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Red Line train heading south

A 95th bound Red Line train travels toward the station on Chicago’s South Side, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

A plan to expand Chicago’s Red Line south with TIF money passes a key council committee

A decadeslong plan to extend the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line south to 130th Street passed out of the City Council’s finance committee Monday with only one alderperson rejecting the plan, which will go before the full City Council this week.

Like many big development projects in Chicago, the plan calls for a new TIF, or tax increment financing district.The TIF would raise $950 million toward the $3.6 billion project and is needed to tap into federal dollars, which will cover about two-thirds of the overall project. City Council approval is needed before the end of the year to be eligible for that federal money.

The 5.6-mile extension would add four new stations near 103rd Street, 111th Street, Michigan Avenue and 130th Street. The rail line would be elevated from 95th Street, where it runs along the highway, and will connect areas such as the Roseland medical center and commercial corridor.

Testifying before the City Council on Monday, CTA President Dorval Carter urged aldermen to make this project a reality, saying it’s not a mistake this area of the city is the only area without direct access to a rail line.

“Correct a decade of wrongdoing for this community,” Carter told aldermen, saying this is about “fairness.”

But several aldermen questioned why the TIF was the only local funding source and why the state and county weren’t helping to cover the bill.

It didn’t help that several constituents who would be part of the new TIF district said their property taxes increased significantly when bills were mailed out earlier this month. Carter said he’d be willing to look at additional funding sources in the future.

“The talk has been about citywide benefits but not citywide funding,” said Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd Ward, whose residents would be included in the new tax boundary. “I believe that because these benefits would be citywide, everyone should have skin in the game.”

“It cannot just be five wards [funding the project]. That’s porting on steroids,” Dowell added, referring to a practice where the city takes money from one TIF and moves it to another area.

For this project, officials are mirroring a TIF created in 2016 for the Red and Purple Line Modernization Project — considered the largest investment in Chicago’s public transit. It was through that TIF that the CTA has been able to rebuild sections of the century-old Red Line tracks from Belmont to Howard and the Purple Line from Howard to Linden.

This includes the Belmont bypass, which, when completed in 2025, will re-route northbound Brown Line trains up and over Red and Purple Line trains near the Belmont stop, allowing for more trains to pass through these stations. It also included the complete rebuild of the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr Red Line stations.

These transit TIFs are longer in life: 35 years compared to 23 for regular TIFS. State law was changed in 2016 and again in 2021 to allow for the city to create this special TIF exclusively for transit-related development.

The new proposed TIF would also be the city’s first so-called “equity TIF” — instead of pooling taxes from the properties within the project’s boundary, it will take taxes from downtown, the South Loop, parts of Chinatown and Bridgeport and use them for development of the transit line further south. The boundary would also be non-contiguous — meaning there are breaks in the overall boundary.

(To see if your property is within the boundary, you can use this search tool created by the city.)

The council considered this new TIF with an elephant in the room: Aldermen have recently been decrying the state of the CTA and a lack of transparency between transit agency officials and the body.

As Ald. Harry Osterman, 48th Ward, put it, “safety and cleanliness is the ballgame.” Osterman, who supported the project, said the investments would ultimately be wasted if the CTA does not address the issues that are keeping many Chicagoans from using public transit on a regular basis. The city alone cannot keep the transit agency afloat when ridership is the bulwark of the CTA’s revenue stream, he noted.

Ald. Anthony Beal, 9th Ward, represents Pullman and would benefit the most from this southbound extension of the Red Line. He’s long been an advocate for the Red Line extension, saying, “This was a promise that was made when I was a little kid.” But the lack of correspondence between him and the CTA had left Beale concerned.

“I have never met with you about the creation of this TIF,” Beale told Carter, saying prior requests he sent to meet with CTA leadership were ignored. Still, Beale ultimately voted to advance the plan.

The plan builds on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s overall efforts to invest in developing the Far South Side, including her equitable TOD, or Transit Oriented Development, ordinance that helped focus investment around train stations on the city’s South and West sides, stations that were ignored in the first iteration of the proposal under Rahm Emanuel’s administration.

For decades, residents of neighborhoods south of 95th Street have lived in what is described as a “transit desert.” There are numerous bus lines, but traveling downtown means several transfers and a headache of a commute. The extension is expected to cut 30 minutes from the overall travel time for residents living around the new train stops.

The vision for the southward expansion dates back to 1969. Over 100 community meetings have been held since then, according to the Department of Planning and Development.

Claudia Morell covers general assignments, government and transit issues for WBEZ.

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