CTA: Belmont Bypass Necessary to Accommodate Current and Future Riders

The Chicago Transit Authority published on Tuesday its federally mandated environmental assessment for the Red-Purple Bypass project, better known as the Belmont flyover. The bypass is part of the Red-Purple Modernization project, which will rebuild all of the tracks from Belmont to Linden station in Wilmette, and reconstruct several stations to add elevators and other amenities.

This bypass would eliminate the intersection of northbound Brown Line trains with Red and Purple Line tracks north of the Belmont station in Lakeview, increasing capacity on the system’s busiest lines and reducing delays. The structure would allow the CTA to boost the number of trains they run each day – especially during rush hour – in response to the current growing ‘L’ ridership. It would also allow the system to accommodate new residents as more people move into North Side neighborhoods in the future.

The flyover is controversial because 21 buildings on 16 parcels of land would need to be relocated, demolished, or partially demolished. The buildings, an array of commercial, residential, and mixed-use structures, contain 47 homes and 18 active businesses. Per federal law, the CTA would pay “just compensation” based on fair market value for the properties, and pay for relocation assistance for all homeowners and tenants. While the EA mentions the number of residences, it doesn’t include the number of residents who would be affected.

Residents have also argued that the new concrete overpass would be an eyesore. Of course, this is a matter of opinion: One person’s blight is another person’s ride to work. The anonymous website Coalition to Stop the Belmont Flyover recently compared the structure to neighborhood-devaluing elevated freeways. However, while highways often take people past neighborhoods without stopping, transit always adds value to communities because it brings people to them.

The bypass structure is shown without any redeveloped buildings. The CTA said it would work with Alderman Tunney and the city's planning department to create a redevelopment plan. Image: CTA
A CTA rendering of the flyover with no redevelopment. The CTA said it would work with Alderman Tunney and the city’s planning department to create a redevelopment plan.

The bypass even became an issue in the recent mayoral election, when challenger Jesús “Chuy” Garcia called the flyover “an unnecessary expenditure of taxpayer funds that will generate little return on investment.” That’s debatable; with more capacity on the CTA, the overall transportation system capacity of the north side expands, allowing for more residential and commercial development along the Red Line.

If Springfield approves the transit TIF district law, the city will be able to create a new TIF district around the RPM project. As property values increase in the area as a result of the upcoming transit investment, this would allow the extra property tax revenue to be earmarked for financing the project.

The CTA provided this rendering showing that with redeveloped buildings on Clark Street, the flyover wouldn't be visible from the street.
If redevelopment takes place after the flyover is built, the structure might not be visible from the street. Image: CTA

The CTA has said they will need the bypass in order to provide more train service between the Loop, the dense north lakefront neighborhoods, Evanston, and Wilmette. A study by the agency found that North Red Line ridership has risen 40 percent during the peak of the rush hour over the past five years. A post on a Facebook page representing residents on the 3200 block of North Wilton Avenue called the study propaganda and argued that the CTA could improve service by running Purple Line trains on Red Line tracks, short-turning trains, and building higher speed switches.

But those changes would be insufficient for addressing the capacity issue, according to CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase. “We cannot meet future ridership demand until we unlock the bottleneck at the intersection,” she told DNAinfo. The CTA concluded in the EA that it could run eight more trains per hour through Clark Junction if the bypass is built, a “30 percent increase in peak-period capacity.”

According to the EA, the Red-Purple Bypass project would also involve straightening a bend in the Red and Purple Line tracks between Roscoe Street and Newport Avenue, increasing the maximum train speeds. While the bypass project was originally estimated to cost $320 million, the Roscoe/Newport element would add an additional $250 million to the price tag. The federal government may provide up to 50 percent of the cost.

The CTA says the project would reduce delays for Red and Purple Line riders, since their trains will no longer be held up by northbound Brown Line trains. Reliability for all the lines would also improve, because direct delays to a single Red or Purple train would no longer cause a ripple effect for following trains. Finally, the EA says that the ‘L’ track structure, built in 1907, is past its useful life functionally and structurally. It holds a very low structural quality rating of 1.6 out of 5 points.

