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CTA ridership jumps to highest level in 20 years

CommutingChicago Transit AuthorityForrest Claypool

Millions more passenger trips taken on the Blue and Brown Lines helped boost CTA ridership by 3 percent last year, reaching the highest level since 1991, the transit agency said today.

The CTA ridership gain in 2011 over 2010 edged out the 2.3 percent national average increase among U.S. transit systems that was reported this week by the American Public Transportation Association.

The potential exists for ridership to grow even more in 2012, in light of significantly higher gas prices today in the Chicago area compared to last year when the mini-boom in CTA ridership started to take shape.

CTA president Forrest Claypool said early indications point to the ridership increases continuing this year.

The challenge for the transit agency will be to provide safe, reliable service and ease over-crowding during peak commuting hours when almost the entire fleets of buses and trains are in use, he said.

"As we capture more riders, we have to make sure the experience for them is comfortable," Claypool said.

But in just the last week, (since March 8) three instances of rail signal problems — two at the Red Line's Howard Street terminal that also affected the Yellow Line/Skokie Swift and one at Belmont delaying Red, Brown and Purple/Evanston Express trains — threw a wrench into operations and the dinner plans of CTA customers.

Other challenges lie ahead. They include delivering consistent service during improvements set to start this spring on seven rundown stations along the north branch of the Red Line; reconstruction of tracks in 2013 on the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line to reduce slow zones; construction of a transfer station at the Red Line Wilson stop; and slow zone repairs on the Blue Line, also set for next year, officials said.

Bus passenger trips account for about 60 percent of the 1.7 million rides that the CTA provided on an average weekday in 2011, up from an average of 1.6 million rides a day in 2010, the agency said. But the 5.2 percent increase in rail ridership last year almost quadrupled bus ridership, which grew by only 1.4 percent, the CTA reported.

Although ridership increased on all eight CTA rail lines last year, the largest growth was on the Blue Line, which was up 8 percent and served almost 3.7 million more riders than in 2010; and on the Brown Line, where ridership increased by more than 2 million riders, or 7 percent, officials said.

jhilkevitch@tribune.com

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