Don’t Believe the Hype: Plenty of CTA Riders Support the Belmont Flyover

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Residents pour over a map of the project area at Wednesday’s open house. Photo: John Greenfield

Other local media outlets have given plenty of airtime to Lakeview residents who are opposed to the CTA’s Red-Purple Bypass project, better known as the Belmont Flyover. Their concern is completely understandable, since the transit agency’s plans call for 21 buildings on 16 parcels of land to be demolished, partially demolished, or relocated.

And, although CTA originally said the price tag for the project would be around $320 million, the environmental assessment released last on May 19 bumped that number up to $570 million, due to the inclusion of additional track and signal replacement north of the Belmont station. That’s certainly nothing to sneeze at.

However, we haven’t heard much from the countless Red, Purple, and Brown Line Riders, from Roseland to Albany Park to Wilmette, who would benefit from the flyover. In a nutshell, the bypass would eliminate the existing convergence of Red, Purple, and Brown Line at a flat junction north of the Belmont station, as well as replace about 0.3 miles of track between Belmont and Newport (3430 North). This would increase capacity on the system’s busiest lines and reduce delays, especially during rush hours. Read Steven Vance’s analysis of the project here.

On Wednesday, the CTA held an open house at the Center on Halsted in Lakeview to give Chicagoans a chance to discuss the project with agency staff and provide input via comment cards and a court reporter. Contrary to what you might assume from mainstream news reports, lots of people I spoke to at the well-attended event voiced support for the bypass.

“I think the flyover is necessary for saving time,” said Mindy Williams, a homemaker who lives downtown and regularly travels on the Red Line. “You’ve got the trains that have to kind of cross through the switches, so they do a lot of sitting and waiting,” she said. “So the bypass, because it’s going to go over that, is going to cut the wait times.”

Of course, there were opponents present as well. Ellen Hughes, a Lakeview resident who runs the website Coalition to Stop the Belmont Flyover, told me that, while her house isn’t slated for demolition, there are several reason she’s fighting the bypass. “I’m actually in it for Lakeview and I’m in it for moral reasons,” she said.

Hughes listed the cost and aesthetics of the flyover as major concerns, and argued that the city is spending money on transit in an affluent North Side neighborhood while neglecting the South Side. In 2013, the CTA spent $425 million to completely rebuild the South Red Line tracks between Cermak and 95th and renovate most of the stations. The agency is currently reconstructing the 95th Street station at a cost of $240 million.

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

Hughes also argued that, although the CTA has released renderings of the flyover that show redevelopment around the tracks, she believes the project will create a dead zone in Lakeview. “They are going to ruin Clark Street for two blocks and that’s really serious. They say they’re going to [build the structures pictured in the renderings.] They’re lying.”

“We’re not just going to build [the bypass] and leave,” CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase told me. “All this development is going to occur.” She promised that, before the first shovel hits the ground, the city will have a neighborhood redevelopment plan in place, created in cooperation with 44th Ward Alderman Tom Tunny, local businesses, community groups and residents. “This public hearing will be one of the many conversations that we have to get to that point.”

UIC student Jonathan Powell said the CTA staffers present were doing a good job of responding to residents’ concerns about the flyover. “They seem to be listening,” he said. “Peoples’ fears are being addressed, and that’s a good thing.”

“I think the bypass is very forward-thinking,” Powell added. “It’s a great way to free up space and time on the tracks.” He noted that there’s a similar flyover structure in the South Loop, where the Orange Line crosses over the Red Line, which functions well.

Eric Glatstein, an engineer who commutes from Rogers Park via the Red Line, agreed that the flyover is worth the trade-offs. “Intuitively, it makes sense that this place where three lines have to come to a stop to let one train pass is a rate-limiting factor for the Red Line, and I’m glad they decided to address it.”

He noted that the bypass would likely shave a minute or two off his commute a couple of days a week. “But I think the CTA’s larger point about building capacity in the system is really what drives this,” he said. “Development along the Red Line at this point is limited by capacity, and the density along this line in this area will go up if we can get more trains.”