Flyover alternatives

The EA discusses alternatives to the bypass that CTA studied over the past six years. These were developed several years ago, when the agency started the public planning process for the RPM project. However, the multi-year nature of multibillion dollar infrastructure projects means means that previously discussed details of the projects are often forgotten by residents, and new neighbors must be brought up to speed.

RPM track diagram_1
The current track configuration. Image: CTA

In addition to the fifth-track bypass design that CTA selected as their preferred alternative, they considered a scenario where the bypass involved the fourth, easternmost track. In this design northbound Purple Line trains would merge onto the center Red Line track as the Brown Line trains go up and over the other tracks.

The CTA dropped this idea because it would be trading one capacity constraint for another, as northbound Purple Line trains would reduce the capacity of the northbound Red Line. Next, the CTA considered raising the two center tracks up and over the northbound Brown Line track but dropped this idea because of the severe delays it would cause on all lines during construction.

The CTA ruled out building a tunnel instead of a flyover because they wouldn’t be able to run any trains while it’s under construction, and the design would require even more space and property acquisition. It would also be much more expensive.

A final idea came from public input: stacking the Purple Line tracks over the Red Line tracks to create a narrower right-of-way so the CTA wouldn’t have to acquire or demolish as much property. However, the agency found that this actually wouldn’t reduce property impacts. Meanwhile, it would prevent them from running Red and Purple Line trains on each other’s tracks during maintenance projects or emergencies.

Provide your input

Once construction is complete, it would be possible for new residential and retail buildings to be constructed on land next to the flyover. However, there’s no concrete plan for redevelopment yet, although new buildings are depicted in renderings, as well as videos showing the flyover at street level and track level.

Neither the CTA, nor the 44th Ward, nor the Chicago Department of Planning and Development has taken on the lead role on figuring out what to do with adjacent property once the Red-Purple Bypass is built. The CTA has said they’ll work with these and other organizations on a plan, but the lack of leadership is problematic.

CTA spokeswoman Chase said the design process for the RPM project is only about 10 percent complete, adding that the public can provide input on the bypass and rebuilt tracks between Roscoe and Newport. They’ve scheduled a hearing on Wednesday, June 3, 2015, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted Street. They’re also accepting written comments through June 18, 2015. These can be mailed to the Chicago Transit Authority, Strategic Planning, 10th Floor, Attention: Red-Purple Bypass Project, 567 W. Lake Street, Chicago, Il 60661, or emailed.

Updated 17:34 to include the number of additional trains the CTA could run if the bypass is built. 

  • Elizabeth Thompson

    There seems to be one voice missing from the mainstream media coverage of this issue: that of riders. We seem to hear a lot from the handful of folks in the community who don’t want this (and sorry, folks, it’s not a roller coaster…), but not from the 100K+ (maybe more) CTA riders who go through this intersection daily. Anyone who takes the Red, Brown or Purple Lines during rush hour knows that something needs to be done. While I do think its right to ask questions about huge projects like this, it seems to me that the larger benefits to transit–and yes, even the Lakeview ‘hood–are being overlooked. Your coverage is the only one that’s really focused on that aspect.

  • I have not read the EA report yet, perhaps you know, did they say how many more trains they could run on the red, purple and brown lines after the junction is improved. I know the Kimball Yard is capacity constrained as are the downtown loop tracks. There is more capacity on the red line. Of course, there is also the option of adding cars and you could upgrade stations to fit 10 car trains on the RPM but I know they didn’t do that on the Dan Ryan side of things.

  • troll e troll

    So I hear people dropping this “it’s been in the pans for 30 + years” about the flyover.

    Can anyone cite this as truth or it it just a great rumor folks keep throwing around. All I have found is a reference to there was a thought but not the ridership 30 years ago, but that was yet another random comment on a message board.

