Western & Belmont Viaduct To Vanish, 1.3 Miles of Wider Sidewalks Planned

The current flyover over Belmont. Photos by Shaun Jacobsen.

The Chicago Department of Transportation plans to tear down the structurally deficient 52-year-old viaduct that lifts traffic on Western Avenue over the intersection of Belmont and Clybourn. Instead of a gloomy concrete interchange walling off the edge of Roscoe Village, a more conventional surface-level intersection could be built as soon as 2016.

The flyover was built in 1962 to solve motor vehicle traffic woes outside the gates of the long-closed Riverview amusement park. In that highway-happy era, flyovers were a popular approach for bypassing busy intersections. Today, flyovers on arterial city streets are no longer seen as an attractive or economically viable, so CDOT is looking to replace this one with a better, more long-term approach.

The first public meetings regarding the projects took place in the summers of 2009 and 2010. At yesterday’s open house, CDOT and engineers presented updated plans, although with only minor changes since the last presentation in 2010. The project area has expanded beyond its original scope, and now extends five blocks in each direction along Western — from Waveland to Jones, the street across from the City North cinemas just north of the Kennedy Expressway.

The flyover is the focal point of the project. Tearing it down means that Western, Belmont, and Clybourn will become a five-way intersection, through which tens of thousands of motor vehicles will cross every day. Representatives at the meeting were quick to point out that they believe the project will improve traffic flow and safety for all users.

Cross-sections of the existing and proposed conditions.

Western will now have two through lanes of traffic, with a third rush-hour only traffic lane in both directions from 7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. on weekdays. Outside of rush hour, both sides of Western will now have approximately 80 new non-metered curbside parking spots. I asked Tim Whalen, project manager for AECOM, if the additional rush hour lanes will create bottlenecks where they end, since Western both north and south of the project area has just two lanes in each direction. Whalen stated that the purpose is to speed the flow along Western and reduce traffic currently forced onto side streets, and that he does not believe traffic will bottleneck where the third lane ends.

Along the 1.3-mile stretch, including across Western’s bridge over the Chicago River, sidewalks will also be widened to as wide as 13 feet, and amenities such as benches, bike racks, and street trees will be installed. Raised concrete medians with trees will also be installed along many parts of Western, which will calm traffic and provide a refuge for pedestrians crossing the busy street. Aside from crosswalk countdown timers, there are no other plans for pedestrian safety enhancements. No separate bicycle accommodations are planned, since Western is not identified as a bike route in the city’s Streets for Cycling 2020 plan.

There are no current plans to address traffic on side streets by traditional traffic calming measures, something normally left up to individual aldermen. However, new center medians will create a physical barrier so that drivers will be unable to turn left from Western onto some side streets, while still retaining cut-throughs for pedestrian access.

Existing painted medians will be replaced with raised and planted medians, except at large intersections.

The city’s Pedestrian Plan [PDF, pages 74-75] calls for shortening crossing distances at Chicago’s many diagonal street intersections, as well as providing crosswalks for all pedestrian movements. However, there are no plans to tame the two massive intersections along the corridor where three streets intersect: Western, Diversey, and Elston, and Western, Belmont, and Clybourn. At both, people on foot can walk over 100 feet across many lanes of moving traffic. Another city publication, the Complete Streets guidelines, calls for intersections to be as “compact as possible,” but the current design fails to make any intersections more compact. Even the landscaped, concrete medians end before intersections to make way for left turn lanes.

I also asked about potential improvements to public transportation along the corridor. With over 27,000 average weekday riders, the 49 Western bus route is one of CTA’s busiest. But there are no provisions in CDOT’s plans to improve bus service — again at odds with the Complete Streets guidelines, which prioritize people on foot, transit, and bicycles before those in cars. While CDOT is not currently working with CTA to improve transit along the corridor, EJM representative Lisa Sagami stated that modernized signals could be fitted with traffic signal priority technology that permits buses to move ahead of all other traffic.

Last night’s open house was the last in a series leading to the final design, which will be completed this year, followed by construction to begin in spring 2015 with completion in 2016. Construction could begin next year, contingent on funding from the federal government (80 percent) and 20 percent local funds. No cost figure is available right now, but AECOM’s Tim Whalen estimates the total cost at $26 million.

  • I have to say the flyover always made that a speedy section.

