Ald. Harry Osterman (48th).

"The project we’re talking about is basically going to improve this part of the Red Line for the next 100 years, for the next generation and for the life-long stability of our community," said Osterman.

Phase one of the modernization project includes overhauling four CTA stations — Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr — adding wider platforms, better lighting and making them fully accessible. It also includes the building the Belmont station flyover.

The community is built around its public transit and the only "viable funding" for the improvements, which would typically be funded with state capital, is the Transit TIF district, he said.

"All of you see, every single day, the gridlock that’s going on in Springfield. There is not going to be any capital money coming from Springfield for quite sometime," Osterman said.

TIF districts capture all growth in the property tax base in a designated area for a set period of time, usually 20 years or more, and divert it into a special fund for projects designed to spur redevelopment and eradicate blight.

While doing station work four years ago, senior citizens, people with disabilities and parents with strollers said accessibility was a huge issue, Osterman said.

Juanita Butler, whose husband is wheelchair-bound, voiced her approval for the project because every station should be accessible to everyone, she said.

There's "a lot of stuff we have to go through to ride the L... I just wish people understood the time that goes into planning every single day," she said. "We have money. We're giving it to the city. And I think it's only right that we can get on at every stop."

Since 2009, the CTA has held 12 meetings concerning the project and the Transit TIF district "is the way to make this project a reality," insisted Carole Morey, the chief planning officer for the CTA.

"As the alderman indicated, there’s no current state capital funds available, but the federal government is ready to provide RPM phase one with $1.1 billion in grant funds," she said.

The project will cost approximately $2.1 billion in total and the CTA would need to match the federal grants to secure the funds, she said.

The CTA is putting up $428 million and would secure another $625 million by implementing the Transit TIF District and securing a "low interest, low cost" loan through the Transportation Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act, "a federal funding source intended for projects" like this, Morey said.

The transit TIF "would provide the means to repay the loan" and without the federal grants, "the project could be delayed or scaled down," she said.

The proposed boundaries for the district would include Devon Avenue on the north, Division Avenue on the south and extend a half mile east and west of the Red and Purple lines. It would exclude existing TIF districts, but a limited number of parcels from existing TIFs may be added, officials said.

While the project received a lot of support Monday, it received mixed reviews at the first community meeting introducing the plan held at DePaul University's Sullivan Athletic Center.

Two weeks ago, at the meeting attended by nearly 300 residents, Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) said she was not in favor of creating the district because it's unclear how the money generated from the TIF is "really going to be spent," and how the loan will be paid off.

"I don't know how much money is going to be needed to pay off this loan. It is very concerning to come to a public meeting and not have the basic information on how much money per year is needed, money that could've been used for other purposes for which our property taxes are imposed and have just been raised," she said.

The tax rate for impacted homes will remain the same and the new district would not affect how property taxes are assessed, said Steve Friedman of SB Friedman Development Advisers Monday.

Mimi Harris has lived in the area since 1985 and frequently uses the Bryn Mawr station, which she called "a toxic waste dump."

While she believed the improvements are necessary, she wasn't convinced officials were looking at alternate options.

"I just really don't trust TIFs. We keep doing TIFs and they already have the worst reputation. That's our aldermen's way of funding everything," said Harris. "I can live with it, but people need to question how we do things."

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