  • JacobEPeters

    There was a community proposal in the 1980s which included a flyover & a tunnel under Clark when the Addison station was being rebuilt from my understanding. There was a model from that era at the first public meeting.

  • troll e troll

    Ah, thank you so nothing concrete to look at?

  • JacobEPeters

    Purple Line trains on the Red Line track would reduce capacity, since they would still involve conflicts with Brown Line trains at Clark Junction & could only run as 6 car trains instead of 8 car trains.

    Short turning can’t be done on the Red Line during rush hour because there is no center track to turn trains around on until you get to Howard (north of the capacity constraining Clark Junction). If you used a side track (Purple/Brown Line) for dead heading trains then you would have to reduce frequency on that track as well. Undoing the capacity gains from short turning the trains.

    Higher capacity switches would add some capacity through the junction but would make the system even more vulnerable to massive delays should there be a switch failure or if trains began to bunch based on a service disruption on any of the lines.

  • JacobEPeters

    I wish I had that info, but I have been unable to find anything other than that model that I saw in person. The flyover has always been talked about, because it’s so clear that the bottleneck disrupts service & that the constraints of the system don’t allow for a less disruptive solution.

  • troll e troll

    It would be great to show people. This nonsense of its a surprise etc is kinda lame.

    Anyone, Bueller… Bueller.

    Thanks JEP!

  • The only one missing from your analysis and this article is my favorite; re-routing all 4 Red/Purple tracks UNDER Clark and N Seminary Ave.

    While it would fix the Sheridan S-Curve I don’t think it’d be worth shutting down and ripping up both those streets. Not to mention the scores of buildings that would need to be demolished to make room for the equipment as well as the station boxes. Add in US tunneling costs and your looking at a minimum $1-2 billion if not even more.

    Neat idea at first but quickly spirals out of control once the logistics come into focus.

  • what_eva

    I don’t think Lakeview at large opposes the project. The “vote” was only a couple of precincts directly adjacent to the project. You know, the people who choose to live next to train tracks and are now surprised that the live next to train tracks.

  • PP

    The huge price tag is a concern – why is it at $500 million plus now?
    I think the idea it self is great but the high cost part is what worries me. The long term benefits are obvious.

  • duppie

    The price tag increased from $320M to $570M mainly because the scope increased significantly.
    Click on the first link in the article to get more details

  • JacobEPeters

    It also is mentioned in the EA, where the costs & demolitions necessary due to locations of existing stations & tracks would make the subway infeasible. I was glad the CTA included that analysis within the alternatives considered, since I hadn’t seen a tunnel only through that portion mentioned in the previous analysis.

    Although to be fair, if the flyover is costing $.5b & a straightened sheridan might cost a similar amount, if we add in rebuilding between Belmont & Sheridan, then we might start getting close to that $1-2 billion figure. I love the subway idea, too bad it seems to have been made impossible by the Belmont rebuild.

  • John

    The project cost is alarming. The entire CTA system only generates $680 million dollars a year in revenue. The previous large capital expenditure projects such as the Wilson Station and 95th St Station renovations relied heavily on Illinois Jump Start and Illinois Jobs Now programs for funding. The CTA received $1.17 billion through 2014 and will receive $220 million in 2015 and then those programs are over. And there is no way that the CTA can reasonably expect these programs to be renewed considering Illinois’ current financial state.

  • The project now includes straightening the tracks between Roscoe Street and Newport Avenue. There are curves at each one. It’s a vestige from a 1907-designed system.

  • Rider knowledge and interest is something the CTA could reasonably generate that’s not a conflict of interest. Already the CTA posts “hearing notices” in its bus and train vehicles, and it has conducted marketing campaigns to tell its plight of being underfunded and how that affects service.

    So, it would not be inappropriate for the CTA to advertise on its vehicles the benefits of the proposal next to the sign that advertises the public hearing.

