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Chicago Transit Agency Gets An Upgrade Thanks to Stimulus Money

May 28, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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In Chicago, stimulus funds provide a transit agency with a much-needed upgrade. NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett reports.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, correspondent: The sound of the jackhammers boomeranged deep in the Chicago subway tunnel. Wooden ties that had been in place for over 50 years finally gave way under the pressure.

The $88 million project to replace rails for the Chicago Transit Authority, or CTA, was one of the first big transit projects to be funded by the stimulus plan.

Ill. Sen. Dick Durbin thought fixing seven miles of track was a perfect use of the federal stimulus funds.

SEN. DICK DURBIN, D-Ill.: The idea was to put a substantial amount of investment back in public infrastructure. And so we allocated the money to the agencies that get that done. The public transportation was a major part of it. Then we turned to the local units of government and to the state and said, “What do you have that’s ready to go?”

Stimulus money was 'critical'

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: There was plenty ready to go in Illinois, an ironic result of the impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. State legislators had been at such loggerheads with the former governor that, although they approved millions of dollars for infrastructure repairs, they never funded those contracts.

So the new governor was quick to apply for stimulus funds to pay for them. Illinois is getting more stimulus money for transportation and infrastructure projects than any other state: More than $600 million in funding has been approved for nearly 250 projects that could generate 9,000 jobs. The transit authority, the second largest in the nation, was due a big chunk of that.

Three years ago, a derailment that injured 150 people was blamed on poor tracks. When accidents occur or when problems with tracks are identified, the authority must slow down its commuter trains, just as is done with freight trains as they move through the city.

That, according to CTA President Richard Rodriguez, made fixing the Blue Line, used by 130,000 people daily, one of his most critical shovel-ready projects.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, president, CTA: One of the things that's plagued the CTA for a number of years has been slow zones throughout our transit -- our rail system. It basically requires our trains to operate at a lower speed, and it's because of lack of preventative maintenance on our rails.

So the replacement of ties, the replacement of rails, signals on the system, all sorts of things that attribute certain sections of our rail system to be operated at, at a slower speed.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Christopher Bushell, the chief infrastructure officer for the CTA, agrees. He says the old wooden ties were basically falling apart.

CHRISTOPHER BUSHELL, CTA: I mean, this a 50-plus-year-old piece of oak, right. It's been exposed to literally hundreds of thousands of trains, and it's been exposed to electricity, it's been exposed to water, and its time has come. I think we need a modern system now.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So this stimulus money was really critical?

CHRISTOPHER BUSHELL: The cavalry arrived just in time. So, yes, this stimulus money was critical. This work was important. It needed to be done quickly. And whoever voted for it, God bless them all.

Many jobs created

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It's not just riders who will benefit from the money. The project will create at least 400 new jobs to do the difficult and labor-intensive work.

That was good news for out-of-work crane operator Richard Burtner. Burtner was born and raised in the house he now lives in with his wife and 3-year-old son on the South Side of Chicago. With a new baby on the way, Burtner was devastated when he got laid off in January.

RICHARD BURTNER: Nobody ever thinks it's going to happen to them. You think you're highly qualified, this can't happen. It happens. It happens to the best of us.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And what kind of adjustments have you had to make?

RICHARD BURTNER: Not spending. All the spending had to stop, couldn't shop. My wife's trips to Target kind of cut the bill in half, you know, and don't go out to dinner. You can't do stuff you normally like to do. Vacations stop. Everything stops.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So Burtner was thrilled when he got a call at the union hall last month that crane operators were needed for the new CTA track repair job. He went to work the next day.

The call had come from the Stevenson crane company. Owner Donna Stevenson was able to make that call because she just been awarded a $350,000 subcontract to supply the cranes needed for the project.

Stevenson, one of the few women business-owners in the construction industry, saw her business drop by 25 percent last year. The new contract made an immediate difference.

DONNA STEVENSON, Stevenson Crane Service: I've been able to hire five new people, a couple operators back that I laid off, a couple new operators. We're working, like I said, around-the-clock, 24-hour shifts. I've got mechanics going out there working.

And as a result of that, I'm buying more oil, I'm buying more rags, I'm buying more fuel. I'm spending more money maybe on insurance. I've hired another person in the office helping with the billing. It's such a trickle-down effect.

Installing new rails

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Crane operators are critical to the project, because the machinery and equipment for the work in the subway has to be loaded in and out every weekend.

The work begins after Friday night's rush hour, when the power is cut to the subway over the seven-mile work area. The old rails are lifted off so the wooden ties can be removed. By Sunday, new rails can be brought in and installed.

The work continues around the clock until all the equipment is taken out and the power restored just before the Monday morning rush. The 12-hour shift he pulls doesn't bother Burtner.

RICHARD BURTNER: Every kid's dream is to work around heavy equipment. And I've been doing it for almost 10 years now. It's excitement every time you do it, you know, and everyone looks up to you. You're the big crane operator on the job.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: You're the big dog?


Suppliers benefit, too

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The benefits from the $88 million in stimulus funds being used in this project will spread beyond the Chicago area. The 60,000 feet of new rail being brought in was manufactured by L.B. Foster, a steel plant in Pennsylvania.

In addition, specialized track parts will be brought in from Cleveland, Ohio; plates and fasteners that attach ties to rails from a Bridgeport, New Jersey manufacturer; and lumber for shims and composite rail ties from Mooresville, North Carolina.

As pleased as transit officials are to be able to make long-neglected repairs, they say the stimulus funds are only a tiny fraction of what is needed. The authority still has $6.5 billion of un-funded infrastructure repairs and capital plans.

The head of the regional planning agency for the Chicago area says one problem with the stimulus money is that long-term needs got pushed aside in favor of shovel-ready projects.

RANDY BLANKENHORN, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning: I think that's one of our biggest concerns, is that priority really was, are they ready to go? It really was, which projects can move the quickest?

Now, that's not to say these aren't good projects. They are good projects. But I think, if you look longer term, we might have made some different selections. We might have thought about things that had a little more lasting value, like congestion relief projects, or new bus lines and transit lines that we're looking at across this region. The stimulus package isn't meant to deal with those.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Richard Burtner isn't too concerned about the long-term transportation needs of the region. He's just thrilled to have a job again.