Chicago Survives the Months-Long Red Line South Reconstruction Project
For the last five months, half of the main elevated rail artery through Chicago has been shut down, a painful necessity as the Chicago Transit Authority ripped out and rebuilt 10 miles of train tracks that typically serve as the busiest route in and out of the South Side. The tracks themselves were four decades old. Some of the stations around them weren't accessible to wheelchair users. They needed new canopies and lighting and paint. And the drainage system under it all required reconstruction, too.
The $425 million project threatened – as many things in Chicago do – to turn into a story about a city divided by race. The Red Line is a well-known symbol for the city's divisions, running as it does from one tip of the lower-income, predominantly minority South Side to the other pole of the well-heeled northern suburbs. Ride from one end of the line to the other (something hardly anyone has a reason to do), and you get a conveniently elevated tour of the city's extremes. You can actually watch a time-lapse of the riders in a Red Line car in a WBEZ project on segregation.
Against this backdrop, many people in Chicago noted that the CTA was willing to sacrifice a major service disruption on the South Side for track work, while riders on the North Side had been far less inconvenienced by other (less intensive) projects on the Red and Brown lines. The optics certainly looked awkward: For five months, the CTA had proposed cutting off access for 80,000 daily commuters in some of its poorest neighborhoods, inviting them instead to board the dreaded shuttle bus.
And yet, as the city reopens the newly reconstructed line early this Sunday morning, the story has turned out to be something much less dramatic: The project will be completed on time, and on budget, ushering in more reliable service that's estimated to cut local commute times by as much as 20 minutes.
Invariably, a massive closure feels like a bigger event than a ribbon-cutting, and five months of disruption – in the midst of it, at least – can seem of questionable worthiness for what amounts to modest but real improvements later. But commuters managed to adjust (a fate they can only wish for fellow transit riders in San Francisco), and now the long-term improvements for the South Side will look worth it.