  • The other thing about being “surprised” is that the train tracks and stations have been there before nearly every (if not all) living resident in Lakeview. When one moves into a neighborhood, one cannot expect that change will no longer occur or be proposed to occur.

    In fact, there were 3 additional Lakeview stations that are no longer around: Clark, Grace, and Buena. So the CTA has contracted here slightly in the past 70 years.

  • “The Build Alternative would allow for up to eight additional trains to pass through Clark Junction every hour, representing a nearly 30 percent increase in peak-period capacity.”

    Section 2.3, page 19 of the PDF.

  • troll e troll

    So true. When you live near a highway, train tracks, sports stadium, airport you have to expect changes.

  • troll e troll

    Infrastructure costs money and you need to look at a per year cost not a lump sum.

    Your house at 500k is nuts but on a 30 year mortgage it seems more reasonable.

  • Nate

    Just curious, any thoughts on whether it would be possible to bring the red line up on the two “right” tracks (looking north) at Armitage, rather than up into the middle? That would eliminate all track crossing for the red and brown lines with no flyover (purple would still have to do some crossing). The biggest downside would be passengers would have to go down and back up to transfer trains. The stations would also have to be reconfigured, but hey, we’re already going to be spending money.

  • goes both ways

    Because they have to pay above market union salaries and above market eminent domain buys

  • goes both ways

    All this and not one mention of articulated train cars, which can increase capacity by 10% without all these excessive construction costs.

  • Anton Cermak

    Articulated trains can’t be used on most Chicago lines because of turning radii in the Loop.

  • Dennis McClendon

    CTA ran articulated cars from 1947 to 1985, including around the Loop. The North Shore’s articulated Electroliners also had no trouble with the curves.

  • ardecila

    No, because the Red Line needs to be on the center tracks to descend into the subway at Armitage. Trains would still have to cross somewhere, it’s just that in your scenario the flyover would be in Lincoln Park instead of Lakeview. Also, “local” stations at Diversey, Wellington, and Armitage have side platforms, so you’d mess up the stopping pattern except at Belmont/Fullerton.

  • ardecila

    This is an extraneous element, the curves are not a significant constraint on capacity. If CTA was concerned about curves in the track, they wouldn’t have fanned out the tracks at the approaches to Fullerton and Belmont. CTA is taking the excuse to rebuild an aging steel structure because there is a pot of Core Capacity funds they can tap, and CTA is the only applicant.

  • Mike Raffety

    Looks like a no-brainer, a good project that will easily pay for itself with increased capacity for a century to come (the projected lifespan of the flyover). I’m glad to see this is progressing (and I live just 3 blocks from where it will be). I fully support this project.

  • Two things are different between the fanned approaches to Fullerton and Belmont and the School/Newport curves:

    1. The radius is tighter at School/Newport.
    2. The trains are decelerating to a stop and accelerating from a stop at Belmont and at Fullerton.

  • Anton Cermak

    Fair enough; I guess I had heard this repeated so many times that I just took it for granted that it was true.

  • Good make it happen. Nice job with the pretty potential condos, why the station house on northside of Belmont not in rendering?

  • al_langevin

    Another CTA boondoggle. So spend a half a billion dollars because you can’t wait 15 seconds for northbound Brown Line trains to cross??? CTA trains are not running non-stop. Yeah, nice diagram like all three train lines are waiting at the same time? Baloney.

    People at the CTA seem to be drunk on spending, like they don’t realize we have very little funding for public transit. Keep in mind these same CTA people spent $400 million on the Block 37 superstation. How’s that going CTA??? A complete waste of taxpayer dollars.

  • neroden

    Straightening the curves would speed up the Red Line.

  • neroden

    The fan-outs at Fullerton and Belmont were necessary to make the platforms legal (wheelchair-access) width. The trains are slowing to a halt to stop at the stations there anyway so it doesn’t matter much.

  • neroden

    Nice. And given that the North Side Red Line is by *far* the busiest line on the system, they’d proably start running these trains immediately.

