Howard Ehrman is among the many transit activists who’ve been called into the office of CTA president Frank Kruesi to hear his pitch: join the campaign to wrest more money from the state or there will be severe cuts in bus and train service. Ehrman won’t join. “It’s a ruse,” he says. “It’s a trick.”

Two weeks ago I wrote about how Kruesi’s had a hard time winning support from riders and activists, many of whom see him as an ego-tripping technocrat. Ehrman’s more worried about what Kruesi would do with the money if he got it. “Kruesi says he needs $55 million or $70 million–he changes the numbers all the time–to maintain current service,” he says. “But he’s asking the state for $82 million. You have to ask, what is Mr. Kruesi going to do with the extra money?”

Ehrman, a medical doctor who lives in Little Village, has turned himself into a public-transportation expert by examining virtually every plan, study, and budget released by the CTA over the past few years. He passionately believes the CTA should spend its resources to make services more equitable across the city. “It’s important to get transit services, particularly rail service, to those people and areas who don’t have them or don’t have enough,” he says. “It’s especially important to do this when we don’t have a lot of money to go around.”

He doesn’t think that’s Kruesi’s agenda. “He’s taking from the transit poor and giving to the transit rich,” he says. “The proof is in how they spend their operational and capital dollars.”

The CTA has two separate budgets–operating and capital. Operating funds come from the state sales tax and are used to run the system–paying employees, buying fuel, etc. Kruesi, along with his mentor Mayor Daley, wants the state to change the formula by which it distributes these funds to various transit systems so that the CTA gets a bigger share of them. Capital funds come directly from the federal and state governments and are used to build new lines or buy new buses and trains.

The two budgets are separate, says Ehrman, but “operating dollars follow capital dollars.”

In other words, if CTA officials use capital dollars to build a new train line, they’ll of course have to use operating dollars to run it. And unless the operating revenues increase enough to cover the new service, existing revenues will have to be stretched–and most likely something will get cut.

Ehrman’s worried that the CTA is planning to spend capital dollars on projects in areas that already have plenty of services, and he worries that when operating funds get tight the cuts will come in communities that don’t have alternatives. “Their long-range plans are on the books for anyone to see,” he says.

Kruesi and Daley have clearly endorsed two costly capital projects: the Circle Line and the massive station below Block 37 at State and Randolph. Unveiled in 2002, the Circle Line is a “billion-dollar-plus circular rail line that would connect to existing L and Metra routes while winding through Chicago’s downtown,” according to a Sun-Times article by Robert Herguth. “Called the ‘Circle Line’–although the shape more closely resembles the state of Indiana than a perfect ring–it includes 6.6 miles of new subway and elevated track, and another 6 or so miles of existing track. The route would cut through downtown and go as far south as Bridgeport, as far north as Old Town and as far west as the United Center.”

Herguth’s story on the Circle Line appeared on March 11, 2002. The next day’s papers carried stories in which Daley vowed to lobby Congress to finance it. Since then neither Daley nor Kruesi has said much about it.

Ehrman points out that the Circle Line would closely parallel existing train and bus lines and that it would cost a fortune–among other things, portions of the Brown Line would have to be put underground. But his bottom line is that there are many more pressing needs. “There’s a limited amount of money for public transportation,” he says. “If you spend your federal dollars on the Circle Line you’re not spending them elsewhere.”

He points to some of the places the CTA could spend capital funds, including the southern end of the Red Line. “For 30 years there’s been a plan on the books to extend the Red Line from 95th, where it now stops, to 130th Street,” he says. “People on the south side have urged the CTA to do this, but the CTA only gives it lip service.”

Ehrman and other transit activists have also been pushing for the Mid-City Transit Way, which would run the length of the city along existing railroad lines and rail rights-of-way near Cicero Avenue. He points out that it would serve many more communities than the Circle Line. “It’s less expensive–it would cost half as much per mile because it’s built on rail rights-of-way,” he says. “It would service the highest number of riders of any new line in the city and suburbs, and it would connect to more Metra and existing CTA lines than the Circle Line. If you’re going to build one megaproject it makes much more sense to build the Mid-City than the Circle Line.”

Kruesi says he hasn’t chosen one rail project over any other, though there are signs that he has. Last week Mayor Daley endorsed the Block 37 station and the idea of running express trains from there to O’Hare. The CTA has also quietly spent $33 million rebuilding the Paulina Connector, which runs along Paulina from the Eisenhower Expressway section of the Blue Line to the Green Line at Lake Street and would serve as the first phase of the Circle Line. “For almost 50 years it’s been a single track used to shuttle maintenance trains between the Green Line and the Blue lines,” says Ehrman. Now a second track has been added, and he suspects that one reason Kruesi wants extra funds from the state is to start up service on the connector.

