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CTA chief: Red Line inconvenience will produce ‘absolute best’ railroad

CTA President Forrest Claypool with mayor March | Sun-Times Medifiles

CTA President Forrest Claypool with the mayor, in March | Sun-Times Media files

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Updated: June 20, 2013 4:32PM

Shortly before the kickoff of the Red Line South reconstruction, CTA President Forrest Claypool talked with Sun-Times Transportation Reporter Rosalind Rossi about a project that Claypool says will give the South Side “the absolute best” railroad in the region. Some snippets:

Q: You’ve overseen a lot of big projects. How does this compare to them?

A: This is one of the most ambitious public works projects in the United States.

Q: Is it the biggest you have overseen?

A: Yes.. . . [but it’s not just him.] We have a tremendous team here and a great contractor and it’s a small army of people who are mobilized on this.

Q: The CTA is offering a host of travel alternatives. Even so, what can you say in advance to re-routed Red Line South riders who may be taking the CTA’s name in vain on Monday?

A: We understand that this will be a significant inconvenience. We are very grateful to riders and ask them to bear with us through this project because we believe strongly that when the five months is past, it will be more than worth it because for the next 40 years, the South Side will have the best railroad in the region — the fastest, the smoothest, the absolute best. ... [When you include the contracts to South Side minority businesses and hundreds of other jobs, it will leave] a lasting legacy for many people on the South Side of Chicago. All those things are so significant that we hope the inconvenience of five months will be put in context.

Q: What was your biggest surprise overseeing the Red Line South reconstruction?

A: I’ve not been surprised. We’ve worked very methodically to avoid surprises . . . We think we’ve thought through and prepared for virtually everything that could happen.

Q: Some Red Line South riders say a total 5-month shutdown would never have happened on the North Side. Your response?

A: I’ve heard that. People say ‘They didn’t shut the Brown Line down’ [during 2004-2009 work]. What people don’t understand is that [the Brown Line work] was . . . an extension of platforms and station work, not a rebuild of the railroad. You can keep the railroad running when you rehab stations; you can’t when you are ripping it out of the ground and building a new railroad from the ground up.

Q: How often have you talked to Mayor Rahm Emanuel about this project?

A: Regularly. I talk to the mayor weekly about this and other projects. . . . This is one of the mayor’s significant initiatives, as part of the modernization of the transit system, which he views as a key economic lever for jobs and growth. ... In addition to Mayor Emanuel, I’ve talked to Gov. Quinn many times in the course of the project. Without his support, this project could not have happened since we are heavily reliant on the state for the capital for this program.

Q: What are the chances this project will finish on time [on Oct. 19, 2013]?

A: ... We are in the trust but verify mode. We have strong project managers. We are going to be tracking data every day.

Q: So what are the chances this project will finish on time?

A: Very, very high.

Q: 95 percent?

A: It’s going to finish on time.

Q: As a North Sider [and now a Ravenswood resident], when was the first time you took the Red Line South?

A: When I was running the Chicago Park District [as superintendent]. That would have been in the early to mid 90s. ... when I was spending a lot of time in South Side parks.

Q: Can you give the public a little sense of the personal toll this project is taking on you? Is there Red Line stuff all over your office? Are you dreaming about the Red Line? Or is this no big deal?

A: I definitely dream about the Red Line. My office is typically cluttered. One thing I do have that’s new is a piece of granite from a Georgia quarry, hundreds of tons of which are going to be filling in as new ballast [gravel critical to the foundation and drainage system of the tracks] on the Red Line South. It’s sort of symbolic of what this project is all about.

Q: You say you’re dreaming about the Red Line — are those nightmares?

A: No. I wish I could remember them all. But you know how it is. When you’re focused on something round the clock it tends to dominate your night time subconscious as well. . . . I think I could say the same thing about virtually anybody in the organization [involved in the project]. . . . Every single one of them is excited. Everyone of them realizes this is the World Series of transit logistics. . . . I’m very proud of them and we’re going to work as hard as we can to live up to the challenge and serve our customers.

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