  • Harvey Kahler

    Take it from a retired transit planner, Dennis is correct about articulated trains going around the Loop. That said, I’m skeptical that as much as a 10% increase in capacity would be achieved. The articulated connection takes almost as much space as between separate cars.

  • Harvey Kahler

    The CTA is counting on folks not using their brains and accepting what they say to justify the flyover this at this time. After all, we need to keep those Federal and State dollars rolling in for engineering and construction so grateful contractors can make campaign contributions! First of all, the CTA could run up to 34 Red Line trains an hour through Clark Junction, but they don’t. One reason may be the CTA doesn’t have the equipment or chooses to use it elsewhere, such as for the Purple Line Express to the Loop. The second may be that the CTA is short of yard capacity to run more trains in the peak which would seem to be a more urgent priority than a flyover. Boarding delays at stations along the line also limits the number of Red Line trains in the peak direction; but is this because only 20 trains an hour are scheduled? Furthermore, capacity through Clark Junction is exacerbated by holding northbound trains at Belmont to make direct transfers between Red and Brown Line trains. Simply putting in a single turnout and crossings from track 4 to the northbound Brown line would shave 7 seconds from off the time the crossing is occupied by a northbound train and eliminates two frequently used turnouts and sources of malfunction. Capacity is different from delay. Trains may be delayed up to a minute; but gaps between trains on one line allow those on another to cross with little loss of capacity. Finally, if 20 trains an hour are crowded now, won’t the same crowding occur in twenty years when the CTA projects the need for 30 trains an hour? And how can additional Brown and Purple trains be handled on the Loop which seems to be at capacity now? Within 20 years, the North Side may need another subway line into downtown in order to reroute the Red or Purple Line to utilize the capacity of the four main tracks from Wilson north. Only two tracks would be needed between Belmont and Wilson; and the tracks could be straightened between Clark and Newport without tearing down buildings.

  • Harvey Kahler

    The Dan Ryan was designed to allow future platform extensions for 10-car trains, as was the State Street and all subsequent rapid transit lines.

  • Harvey Kahler

    The PDF misrepresented the situation for a favorable recommendation; but it sure sounded good!

  • Mike Raffety

    Harvey Kahler, is there ANY expert at all that you would listen to, when they tell you that this project is necessary? Or is your mind made up, regardless of the facts and experts?

    In the Loop, adding more tracks and flyovers would obviously cost vastly more, and the Loop El tracks don’t intersect with the red line, the busiest line in the CTA.

  • Harvey Kahler

    Understand that the CTA’s experts are choosing arguments that will support their case, the “preferred alternative,” We often don’t know what led to the preferred alternative; but we can see breaks in logic and irrelevant statistics. Back in the 1970s, UMTA and IL Office of Public Transportation would look at proposals with a critical eye; but that expertise cost money and stepped on toes.
    I was as much an expert as a transportation planner and analyst at CATS and NIRPC for 17 years back then as the current people at the CTA are now. I saw and heard BS from the City and CTA then; and I know when I see and hear it now.
    I didn’t say the Red Line intersected the elevated Loop. I called for a new subway line to downtown, not adding tracks and flyovers to the existing elevated Loop which would be monstrous and nearly impossible to do in many places. Seven miles of new subway into Downtown could cost $10 million; and possible extensions would add to that cost; otherwise it does little good to spend $4 billion to rebuild a 4-track Red Purple line north of Wilson when only two tracks might do.

  • Harvey Kahler

    The Line was built with only two tracks north of Clark Jct and they were straight through School and Newport. The curves were introduced to snake around buildings when the L was widened to four tracks.