  • The birds on the proposed cross section are a nice touch. Nice project, though.

    Quick question… Why make the new parking spaces unmetered? Given the parking meter deal, why not add additional metered spots here and then use that as a credit to remove spaces elsewhere in the city?

  • Mishellie

    That seems quite logical. Or… alternatively… forgo the parking that doesn’t actually have to be there by contract and make a bike lane?

  • I thought about that but that stretch of western kind of sucks anyways. I’d rather take 80 spaces away from a better suited area.

  • Jim Mitchell

    If BRT is going to come to Western, the extra width will no doubt be helpful. Maybe its best they don’t dedicate the lanes to metered parking OR to bicycle lanes, both of which would be hard to back out of.

  • dariaclone

    I said to one of the AECOM representatives, “I didn’t realize there was a need for parking in this area.” They replied, “There’s really not. But parking serves as a traffic calming measure.”

    IMHO, it is a wasted opportunity to be more creative with bus routes or bike lanes. If there is room for a third lane at rush hour, there is room for either of those. By going ahead with a third lane, you can cue up the complaints about “taking away driving [or parking]” if they ever do go forward with BRT there.

    But, there were some good steps forward with the pedestrian medians and wider sidewalks. I just wish it had gone further.

  • dariaclone

    The other thing that was mentioned to me at the meeting is that there is going to work done on Addison from Lane Tech to Gordon Tech as part of the Safe Routes to School grants. (But maybe not be announced or public yet.) Perhaps that will help address some of the safety concerns expressed in your earlier article:

    http://chi.streetsblog.org/2014/05/15/26-bikeped-injuries-next-to-high-school-no-big-whoop-says-wgn/

  • I agree. Plus, just one car illegally parking during restricted times (this happens all the time in bus lanes around the city) renders the entire lane moot, as cars have to re-merge back into traffic.

    I’m not sure of all the specifics of the meter deal but I do know any metered spaces that are shuffled around have to be in the same “zone.” And since there’s a lot of parking lots along this area of Western, there’s probably not a lot of demand (as AECOM said) – whereas some metered spots on a cross-street where there are corner stores, restaurants, etc may have high-demand curb spots. No way the meter company would give those up for ones along Western where there’s free lots.

  • I’m looking forward to seeing another relic from a different era gone when the flyover is demolished. According to Ald. Deb Mell’s newsletter, buffered bike lanes will be installed on Belmont from Kedzie all the way to Halsted this year, so between that and the already-in-place Clybourn buffered lanes, this area is definitely becoming more bike-friendly, even though no specific accommodations will apparently be made on Western.

  • Alex_H

    Wow, that’s amazing if true. Does that mean Belmont will become a two-lane street that whole way?

  • Scott Sanderson

    At the meeting, the consensus was that it only feels faster and you end up waiting longer at the light.

  • David Altenburg

    Wow that’s great news about Belmont. We need east-west routes so badly.

  • kastigar

    I may be the only one unsure about this. I frequently travel south on Western, from Addison, to the intersection to make a left turn with the arrow onto Clybourn.

    I also sometimes come east on Belmont to go south on Clybourn after coming off the river trail.

    Removing the overpass seems like taking these route is going to be harder.

  • Roland Solinski

    An empty parking lane doesn’t provide much traffic calming… a permanent bus lane/turn lane is a better choice.

  • cjlane

    My anecdata agrees with this.

    But it *does* allow one to speed over the top, especially on weekend early mornings.

  • cjlane

    “even though no specific accommodations will apparently be made on Western.”

    Wouldn’t half the folks here argue that Western is already so awful that there is no point in making bike accommodations? Or does that argument only apply to Ashland?

  • cjlane

    Bob:

    I think that the increased visibility across the intersection will likely make it safer for *most* cyclists using your routes. It may not benefit you, with your level of experience, but there are *massive* blindspots currently.

  • cjlane

    “people on foot can walk over 100 feet across many lanes of moving traffic. ”

    Shaun–why are people crossing against the signal (“across..moving traffic”)?

    That said, it’s fair to call it “up to 200 feet”, as that is the distance from the SE corner of Diversey/Elston, to the NW corner of Western/Elston–ie, where you need to go if you are walking on the east side of Elston from south to north (or vice versa, of course).

    also:

    “Whalen … does not believe traffic will bottleneck where the third lane ends.”

