Chicago streetcars get a hyped $400k makeover

By Marnie Hunter, CNN • Updated 12th January 2020 If you walk by a bus-side storage bin with the names “R” and “S” in larger print, do you think to yourself, “What’s with the…

Chicago streetcars get a hyped $400k makeover

By Marnie Hunter, CNN • Updated 12th January 2020

If you walk by a bus-side storage bin with the names “R” and “S” in larger print, do you think to yourself, “What’s with the giant red nails?”

The answer is, “Big deal,” but what if these were the streetcars.

Chicago’s streetcars, at their jaunty best, are the stuff of wishful thought.

Pioneering a storied mode of transportation was never far away from these 19th-century modern marvels. Chicago history is chock full of charming stories of people hauling stables and coaches across town in wagons, by mule, and, most famously, by rail.

Then came the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), an independent municipal agency that by 1973 had lost its independence, was at a financial tipping point and was asking the American people for support. That support came by the ballot, with a $5.8 billion bond referendum question, ushering in Chicago’s first generations of streetcars in 75 years.

The math was both simple and optimistic. Tons of new tracks were laid for almost a decade, without any increase in signal or trackage costs, according to historical archive documents. Seemingly, there would be no longer any need for storage. And, other than the wooden caissons, and slowly degrading motor components, the streetcars would have the same mechanical, mechanical problem-free history as its predecessors.

Let’s bring everything back to square one

But alas, that picture is turned around.

This year, Chicago will turn 100. And that’s where things get confusing again. According to Chicago Public Infrastructure, a CTA website that provides information about the city’s infrastructure projects, the agency needs to store the trains for two years after they have been taken out of service to ensure that they’ll work reliably in winter. The “rigid steel components” are strung across the track to ensure that the trains are locked into place for the foreseeable future, according to an older CTA document.

In November, the CTA announced that it would pay just $400,000 to bury the storage bunks underneath new streetcar track beginning in May, after it was determined they posed a safety hazard. The agency could have saved $8 million by adding a steel cage, according to the IDOT website .

“There is no question that (an underground storage system) needs to be safe and we need to train people in how to properly install one,” said CTA spokesman Brian Steele. But he also said that keeping the trains underground would make it impossible to keep the agency’s residents informed about the streetcars’ performance and planned upgrades. “Keeping the trains under the ground removes the level of distrust that we have built over the past several years,” he said.

That last piece is the difficult part.

Families caring for aging parents might appreciate that extra stability, but some residents who live near the tracks are unhappy that their property values could be hit, and frustrated by the increased noise of the trains underground.

But as noted, this is Chicago, which has no shortage of quirky ideas for suburban transit. CTA Park and Ride lots exist to house city residents commuting to jobs in the city. CTA mini buses park near homes, bicycles can be parked inside doorways and waiting areas, and CTA stations offer outdoor seating.

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