Although there’s certain to be fierce opposition from some Lakeview residents as the flyover plan moves forward, the CTA is trying to spread the word about its potential benefits to the rest of Chicagoans. Earlier this week, the agency released a compilation of interviews with Red Line customers who like the idea of fewer delays and relief from sardine-line conditions on the trains.

The EA for the bypass project is available on the CTA website, at CTA headquarters (567 West Lake), as well as at Tunny’s Office (3223 North Sheffield). Hard copies also available at the Washington, Merlo, and Lincoln Belmont libraries.

Through June 18, written comments may be submitted via email to RedPurpleBypass@transitchicago.com, or mailed to: Chicago Transit Authority, Strategic Planning, 10th Floor, Attn: Red-Purple Bypass Project, 567 West Lake Street, Chicago, IL 60661. All comments provide by the 18th, and the CTA’s responses, will be incorporated into a final decision document, which the agency will submit to the Federal Transit Administration.

  • John

    I just sent an email to the CTA asking if they had contemplated how the proposed Ashland BRT would impact capacity needs on the Brown and Red lines. I haven’t seen any mention of the BRT project in any of the documents.

  • Jeremy

    RE: “neglecting the south side” – If more trains can pass through the Belmont station each hour, that means more trains can serve the south side each hour.

    RE: aesthetics – The new track structure will be worse looking than the current structure?

  • Dan

    “she believes the project will create a dead zone in Lakeview”. The entire 2 block area around the Belmont stop is already a “not on foot under any circumstances” between 9pm – 4am:

    http://www.cwbchicago.com

    The vacant lots should be up-zoned (already qualify for TOD) and a TIF should be included that is earmarked for public safety (more cops assigned to 19th District.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The one thing I’ve not seen addressed is how the increased capacity from the Belmont flyover will feed into other bottlenecks. Currently during morning rush hour trains are rarely backed up approaching Belmont, but are frequently backed up closer to the Loop. This is particularly true of the Brown and Purple Lines. If these other bottlenecks aren’t addressed, how will the Belmont Flyover add capacity? Intuitively, without plans to address the other bottlenecks, being able to send more trains through Belmont will just lead to more trains backed up downstream of Belmont.

  • The South Side Red line isn’t nearly as congested as on the North Side and the off-peak frequency is already decent. The south side doesn’t need more Red Line trains. Since the south Red Line rehab, what’s needed is improvements in reliability and frequency to every other route on the south side.

  • The CTA is currently upgrading tracks on the Ravenswood Connector, the elevated tracks between Armitage and Chicago, which carries Brown and Purple Line trains.

    What would be really great is if the multiple curves on this section of track could be straightened.

  • My initial impression is that there may be minimal “competition” for riders on a limited segment of the first phase of Ashland BRT. But Phase 1, from Cortland (1900 N) to 31st Street (3100 S) would not be that segment because the Red/Brown/Purple trains are six or more blocks from Ashland, and because the Brown Line doesn’t reach near Ashland until 3400 N (Roscoe).

  • I think we’ve missed this opportunity twice now for the curves around Halsted: now, and when they replaced the structure over North Ave.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The main backup for the Brown and Purple Lines appears to be interference with the Green, Pink, and Orange Lines. Entering the Loop the Brown Line needs to cross inbound and outbound Green and Pink Lines. While the Purple Line has to cross the outbound Green and Pink Lines, while merging with the Orange Line and inbound Green and Pink Lines. It’s not uncommon for there to be several trains stopped between Chicago and Merchandise Mart waiting to enter the Loop. The crossing limiting capacity appears to be the junction at Lake and Wells. I’ve never understood what causes the Red Line to start backing up in the tunnel.

  • I was at a series of public meetings in the mid-80s where a developer wanted to put a building on the then-empty-lot at Clybourn and North that would include a brand-new Brown Line station AND a tunnel connecting to the red line Clybourn stop. It was envisioned as two floors of retail (ground and station-height) and several floors of professional offices above.

    Everyone who lived within three blocks of the corner was vehemently in favor.

