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Analysis: Political savvy, financial reality allowed Emanuel to pitch 5-month Red Line shutdown

Ari Glass senior VP for Zeller Realty Group stands behind Mayor Rahm Emanuel as they joU.S. Department Energy Secretary Dr.

Ari Glass, senior VP for the Zeller Realty Group stands behind Mayor Rahm Emanuel as they join U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu inside the Wrigley Building to discuss efforts to improve the energy efficiency of buildings across Chicago and spur job creation on Tuesday, June 5, 2012. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 7, 2012 8:42AM

It sounds like political suicide for a Chicago mayor.

Shut down a CTA line that runs through the heart of the African-American community for five months, inconveniencing tens of thousands of commuters promised faster rides when the work is done.

That’s what Mayor Rahm Emanuel is doing by completely rebuilding the south leg of the CTA’s Red Line from Cermak to 95th Street — and he appears to be getting away with it.

Not a single African-American alderman or elected official is saying, “Wait a minute.” They all appear to be on board with the mayor’s five-month shutdown and singing from his choir book.

“I’ve been surprised there hasn’t been more of a public outcry,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University.

The absence of a racial or political backlash in a town notorious for both is a product of both financial reality and Emanuel’s lobbying skill.

One year before the 10-mile stretch is scheduled to close, the CTA held a series of closed door briefings for impacted African-American aldermen to outline plans to offer displaced CTA riders free shuttle bus service between the Red and Green Lines and 50-cent discounts on other bus rides.

Emanuel also promised to pump the $75 million in construction savings back into the community — in the form of South Side station improvements the CTA could not have afforded otherwise.

And in the wake of the minority contracting controversy on the Metra railroad bridge known as the “Englewood Flyover,” the mayor promised to work with the Urban League to give minority contractors a piece of the Red Line pie, hire community residents to drive shuttle buses and retain those new drivers even after the work is done.

Although he campaigned on a promise to extend the Red Line from 95

th Street to 130 th , Emanuel further argued that the $425 million track replacement project must precede the extension.

“I’m satisfied that CTA has come up with alternative travel plan. … And they’re giving some forethought to hiring and contracts, which will keep them from making the same mistakes that perhaps Metra made,” said Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd).

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee who has raised a stink about the absence of minority contractors on the Englewood Flyover, said, “We’re ahead of the game on this one. We’re gonna take this to the community before any general contractor is chosen. We’re gonna have some outreach to the community.”

Ald. Michelle Harris (8 th ) added, “This will be great for our community that is under-employed to get those numbers of jobs in the community.”

After allowing his handpicked CTA team to take the heat on Day One of the Red Line roll-out, Emanuel defended the plan on Tuesday.

The mayor acknowledged that it will be tough for South Side commuters to swallow the five-month closing. But, he argued that it trumps the alternative — four years of weekend-only shutdowns on a line that has 70,000 weekend riders, the most in the system.

“Both [alternatives] have complications. It’s not like one’s complicated and the other isn’t. [But], when you weigh those complications, you can take the $75 million in savings … and invest it in 200 new jobs, stations that weren’t originally in the plan,” Emanuel said.

“While we know there will be disruption, the savings go right back into the people [who] will be affected. I happen to think those are the right set of choices … The Green Line was closed for two years. We’re talking about five months here. And, we’re not taking the $75 million and putting it into the office of the CTA.”

While campaigning for mayor, Emanuel said he rode the Red Line and experienced first-hand the frustrations of “going 15 miles-an-hour on a train that’s built for 45 or 50” miles-per-hour.

“It’s one thing when you look at cars driving past you. It’s another thing when you look at a guy on a bicycle passing you,” he said.

During the Blizzard of ‘79, then-Mayor Michael Bilandic’s decision to bypass CTA stations in the African-American community triggered a furious political backlash that may well have sealed his defeat to upstart challenger Jane Byrne.

But, Schwieterman sees no comparison to the Red Line project. That’s even though CTA rail projects on the North Side have been done in phases and on weekends.

“I don’t think there’s a racial justice component or racial implication. The CTA needs to keep containing costs. That requires closing lines outright. It’s painful, but it saves money. It’s an unfortunate new reality. We have to suffer some pain to avoid spending more than necessary with dollars drying up,” he said.

Harris was asked whether the mayor would have dared to close an entire CTA line on the North Side, where Emanuel lives.

“Sure they would,” she said. “This line is 40 years old. It hasn’t seen any improvements. At points in the line, you’re almost stopping to drive through it. Would that community have allowed that to happen to them? They probably would have been a little more aggressive in telling the city what their needs were.”

Schwieterman said the apparent double-standard between North and South Side CTA rail projects has more to do with engineering than politics.

“On the North Side, it’s more complex with the L structure and dense populations living near the tracks. You can’t make that much noise by working at night. On the South Side, it’s buffered by the highway. They can get it done fairly quickly if they shut it down,” he said.

“On the North Side, you’ve got four tracks all the way up to Belmont. You can take tracks out of service and still keep the system running. South, you just have two tracks. If you take one out of service, the whole system shuts down.”

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