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Fixing the Red Line: Let’s tough it out

View CTA Red Line looking south from 95th Street overpass. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

View of the CTA Red Line looking south from 95th Street overpass. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 12, 2012 6:07AM

We can’t live without it. The CTA’s Red Line is the city’s safety net and equalizer, an urban lifeline that links us to our paychecks, diplomas, baby sitters, even a good movie. Last week CTA officials announced a plan to shut down the rail line’s southern end for five months next year to mount a $425 million renovation of tracks, stations and infrastructure.

Nine stops on the route will be closed, from Cermak-Chinatown to 95th Street. The CTA rejected a plodding, on-the-weekend-only alternative, arguing the short-term option will speed up the project and save $75 million that will cover additional upgrades. The trek downtown on the newly refurbished line will be 10 minutes faster.

Let’s just do it. There will be pain but much more gain.

I love the CTA. Long before the “Red Line” existed, I was a CTA baby. After serving in the Korean War, my father’s ticket to a decent wage came via a job as a conductor on the iconic “A” train.

I learned every corner of the city via rickety old buses, my “green machines.” I learned to navigate the L from Howard to 63rd to Jefferson Park.

Some people love their cars. I covet a window seat on the #146 Express.

CTA officials pledge an aggressive plan to limit the inconvenience, claiming they will roll out an army of shuttle buses, fare discounts and other stopgaps.

Still, in Chicago, there’s those nagging old questions. What took so long? What’s the rush? Who will benefit?

After all, riders of color on the South and West sides have always long suspected something that’s hard to prove: CTA’s service is not equitable.

Several years ago, the Brown Line, which traverses whiter and wealthier enclaves, was overhauled in stages that minimized inconvenience.

Cynics say black folks just don’t have the clout to push back.

As a North Sider, it may be easy for me to say. But I do say we’re tough, hard-headed pragmatics. Let’s just do it, but just be sure a big chunk of the work goes to minority workers and contractors (real ones, not fronts).

The Red Line rehab will lay the groundwork for the long-awaited extension to 130th Street into far-flung, needy neighborhoods like Roseland.

I was heartened that African-American elected officials have resisted the temptation to play the race card.

3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell says that so far she is “satisfied” with the Red Line plan. She acknowledged there will be inconvenience but told the media, “The benefits that come with the improvements that the CTA is going to make in the long run is great for our community.”

CTA President Forrest Claypool’s tenure has been impressive. He has kept labor peace and managed to dodge unwelcome fare hikes and service cutbacks.

Chicago’s festering segregation makes it harder for black folks to get “there.” Our lifeline needs an overhaul and not a moment too soon.

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