    All the voting members of the RANCH Triangle association, uniformly white, rich, and not local, detested it as “too tall” and “likely to bring a bad element” onto the Brown Line trains via transfers from the Red Line, which they universally viewed as full of scary criminal poor dark people.

    It was vetoed.

    Instead they put in a strip mall with two floors of luxury (well, luxury for that neighborhood at the time; they sold for approximately three times what a single-family home on Clybourn would sell for that year) condos, and we lost our chance for a red/brown transfer station and better connectivity.

  • kastigar

    Count me in as one of the silent riders. I frequently travel the Brown Line to and from Albany Park. I neither oppose or support the Brown Line Flyover. Sure, it would be nice but it would cause major disruption and a lot of money – just so save a few minutes.

    There a lot of cross-tracking going into and out of the loop. We seem to be able to live with that.

  • Mike Raffety

    This project HAS to be built, it’s a simple question of capacity. They can’t put more trains through the flat Clark Junction, and demand continues to rise, EVERY YEAR (even in the recession around 2008).

    Yes, 100 people will have to move, they’ll be paid full market value and all expenses covered, and in exchange, 185,000 people (and growing) will get fast and efficient (and expanding!) transit, for the next CENTURY.

    And yes, I go through that junction twice a day, going to and from work.

  • Mike Raffety

    Ideally, they would eliminate those crossovers in the Loop — except if you look around, you’d be knocking down 40-story skyscrapers to make room for it. Not $400M, but $400B. So you don’t see any proposals to change that.

  • simple

    I think you’re asking the right question. If the Red-Purple Flyover is so critical for future CTA train capacity, the logical conclusion is that CTA should also be taking a similar approach to the even more congested crossing at Lake/Wells. Will CTA also propose a giant grade-separated railroad interchange there, knocking down the highrise buildings all around this track intersection? If not, why not? Why eliminate the supposed capacity constricting bottleneck where Brown-Red-Purple mix only to send all those future added Brown and Purple trains right into an even worse capacity constraint in the Loop? Something isn’t adding up.

  • simple

    Exactly. Then what’s the point of a supposed capacity increase up north if you can’t increase capacity by an equivalent amount further along the route downtown? What happens to all the “planned” future added Brown and Purple Line trains then? And if the more complicated track junctions in the Loop can somehow manage to handle an increased number of future trains, that undercuts the capacity-based argument for why such dramatic changes are needed at the far simpler junction up north. It seems things may not be completely thought through. Or at least they’re not being very well explained.

  • Mike Raffety

    The focus here is on adding red line capacity, which has no downtown junctions. The ONLY red line junction is the Clark junction, to be rebuilt. Yes, there will be other bottlenecks to address, there always are, but this is currently the controlling one on the red line, and also slowing the brown and purple lines as well.

  • simple

    Please take a look at the project documents http://www.transitchicago.com/news_initiatives/planning/rpmodernization/documents.aspx (especially technical Appendix B) and point out for me what makes you draw the conclusion that “the focus here is on adding red line capacity.” As I read it, every bit of analysis is about the combined effects on Brown, Purple, and Red. In fact the charts and tables show forecasted Brown and Purple demand, and resulting capacity needs, growing every bit as fast as Red. How can that be possible if those trains can’t be accommodated in the Loop? Or can they? And if they can, how can we do it in the Loop but not at Clark junction?

  • Mike Raffety

    It is indeed about improving capacity on all three lines. But as I’ve noted, there’s no simple solution to the crossovers in the Loop. We CAN fix Clark Junction though, at a reasonable cost (just 16 buildings affected).

  • reallycta

    The CTA is being disingenuous. They defined the study area for the EA to exclude Chicago’s Loop. By doing that they didn’t have to acknowledge the capacity problem at Lake/Wells – as previously noted here. The Brown Line is growing faster than the Red Line

  • complimentary hot taeks

    Why do you have to attack the people and not the argument?

  • The argument was pretty short-sighted, too, since it involved a bunch of people who don’t live there being upset about how it would “change the character of the neighborhood”.

