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Can Chicago Lock Down $1.1 Billion For CTA Before Trump Takes Office?

By Heather Cherone | November 30, 2016 11:46am
 A rendering of the reconstructed Bryn Mawr station
A rendering of the reconstructed Bryn Mawr station
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CITY HALL — City officials approved plans Wednesday for a new tax increment financing district designed to fund a $2.1 billion renovation of the Red and Purple CTA train lines.

The plan — signed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel into law on the City Council floor — must be submitted to federal officials by the end of Wednesday to have a shot at winning federal approval before President Barack Obama leaves office.

City officials are racing the clock because $1.1 billion in federal money is on the line — and there are no guarantees the money will still be there after Jan. 20, when President-elect Donald Trump takes the oath of office.

The measure passed unanimously, with four aldermen not present for the vote.

However, Emanuel said it would not be fair to say the city is acting in a "rush" before Trump becomes president Jan. 20.

"This started on day one of my administration," Emanuel said, noting that he campaigned in 2011 on a promise to rebuild the Red Line from Howard Street to 95th Street. "There is a check with Chicago's name on it in Washington, D.C."

Ald. Edward Burke (14th) said the 5,700 construction jobs created by the project would help economically struggling Chicagoans.

"The future of Chicago public transportation for the next 50 to 80 years may well rest on the decisions made here," Burke said.

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), whose ward will see several stations rebuilt, said it was crucial that the city get the funds.

"The truth of the matter is that the Red Line is crumbling," Osterman said.

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) said she would vote for the project with "mixed emotions."

"This has nothing for my ward," Mitts said, adding that many CTA stations in her ward are not safe. "I'm sick and tired."

Mitts asked her colleagues to remember her vote when she comes to them for something in her ward.

"When I need help, I need you to be there for me," Mitts said.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) also voted for the project, despite reservations that the move will put more of a burden on residents of her ward, who she said already are heavily taxed.

"My residents are looking for a return on those payments," said Smith, who has been pushing city officials to transform the North Branch Industrial Corridor into parkland and sports fields.

As part of a June compromise on the state budget, Emanuel and the Council now have the ability to create TIF districts to help pay for major transit projects.

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.

Emanuel said the project was part of his effort to create a "21st century transportation system" to fuel a "21st century economy" in Chicago.

"This will allow us to grow as a city," Emanuel said, adding that an improved Red Line will serve as an "economic engine" for the entire city. "This was an essential step."

The first such district is set to be created between North and Devon avenues along the Red and Purple Line tracks. It is expected to generate $622 million. Those funds — plus $428 million in other CTA money — will be used to match the federal grant and fund the project, officials said.

The project includes plans to rebuild the 100-year-old embankment that supports the track between Lawrence and Bryn Mawr avenues, making it possible for six to eight more trains per hour to travel from Howard to 95th streets on the Red Line.

That should prevent riders from having to wait as packed trains pass by, officials said.

The project also includes plans to build a Belmont flyover that have been met with fierce opposition from some Lakeview residents.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) said he was pleased that the Belmont flyover plan finally is moving forward, but said nearby businesses would suffer during the construction and perhaps afterward.

"The CTA has not been a good steward of the land around its stations," Tunney said.

The flyover requires the CTA to acquire and demolish 16 buildings to have enough space to separate Brown Line tracks from Red and Purple line ones and speed train cars through what is now a bottleneck.

To blunt criticism that TIF districts hurt Chicago Public Schools, the school district will not see its share of property tax revenues lowered by the new transit TIF.

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