    *maybe* not on the north end, but on the south end? has he driven on Western at rush hour, ever? Has he contemplated the change in the flow if the lights were well synchronized? Is he unaware that Western is currently 6 lanes wide just south of the project area down to the Kennedy ramps?

    I think that is a talking point rather than a genuine assessment. The reality is that the project *really* should extend south all the way to Fullerton. I know it’s outside the budget, but the issues of the project area are inextricably tied to the Kennedy ramps.

  • Alex_H

    I am comfortable with the idea that not every arterial needs bike facilities. The robustness of the grid makes it palatable to have certain streets (Damen, California) be bike-friendly, others (Western, Ashland) be car-centric.

    Ultimately it would be wonderful if all major streets had protected bike lanes. But I think a comprehensive “bike grid”–which we currently do not have–should be the first priority, and we needn’t have bike lanes on every single arterial to accomplish something like that.

  • madopal

    I’m loving the thought of how they’re going to enforce these rush hour lanes. All they need to do is look at all the places they’re already done that way to watch how traffic just learns to use it whenever possible.

    Passing on the right is the worst thing ever, and it needs to die. I’d love to see some traffic studies on how it just causes bottlenecks and, of course, pedestrian traps. Nothing better than seeing traffic slow and then watching a car pop out coming *closer* to the curb.

    I do hope the news about Belmont is true…although it’d be nice to connect it further west, but that would require admitting the Kennedy is a problem.

  • I don’t know; it wasn’t specific. I can’t find a permalink to the Ald. Mell newsletter, so I’m copying and pasting from it below:

    INFRASTRUCTURE: Biking Updates

    Alderman Mell recently sent a letter of support to the Department of Planning and Development for the allocation of TIF funds for expansion and addition of bike lanes in the 33rd Ward and connecting to other areas of the city. The allocation will be used to help fund a buffered bike lane on Kedzie Ave from Milwaukee to Addison, and on Elston Ave from Webster to Milwaukee.

    Read the Alderman’s full letter here (PDF).

    This is in addition to plans for a federally-funded buffered bike lane on Belmont from Kedzie to the Chicago River, which will continue on to Halsted and add a connection to the buffered bike lane on Clybourn. All three of these projects have a target installation of later this year.

  • R.A. Stewart

    Now that you mention it, imagine the thrills in store if only half the flyover were removed. :-)

  • Alex_H

    Or just a small strip at the apex; for Blues Brothers re-enactment attempts.

  • Belmont will be undergoing some kind of road diet from Clybourn to California. Already rush hour parking restrictions were removed (in 2013) to allow for the creation of bike lanes here. The bike lanes will have a buffer with posts over the bridge between Rockwell and Campbell, according to CDOT.

  • “I know it’s outside the budget” – I disagree. It’s outside the scope, and the scope is defined long before the budget.

    Western Avenue has on-street parking for much of the segment between the project area and the Kennedy ramps, so it only has four lanes (widens to six at Logan Boulevard).

  • Yes, it will have a road diet between California and Clybourn, reducing the two WIDE travel lanes to two NORMAL size travel lanes. Rush hour parking restrictions were removed last year to accommodate these bike lanes.

  • Not with those potholes!

  • BDeal

    Removing the flyover is excellent for reconnecting places like Logan Square with neighborhoods to the east. But we should take the opportunity to design the street for moving people! Western could move way more people if we prioritize pedestrians, bikes & buses. A highway in the middle of the city hurts everyone for the benefit of a very few!! And why not take a cue from New York / Sweden’s vision zero and engineer this street so that even children and senior citizens can cross it safely? Let’s democratize Western!! Give access to all, not just dangerous, dirty cars!!

  • R.A. Stewart

    I live near Western, way up at the north end of the city, and agree that there is huge wasted potential there. It’s one street where we have always told our kids, do not under any circumstances ever ride on the street, ride on the sidewalks even if it is illegal. I don’t even like them to drive on Western until they have a lot of experience and confidence.

    Among other things it should have genuine rapid transit, a BRT line if nothing else, all the way from one end of the street to the other.

  • cjlane

    “Western Avenue has on-street parking for much of the segment between the project area and the Kennedy ramps, so it only has four lanes (widens to six at Logan Boulevard).”

    Steven–the project area goes south to Jones. Which is about 200′ from Logan.

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