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$492 million overhaul of Blue Line could cut trip from downtown to O’Hare by 10 minutes

A Blue Line trains headsdowntown passing Cumberland. The CTA is planning four-year $492 milliupgrade Blue Line. | Sun-Times

A Blue Line trains headsdowntown passing Cumberland. The CTA is planning a four-year, $492 million upgrade to the Blue Line. | Sun-Times

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Updated: January 7, 2014 6:23AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel Thursday announced a $492 million plan to overhaul the O’Hare Blue Line -- but travelers won’t be facing the months of total rail shutdown recently shouldered by the South Side’s Red Line riders.

Instead, to shave up to 10 minutes off the trip from O’Hare International Airport to downtown, work on “Your New Blue” will occur over four years, starting in 2014.

During that time, O’Hare Blue Line passengers will combat sporadic overnight and weekend track work, as well as temporary station shutdowns -- and be asked to hop shuttle buses to working rail stations.

“You can’t close the line to the airport,” explained CTA President Forrest Claypool. “O’Hare is the economic engine of the region. It’s critical to commerce and tourism and everything else.”

Plus, Claypool said, the Blue Line does not have another rail line running parallel to it. The Green Line’s close proximity to the Red Line allowed the CTA to shuttle most Red Line riders to the Green Line for five months.

Some Red Line reconstruction critics initially charged that the CTA would never have planned a total rail shutdown in another part of town, but Red Line riders later raved about the quick, free shuttles they enjoyed during it. The on-time, on-budget project has proven to be a feather in Claypool’s cap.

CTA officials also said the four-year Blue Line job involves complex signal work, something that was done on Red Line South before that $425 million track reconstruction and station improvement project started this past May.

“Your New Blue” work also will include upgrades to 13 stations, improvements to tracks, reduction of slow zones and power upgrades. Planned 4G internet and cell phone access should be a boon in subway tunnels pocketed with intermittent cell phone internet access.

Emanuel noted that the O’Hare Blue Line is among the fastest-growing of the CTA’s branches, so the near half-billion dollar project represents an investment in a growing city.

“If you’re going to have a modern economy, you must have a modern transit system,” Emanuel said at a news conference at the Blue Line’s Logan Square station.

The Blue Line’s Congress branch currently has the most feet of slow zones in the CTA system, at 27,670, according to the CTA’s latest slow zone map. But the O’Hare Branch is close behind, with 26,353 feet -- and more than 19,000 of them carrying trains at 25 mph or slower.

In February of 2012, Emanuel said he would favor as an “immediate goal” shaving up to 12 minutes off a trip from O’Hare to downtown over former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s dream of a 70 mph express train from downtown to O’Hare.

Rather than a 70 mph non-stop trip, Claypool said Thursday, “What we’re shooting for here is consistent, reliable 55 mph trains on our system.”

Blue Line rider Megan Groves, 34, of Wicker Park, agreed with that priority.

“It’s going to affect more people [than an express train to O’Hare],” Groves said. “These repairs will affect all the people who live along the Blue Line and use it for work and play as opposed to people who are tourists.”

The work represents the largest comprehensive improvement to the Blue Line since the O’Hare branch extension was built from Jefferson Park to O’Hare in 1983, officials said.

CTA spokesman Brian Steele said commuters should not see a significant lengthening of their travel time during the four-year project, and the impact will be more “sporadic” than that faced by Red Line riders. Some 80,000 customers use stations along the O’Hare Blue Line branch each weekday.

“Impacts on Blue Line commuters will be nothing like Red Line South, because the projects are completely different,” Steele said. However, he added, “Because we don’t yet have specific construction schedules for the individual projects, we don’t know what the specific impacts will be until we’re closer to the project start.”

The plan includes track and station improvements along a 12.5-mile stretch between the Grand and Cumberland stations and signal upgrades between Jefferson Park and O’Hare. The first stations to be affected will be Damen, Western and California, officials said.

Funding is expected from local, state and federal sources, including $86 million from Governor Pat Quinn’s Illinois Jobs Now Capital Construction fund. The project should create more than 1,300 jobs, officials said.


Twitter: @rosalindrossi

Contributing: Stefano Esposito

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