  • Harvey Kahler

    You’re correct about curves not being a significant impact on capacity. But if a new subway will be needed, the existing junction will be adequate until a subway is built. The new subway will allow the L to be reduced back to two tracks, and those two tracks can be straightened without demolishing buildings

  • Mike Raffety

    I assume you mean $10 Billion for 7 miles of downtown subway, right? The NYC Second Avenue subway is costing $4.5 billion for just the first 1.5 miles.

    http://money.cnn.com/2012/05/31/news/economy/nyc-subway-construction/

    Anyway, I’m not seeing any specific references to bad data so far. The Clark Junction is the bottleneck today, that 20 second delay is the inflection point of the performance curve, if you’re familiar with queuing theory. It will get radically worse adding just 1-2 more trains at peak periods — it cannot be done.

    We have to eliminate that crossover to meet the demand for public transit in the coming century.

  • Harvey Kahler

    The 2-track subway alternative from Wilson to Howard, about 4 miles in length was to cost $5 billion. Subways are expensive, but there is only so much room on downtown surface streets for buses and a multitude of other uses to serve growth if another subway is not built.

    *****

    Delay and capacity are two different things. Part of the delay that does relate to Clark Junction capacity is holding northbound trains at Belmont for across-platform transfers between trains. The no-cost and less disruptive solution to increasing capacity is not holding trains during the afternoon northbound peak. The $570 million would be better used for more yard capacity.

    With the present 400-ft (approx.) junction including crossovers and crossings and 400-ft 8-car trains, a Kimball train would take 40 seconds at 15 mph to move through the junction, and a Howard train 26 seconds. An average of 18 seconds was observed to change routes between trains for a total cycle time of 102 seconds.

    Restoring the former turnout and crossings from Track 4 to the northbound Brown Line would improve capacity and further reduce the need for a flyover. This would effectively shorten the junction by not using the crossover between Track 4 and Track 3; and trains would occupy the junction for only 28 and 19 seconds respectively. This also would reduce wear, maintenance, and things that could go wrong by eliminating normal use of two otherwise key switches.

    The current lack of capacity on the Red Line is due as much to crowding on trains and the resulting boarding delays at major stations unrelated to Clark Junction that a flyover will not fix. Only 20 trains are scheduled in the peak hour. Is that level of service the result of limited fleet size and allocation, insufficient yard capacity, or all the above?

  • Mike Raffety

    The CTA says there’s 40-47 trains per hour going through Clark Junction, and they need 80 trains per hour by 2030.

    http://www.transitchicago.com/assets/1/planning/RedPurpleBypass_ExhibitBrds_20140521.pdf#page=7

  • Harvey Kahler

    Actually 80 trains in the peak hour is the high service demand projection, but not until 2039. http://www.transitchicago.com/assets/1/rpmproject/rpbcapacityprojection2015.png
    Thirty Red Line trains would be needed by 2034 in the high projection, but combined demand will not reach 60 trains by 2040 in the low projection. Significantly, over 30 peak hour Brown and Purple Line trains are projected for as early 2021; but this will exceed the capacity of the line south of Clark Junction as well as the Loop. A new subway is needed urgently to divert the excess demand irrespective of Clark Junction.

    Another way around inadequate capacity is to extend platforms for 10-car trains, a 25% increase and the equivalent of 38 8-car trains. This is only problematical for Sheridan; and a new subway and station at Irving Park Road would fix that.

  • Mike Raffety

    I discussed the longer trains with the engineer at the Center on Halsted event a few weeks ago. They’ve been building all new platforms to allow for 10-car trains, but it will take a decade or two for every platform on the line to handle 10 cars, and you can’t run one 10-car train until every stop can handle 10 cars. And the construction to expand all those platforms will demolish far more buildings than the Clark Junction will.

    Look at the Belmont stop; the platform only handles 8 cars, but the tracks go straight past for a ways before curving back together to go to the next station; that extra space makes it fairly cheap to upgrade the platform to load 10 car trains.

  • Harvey Kahler

    The Brown Line took two years; but all the Red Line stations except for Sheridan can be extended either with space on the embankment or as provided for when built. The RPM project should take care of Loyola. It’s very possible that a new subway for the Red or Purple Line would allow a new station at Irving Park Rd that wouldn’t entail the dislocation for a rebuilt Sheridan station.

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