Push to Use Downtown Property Taxes to Fund Far South Side Red Line Extension Faces Key Vote

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

A proposal backed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to use property tax revenue generated downtown to fund the $3.6 billion extension of the CTA’s Red Line from 95th Street to the city’s southern border near 130th Street faces a key test next week.

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The Chicago City Council’s Finance Committee, scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Monday, is set to consider Lightfoot’s plan to create a new tax-increment financing district along the southern branch of the CTA Red Line to fund the extension of the train line first envisioned by former Mayor Richard J. Daley in the 1950s.

With the endorsement of the powerful panel, the measure could get a final vote on Wednesday. The move would generate $950 million for the project by funneling a portion of the increase in property tax revenues for the next 35 years from the 42nd, 3rd, 4th, 11th and 25th wards — even though the extension of the train line would be miles away from any of those wards.

The city must match an expected federal grant of $2.16 billion before the first track can be laid — but it is not clear whether the City Council will give the project signal clearance.

Only one of the City Council members who would see their constituents’ property taxes used to build 5.6 miles of new train tracks and four train stations miles from their homes supports the plan: Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th Ward), a frequent critic of Lightfoot.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward), an ally of the mayor and chair of the City Council’s Budget Committee, told members of the Community Development Commission in October that the “jury was still out” on whether she would support the proposal but would continue to discuss the issue with Lightfoot’s administration.

In August, Dowell told the commission the proposal would be a “bad deal” for residents of Bronzeville and set a bad precedent.

Dowell did not respond to a request for comment from WTTW News on Thursday, nor did Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward), who has publicly suggested that Lightfoot’s proposal faces stiff headwinds in an election year and is complicated by her tense relationship with many members of the City Council, including her allies.

Ald. Nicole Lee, who was appointed by Lightfoot to represent the 11th Ward on the City Council, told WTTW News she had not yet made up her mind on whether to back the proposal.

All five alderpeople are running for reelection on Feb. 28 and each faces at least one opponent.

CTA officials have defended the plan by saying the extension will benefit the entire city — not just the Far South Side — by allowing people to get to work in the Loop 30 minutes faster while reducing carbon emissions from cars.

The proposal, which officials said would create 6,000 jobs, also has the support of the politically powerful Chicago Federation of Labor.

If the City Council approves the proposal, it would create the city’s second Transit Tax Increment Financing District. The first Transit TIF was created in 2017 to fund the reconstruction of the Red, Purple and Brown lines on the North Side with little controversy. That work is underway now.

Lightfoot has called the extension of the Red Line to the city’s southern border one of the “most critical investments in CTA’s history” and said it will “undoubtedly be a transformative development for our Far South Side community.”

It would be hypocritical for the City Council to vote 48-0 to create a way to rebuild the CTA Red Line through the North Side but reject a similar plan for the Far South Side, which is “essentially a transit desert,” said Lou Turner, a professor of urban and regional planning for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Extending the Red Line south to the city’s border would serve as part of a continuing “racial reckoning” that is necessary to grapple with the “transit apartheid” that has led to decades of disinvestment on the South Side, Turner said.

“This would be a profound and historic game changer,” said Turner, adding that the lack of public transportation on the South Side has fueled the massive exodus of Black Chicagoans from the city.

The city’s use of TIF districts has fueled a perennial argument over whether the districts, which capture all growth in the property tax base in a designated area for 23 years, actually spur redevelopment and eradicate blight or serve to exacerbate growing inequality in Chicago. The proposed TIF to fund the extension of the Red Line would not reduce funding to the Chicago Public Schools.

Typically, the funds generated by TIF must be used in the same area of the city that the taxes were generated. But the TIF proposed by Lightfoot would use the growth concentrated downtown and south of the Loop to fund the train line extension on the Far South Side, where property tax revenue has been stagnant or declining for many years — a reminder of the legacy left by modern segregation.

Turner said he was appalled to hear so much “grousing” about whether downtown and Near South Side residents would benefit from the extension of the Red Line to Altgeld Gardens, which is almost completely cut off from the rest if the city, and has served as a “dumping ground” for garbage and toxic waste for decades.

“The Far South Side has already paid for it,” Turner said.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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