Big plans for easier travel in Chicago

Getting around Chicago should become a little easier over the next five years. An ambitious new $1 billion-plus transportation improvement project for the nation's second largest city aims to do everything from filling in the potholes and building pedestrian walkways to extending the subway system and rehabilitating the controversial elevated structure -- or "El," as it is known here -- around the Loop.

Already under construction as part of the plan is the extension of the city's rapid transit system to O'Hare Airport. The target date for finishing that extension, which runs along the median strip of the Kennedy Expressway, is 1982. About the time it is finished, construction is scheduled to begin on a new rapid transit line from the city's southwest side to Midway Airport and the central business district.

One other possibility for the much more distant future: a rail line along the Chicago river linking the stations west of the Loop, where commuters arrive, with North Michigan Avenue (home of many posh shops and hotels) and the Navy Pier. But Jerome R. Butler Jr., commissioner of public works and vice-chairman of the Chicago area transportation study, stresses that plans for a riverbank rail line are far from definite and that a look at ridership potential and alternative transit possibilities has yet to be made.

Roughly one-third of the budgeted amount will go for improving city streets - from resurfacing and widening pavement to rebuilding intersections and bridges. Enclosed pedestrian walkways either below or above the sidewald also are part of the plan.

A relatively small portion of the money -- about $80 million -- is earmarked for rehabilitating the "El." Mr. Butler is making no promises to eliminate the screech of the elevated trains that many commuters and downtown merchants insist is a constant annoyance.

"We may be able to mitigate it, but I don't think we can completely eliminate it," he says. "The idea is to put to elevated back into first-class condition by upgrading it and replacing worn parts, so it is not only safe but less costly to maintain."

A new demonstration project aimed at improved security in five subway stations in high-crime areas also may be expanded as part of the plan. Through TV monitoring equipment and alarm buttons on station platforms, the police department is able to watch the stations from headquarters and send a squad car to any trouble site within two minutes.

In one sense, Chicago already has the money in hand to do the job. The city, in theory, is entitled to $1.1 billion in federal interstate highway transfer funds from Mayor Jane Byrne's decision, reached with Illinois Gov. James Thompson (R), to scrap a proposed crosstown expressway and a subway, which had been approved to funding. Commissioner Butler talks of "reallocating" the money to meet transportation problems that would otherwise go unmet. However, Theodore Weigle Jr., regional director for the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration, stresses that the money is not "automatically" the city's to spend and that it now must come from regular US Department of Transporation appropriated funds.

"It's not a question of making a debit against the account," says Mr. Weigle. "The competition for the money available is quite stiff."

One source of constant concern to transportation experts here is the limited capacity of the subway system in the Loop at rush hour to handle any more trains than it now does. George Krambles, former executive director of he Chicago Transit Authority and now a transportation consultant, says the mayor's plan includes some good features but that the subway projects increase the already heavy load on the "El." The answer to the problem over the long run, he says, is not rehabilitation but the building of a new subway line in the central business district.

"It's an expensive investment, but it's a sound idea," he says. "I think, when all the other alternatives are considered, it really is the answer to revitalizing Chicago's downtown."

Such a subway was part of a plan drawn up under the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, but a slow start and inflationary pressures prompted Mayor Byrne to put the idea on hold.

A number of prominent business leaders in the Loop who are members of the Chicago Central Area Committee's transportation study group have urged the mayor to reconsider an east-west subway.

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