UPDATED 12/16/11 5:30 a.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — Santa Claus got here a week early for the CTA — arriving not from the North Pole, but from Washington.

Playing the role of Mr. Claus was U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who came to Chicago with $44 million in federal dollars.

Much of it will go to repair about 3.5 miles of CTA Blue Line track between Damen and Belmont. The Mayor’s office says the focus go toward cutting out one specific slow zone in that stretch — between the Logan Square stop, where the Blue Line is a subway, and the California stop, where the line is elevated.

The goal is to increase maximum speed for trains on that stretch from 25 to 55 mph.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Steve Miller reports

“This grant will help eliminate the slow zones to the airport, so trains can go from 25 miles an hour back up to 55 miles an hour and take approximately 4 to 5 minutes off the commute from the airport (to) downtown or from downtown up to the airport,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday.

CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine was at the announcement Thursday with Mayor Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn, whose office issued a news release claiming some of the credit. Of course, Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, has ties to the Obama Administration and knew LaHood in the U.S. House when both served in Congress.

In the end, Republican LaHood praised both of his Democratic friends — Quinn for his leadership on high-speed rail, which is getting money for a project downstate, Emanuel for encouraging heavier use of mass transit, like the Blue Line to O’Hare, which will be getting $16 million to repair tracks and eliminate slow zones.

“If this work is not done, as well, the slow zones will get worse.  You’ll have an 8- to 10-minute additional drag, if we don’t do the work,” Chicago Transit Authority President Forrest Claypool said.

Another of the mayor’s pet projects is a fledgling bike share program, like the one already up and running in Minneapolis, will get another $4 million here. The city envisions people using 4,000 bikes between self-service docking stations for the first or last segments of their commute.

For the suburbs, $10 million will be used to reconstruct Route 83 in the south suburbs, with two lanes in each direction plus left turn lanes right near the new intersection of I-57 and I-294.

For Quinn, the new projects mean jobs, “investment in public works and transportation that put people to work and get people to work,” he said.

LaHood’s visit to Chicago was his last stop on a day he announced more than $500 million in grants, his home state getting not quite 10 percent of it.

One person who wasn’t with Emanuel Thursday was the mayor’s communications director, Chris Mather, who emailed CBS 2 a statement that she is leaving. No explanation from her or anyone else for what amounts to the first high-level appointee to depart the administration.

Mather leaves after seven months of helping craft and spread the mayor’s message. Sarah Hamilton, spokesperson for Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, will take over for Mather, Levin reports.