Major changes to come for local transit

By Bethany Reinhart

The Regional Transportation Authority hopes that the $500 million to $600 million expected from a federal economic stimulus plan will help fund a much needed capital infrastructure plan that will focus on renovating and modernizing the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace by replacing old rail cars, improving rail lines and purchasing new hybrid buses.

Discussion about pending transit improvements was in full swing by 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 4, as members of the RTA’s board of directors met for their monthly board meeting at the University Center of Chicago, 525.S. State St. Board members wasted little time before opening up discussion about the funds from the federal stimulus bill proposal.

The potential windfall is already slated to help fund capital improvement projects, according to Diane Palmer, director of communications for the RTA. Palmer said the RTA board of directors expects the plan to be approved by late February or early March.

Steven Schlickman, executive director of the RTA, said the state of Illinois has not approved a capital infrastructure plan since 1999, and the RTA has not received any state capital funds since 2004. This has left the RTA with “aged trains and buses, deteriorating tracks and stations and equipment that has exceeded its useful lifespan,” Schlickman said in a written statement. The continuous rise in ridership has placed an even greater urgency on maintenance and repairs.

If the Illinois General Assembly approves the capital plan, projects to improve the transit system will begin within 90 days of the approval, Palmer said.

“We need to make sure that there is a list ready to go and that the public is aware,” said Judy Baar Topinka, suburban Cook County RTA director. “We need to make sure we are shovel-ready and that there are no hang-ups due to a bunch of bureaucracy.” Schlickman said the RTA does stand ready on several projects that will begin upon approval of the capital plan. The capital improvement project includes renovations and upgrades for all three entities under the RTA-the CTA, Pace and Metra.

The current budget sets aside money that will allow the CTA to begin rehabilitating some of its oldest rail cars. The potential economic stimulus money will also help the CTA purchase several new rail cars, Palmer said. According to the RTA website, 46 percent of the CTA’s railcars have exceeded the 25-year federal standard for useful life.

Other infrastructure improvements aimed at the CTA include projects to eliminate slow zones along portions of the Blue and Red Lines and replacing deteriorating rail-ties. The slow zone elimination project alone carries an estimated price tag of about $250 million. The RTA also plans to purchase 200 new hybrid CTA buses, for an estimated cost of about $160 million.

Palmer said the RTA’s infrastructure is in need of major upgrades. More than 20 percent of CTA buses are beyond their useful lifespan, she said. According to the RTA website, almost 70 percent of CTA buses have traveled a total distance farther than that between Earth and the moon.

Improvements to Metra will include rebuilding several deteriorating bridges along the Union Pacific North Line, which runs between Kenosha, Wis., and Chicago. Renovations and upgrades also include rebuilding 40 of Metra’s locomotives.

RTA Chairman Jim Rielly said Pace is in “good shape,” but the plan would allow for the purchase of about 600 additional Pace buses, vans or other vehicles.

As the RTA gears up for the expected federal stimulus dollars, they are working to ensure that the public is aware of their plans to modernize the RTA and effectively make it a world-class transit system by posting updated information on their website and briefing the media throughout the process. The RTA continues to strive to have a rapid transit system comparable to those in New York, London, Tokyo and Madrid, Spain. According to its website, the RTA is currently the second largest rapid transit system in the United States.