Ehrman says he’s looked over the plans for the connector, and he believes that bringing it online will hurt riders on the Blue Line’s Douglas Branch, which runs from the town of Cicero through North Lawndale, Little Village, and Pilsen before hitting the Eisenhower, going into the Loop, and heading out to O’Hare. He thinks inbound Blue Line trains would get diverted north to the Green Line before going into the Loop, greatly inconveniencing passengers headed for the south end of the Loop or the near west side, because they’d have to ride all the way around the Loop before getting off. “In the name of adding service for some,” he says, “the CTA would be reducing service for others.”

Riders in Pilsen and Little Village also worry that if service starts on the connector it will provide momentum for continuing the Circle Line project. “Every Sunday for the last six months the CTA’s been running test trains along the Paulina Connector,” says Miguel Turnil, director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. “People are talking about–people have seen the trains.”

“The status has not changed on either one of these projects,” says Sheila Gregory, a CTA spokeswoman. “The Circle Line is still a proposal, and it’s just going through the development process as a proposed project. The Paulina Connector is scheduled to be completed at the end of January. It has yet to be determined what will happen with that as far as trains running. We’re in the middle of a funding crisis and working to get the General Assembly to take a look at the funding formula of transit. What happens with that is going to determine what level of service we’ll be able to provide next year. It’s up in the air at this point.”

But Ehrman says, “They are giving hints. Why spend $33 million on the Paulina Connector if they aren’t going to use it? Why ask for millions more in state aid than they need to run existing service if they’re not going to use it on new services? I want the state legislators to ask Kruesi what he’s going to do with the money they give him–make him tell us what’s really going on.”

Payback Time

For over two decades Steve Wiedersberg’s been teasing and taunting Alderman Dorothy Tillman. Last month the Third Ward alderman may have struck back.

Wiedersberg’s the south-side cabdriver and political maverick who’s been battling Tillman since the 1983 aldermanic election. Back then he was a precinct captain in the Third Ward’s long-deceased Regular Democratic Organization, and she was a political upstart running as an independent. A smoother operator would have held his tongue once she took control of the ward, if only to make his life easier. Not Wiedersberg. “Dorothy and I have been archenemies since Moses came down from the mountain,” he says.

Wiedersberg moved out of the Third Ward years ago, but on October 17 he ventured back to attend a birthday party for Herb Kent, the legendary disc jockey. The party was held at a club at 47th and King Drive, next to Tillman’s office. “I should have known not to park in the heart of Dorothyland,” says Wiedersberg, “but I wanted to pay my respects to Herb.”

He parked his cab on the east side of King Drive, not far from Tillman’s office. “The street was lined with other parked cars,”

he says. “I didn’t see any no-parking signs. I didn’t have any reason to think I couldn’t park there.”

At the club he bumped into Tillman. “We exchanged friendly fuck-yous–just a few nonpleasant cordialities,” he says. “First thing she says is, ‘What are you doing here?'”

After about 30 minutes at the party Wiedersberg left–just in time to see a Streets and Sanitation tow-truck operator about to hook the front of his cab. “The guy said, ‘We were just about to tow you,'” says Wiedersberg. “I pointed to all the other cars parked up and down the street and said, ‘What about them?’ He said, ‘There’s a sign up there.’ He pointed to a telephone pole, and I’ll be goddamned if there wasn’t one of those paper, handwritten tow-zone signs taped around the pole. I swear to God it wasn’t there when I parked. At least I didn’t see it before, and neither did none of the others. Why else would they park there?”

Tillman didn’t return calls about this, but Wiedersberg has a theory about what happened. “I can’t prove it, but I believe Dorothy called the ward superintendent and said, ‘Send the wolves out.’ It’s a labor of love, fighting Dorothy, and I guess she feels the same way about fighting me. I could move to Mars and come back, and she would be still fighting me.”

Of course it’s also possible that it’s just a coincidence that the city was towing cars when Wiedersberg happened to park on that stretch of King Drive.

“I’ve never seen them tow cars on a Sunday, at least not here on the south side,” says Wiedersberg. “I didn’t get a ticket. Nobody was ticketed–usually the police write you a ticket before they tow you. After I drove off I had to come right around the block. The tow truck was gone, and I didn’t see any cars towed out of there. Coincidence? You know there ain’t no coincidences in Chicago politics.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.