After the CTA’s latest whopping misstep on its controversial Brown Line reconstruction project you’d think it would have come up with a new strategy for winning public support. But no change in attitude has been on display, certainly not at a March 2 hearing at Lane Tech High School. “The CTA had a chance to make inroads,” says 47th Ward alderman Eugene Schulter, whose ward includes a long stretch of the Brown Line, “and they blew it.”

Those are strong words coming from one of the project’s biggest boosters. But as Schulter, other supporters, and opponents see it, the project’s been marred from the start by the CTA’s arrogant, we-know-what’s-best stance. CTA officials have reflexively dismissed suggestions as undoable, criticisms as unwarranted. They’ve downplayed the project’s inconveniences and talked up its benefits. And now they seem to expect people to believe that even though they got the city into a mess, they’re the ones who know best how to get us out of it. “This only seems to get worse every step of the way,” says Schulter. “This is the most incompetent project I’ve ever seen.”

CTA officials did hold a series of public hearings in the fall of 2001, when the project was just getting started. But they were dog and pony shows–CTA publicists told audiences what they thought the audiences wanted to hear, glossing over anything that might spark opposition. To many riders and businesspeople, the most important promise was the one to keep all 18 of the affected stations–Chicago Avenue being the southernmost–open throughout construction.

Residents around the Fullerton stop condemned the plan to tear down several nice old buildings. Local businesses that would be forced to relocate protested too. But otherwise the project generated little opposition.

It took CTA officials and Illinois politicians a couple years to round up federal funding, which covers roughly 80 percent of the project’s costs: $423 million comes from the feds, $50 million from the state, $56 million from bonds floated by the Regional Transportation Authority, and $1.1 million from the CTA. In March 2004 the CTA asked for bids on the construction portion of the project (the other major portions are land acquisition and demolition). But by the May deadline only two companies had submitted bids, and their estimates were at least $152 million more than the CTA had budgeted.

CTA president Frank Kruesi and chairman Carole Brown say that they were surprised by the high bids, that they hadn’t realized the project would cost so much. Yet the gadflies in Lincoln Park had been telling the CTA for two years that the Fullerton station plans went far beyond what was necessary. And they weren’t just making blind accusations–they’d hired engineers to go over the plans in great detail. The activists couldn’t understand why the CTA was trying to do so much or how it thought it could afford to pay for all the extras.

“I can’t speak for the other stations, but the scale of the Fullerton station project was way out of proportion,” says Martin Oberman, the former 43rd Ward alderman who’s led the opposition to that part of the plan. “I had countless meetings with CTA engineers and officials. We kept showing them how they could have made the platforms less wide or shorter.” He says CTA officials refused to listen–they didn’t like neophytes telling the experts how to run the project. “Every time we raised an objection about the length or width of a platform the CTA came up with a reason for why they had to be that long or that wide. Then we’d investigate and we’d find out that the explanation wasn’t really true.”

Oberman says the high bids should have been seen as a blessing, because they gave Kruesi and Brown an opportunity to come back to the community and work with riders and their experts to come up with a solution everyone could live with. But CTA officials held no public hearings. They wouldn’t even meet with small groups of riders and residents, though Schulter asked them to. “We wanted a chance to go over the project–to review the budget,” he says. “We have a lot of talented people in our area who could have lent a lot of expertise to this project.”

More than anything Schulter wanted to make sure that CTA officials looked at everything that could be cut before they turned to closing stations. “An obvious way to save money on a project is to close stations while you construct it,” he says. “We understand that it’s difficult and expensive to keep stations open while you’re doing construction. So we wanted to be sure that they looked at every single other cost-saving option.”

Schulter says the officials’ response was, Don’t worry–we know what we’re doing. He says they also promised him that no stations would be closed.

But then on January 11 Kruesi and Brown told Schulter and several other north-side aldermen that they’d made a mistake. In order to cut construction costs, they were going to have to close stations after all. Three stations–Fullerton, Belmont, and Western–would remain open throughout construction. The other 15 would be closed at some point for up to a year. That would save $22 million. The remaining $130 million would be saved through redesigns and changes in construction plans. They intended to start the project in the fall and finish it by December 2009.

Reaction among the riders has been mixed. Some are upset that they’ll have to walk farther to catch a train. Others say they don’t really care if stations close, as long as the CTA makes good on its promise not to close consecutive stations at the same time.

Merchants with shops along the line who depend on commuters for their livelihood are livid. “Shut down a station and they go out of business,” says Schulter. “What do you say to the guy who mortgaged his house to start up?”

Schulter says several merchants signed leases after CTA officials told them directly that no stations would close. They feel they were deceived, and they want compensation for the business they’re going to lose. “Nobody thought stations would close,” says Zach Maiorca, who owns the Bloom Yoga Studio at 4663 N. Rockwell. “People were told by the CTA or by Alderman Schulter’s office, don’t worry–the stops will remain open.”

Under pressure from local merchants, Schulter demanded that the CTA hold a hearing. That’s why Kruesi and Brown and their staff came to Lane Tech on March 2.

Once again these officials demonstrated that they’re clueless when it comes to public relations. They had a slide show, but the audience couldn’t follow it because the print on the projected slides was so small. The audience couldn’t hear the leadoff speaker, project coordinator John Dalton, because he talked softly and mumbled.

Kruesi and Brown spoke louder, but they gave indirect answers to direct questions and promised to get back to people regarding fundamental questions, such as how much the Brown Line generates in fares each year. They promised to “mitigate” the losses commuters and merchants would suffer, but they never explained what that meant, even though several people pressed them on the point.

“It’s been like this all along,” says Schulter. “You ask, ‘What are you doing?’ And they say, ‘We’ll get back to you.’ It’s been over nine months since the high bids came in–what have they been doing all this time?”

Brown did apologize for promising to keep all the stations open throughout construction. “That was a mistake,” she said. “We should have never promised that.”

After the meeting Max Reising, a north-side resident, said he wasn’t buying the apology. “Telling us that the stations would remain open wasn’t a mistake,” he said. “It was a strategy.” He was sure that CTA officials had decided at the beginning that they had to say stations would remain open, whether they believed it or not. “Did they flat out knowingly lie from the beginning about the station closings, or are they so unbelievably incompetent in their estimates?” asks Oberman. “I don’t know the answer. But neither answer is very reassuring.”

Some residents continue to plead for a chance to meet with CTA officials to go over the project’s budget and look for other ways to scale it back without closing stations. But Kruesi says the CTA signed its grant agreement with the federal government on January 31 and it can’t be changed.

That assertion makes Oberman and Schulter laugh. “They must think we’re dummies,” says Schulter. He and Oberman point out several projects that were changed after federal funding agreements had been reached, including the recent Dan Ryan construction project, which the state revised after complaints about plans to close several exit and entrance ramps.

Several politicians have told me that such agreements are pieces of paper drafted by lawyers acting at the behest of powerful politicians like Mayor Daley and House speaker Dennis Hastert, and that if the politicians tell the lawyers to change the wording they change the wording. “This reminds me of what they used to tell us about the platforms at Fullerton,” Oberman says. “They come up with some reason to say why they can’t do what people want them to do.”

Schulter, who says he still supports the project, predicts it will go forward. But he thinks the merchants along the line will eventually force the CTA either to figure out some way to keep the stations open or to compensate them for their losses, which could cost even more money.

“We’re very serious about this,” says Schulter, who’s called for City Council hearings. “We’re not going away. I expect the CTA to go back to the drawing board and come back with another proposal–and finally do this thing right.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.