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Does fixing Red Line mean extension to 130th Street more likely?

2-17-10 CTA drivers upset about cuts.. here is Jesse JacksSr protest 95th Red Line statiwhich serves many people... also general

2-17-10 CTA drivers upset about cuts.., here is Jesse Jackson Sr at the protest at 95th and the Red Line station which serves many people... also general CTA transit overall photos. sun-times photo by al podgorski

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Updated: October 24, 2012 6:38AM

The wheels are rolling in preparation for next year’s massive overhaul of the CTA’s Red Line on the South Side.

More than a dozen bus drivers out of a pool of 4,000 applicants have been hired and will begin training within weeks to eventually ferry riders while construction takes place on the line. A $220 million contract to do track work on a portion of the project was awarded last week to Kiewit Infrastructure Corporation. And the CTA will soon award a contract to replace everything from lighting to floors and walls at stops on the line, and three stations — Garfield, 63rd and 87th Street — will get elevators.

But with that project under way, does that mean the long-sought-after extension of the Red Line to 130th Street is closer to becoming a reality?

The transit agency has said the new track is necessary because crews can’t connect new track to existing track that has so badly deteriorated.

“You can’t talk about extending the Red Line from 95th Street south until you have rebuilt the railroad from 95th to 22nd,” CTA President Forrest Claypool said in June.

“These improvements are not only critical to providing a much better service for our South Side riders, but also will lay a foundation that makes possible the extension.”

But there’s one big problem: how will CTA fund an extension’s $1.4 billion pricetag?

“CTA continues to pursue various funding sources for design and construction,” CTA spokesman Brian Steele said Friday. He noted the agency is currently conducting a federally mandated environmental analysis.

Although the federal process required for any large scale capital project is already under way, the transit agency will have to come up with between 60 percent and 80 percent of the cost, which is the typical amount for such endeavors.

There are other options for funding the project in a poor economy, according to Steve Schlickman, executive director at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center.

A private contracting consortium could come in to build the tracks, run the system and collect fares, and if all goes well, ultimately reap any surplus in fares or other revenue as a return on investment, he said.

The private sector could do the job “faster and cheaper” than any traditional public construction approach, but Schlickman warns there isn’t a transit system in the country that has turned a profit.

“I don’t know that there would be a private consortium of companies out there that would ever consider it unless there was a way to return on the investment,” he said.

Concession rights on the stations can bring in some funds, as can development rights, he said.

“The city has some public property that can be turned over to a private company,” Schlickman says. “They could say, ‘If you invest in the project to help get this line built, we will give you the right to develop around the station.’ ”

Other options include creating a special service area that would raise tax increment financing funds. Some south suburban mayors are already setting up a “mass transit district” that allows the district to levy a property tax for the construction of a new line.

But until the money is found, riders on the Far South Side and South Side will still have to wait, and wait, for that extension to connect their communities to jobs and everything else downtown has to offer.

Developing Communities Project, a faith-based organization in Roseland which has been fighting for the extension since 2003, doesn’t believe the project is on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s front-burner, even though he listed the extension as his top transportation priority during his campaign last year.

“So far, we have heard no clear or accountable statement from public officials that [providing] local and state matching funds for the Red Line Extension is the city’s top priority,” the group said in a statement.

Time will tell whether next year’s project will help get funding for the extension, but Schlickman believes the $240 million reconstruction of the 95th Street station in spring of 2014 will help its chances: “If they can turn that into a more attractive hub, that could help improve ridership on the Red Line,” he said. “It also shows their commitment to the community to do what they can to start advancing the Red Line extension. That work I’m pretty sure is going to make the Red Line extension much more possible.”

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