  • complimentary hot taeks

    I was referring specifically to yours though. Don’t try and employ logical fallacies on my watch

  • neroden

    Disentangling Red Line operations from Brown Line operations, all by itself, will allow for substantially more frequent Red Line operations.

    Right now, CTA basically can consider two seperate operations:
    Blue Line
    Everything else

    The Blue Line is pretty nearly completely independent, making it possible to pack in as many trains as the tracks can handle.

    Building the flyover will make it three separate operations:
    Blue Line
    Red Line
    Loop-bound trains

    At the moment, the service levels and ridership on the Loop-bound trains are a lot lower than on the Red or Blue lines, so it’s possible to deal with all of them despite the flat crossings entering the loop. If there were a huge boom in ridership on the Purple Express, Brown, Green (west), Pink, Orange, or Green (south) lines, the flat crossings entering the Loop might become a problem, but that’s a worry for decades down the road.

    By contrast, the Red Line ridership is *already* high enough that the flat crossing at Clark is a big issue. Separating the Red Line from the Loop-bound trains will improve operations a lot and allow much more Red Line service.

  • neroden

    As I note above, the Red Line is the busiest CTA line.

    The North Side Red Line *by itself* has more riders per day (~125K) than the Brown, Green (Lake St.), and Pink lines combined (~120K).

    Getting the flat junction out of the way of the Red Line is extremely valuable. The junctions at the Loop are simply handling fewer people; it’s less important to fix them.

  • neroden

    You may be startled to realize that Lake/Wells is, in a very real sense, less congested than Clark Junction. Look up the ridership numbers; the North Side Red Line has a ridiculously high ridership. Clark *is actually a higher priority*.

    The Red Line most likely backs up in the tunnel because of problems at 95th St (being fixed) and conflicts at Clark Junction.

  • neroden

    It’s important to recognize that the North Side Red Line has by *far* the highest ridership of any of the CTA lines. More than the *sum total* of the Purple, Brown, Green (Lake Street) and Pink lines.

    This is why the Belmont Flyover is needed — to increase Red Line capacity. For now, the other lines can handle the flat junction at Lake/Wells, because *there just isn’t as much demand*.

    —-
    In the very long run, if demand does go way up on the Loop-bound lines, the solution is to fly the north-south line directly over the east-west line at Lake/Wells, and build a transfer station there, making it a “curlicue” rather than a loop.

  • neroden

    They may be growing as fast as Red, but they started at lower ridership levels.

  • Let’s keep the discussion polite please. Back-and-forth bickering floods our inboxes and annoys other readers. Thanks.

  • Aaron M. Renn

    Yes, there is congestion at Tower 12 and Tower 18, but a flyover at Clark Jct will alleviate blockages on the Red Line. What’s more, it’s possible to have some Ravenswood runs use the subway if necessary.

    I will say, the CTA’s credibility is zero with the neighborhood. I believe the CTA said the stations would remain open during the construction of the Brown Line expansion project. Then they closed stations for 18 months – and knew about it well before they told the public. And the end result is embarrassingly bad. Functional but not particularly humane. I think you’ll find that most people in the area who were involved with the previous project don’t put much stake in what the CTA says – and who can blame them?

  • Lake/Wells is not in as much of a capacity bind.
    1. Most train movements (except Purple and Pink, which are a small fraction of total daily traffic) are straight-through or right-turning. Left turns take much more time, since they cross over other tracks which have to be stopped.
    2. When trains are making a left turn across tracks at Lake/Wells, it’s only across one track — not three as at Clark.
    3. There are actually fewer trains using Lake/Wells than Clark Junction. The Red Line is CTA’s colossus.
    4. There are other options to relieve Lake/Wells, like sending Pink back through the Dearborn subway, and Purple under the State Street. In the long run, a Clinton Street subway would take either of those lines off the Loop.

  • Michael

    It also likely backs up because most north red line rush trips have boarding at dozens of stations, but most riders exit at only 8 stations. Alighting between North/Clybourn and Roosevelt takes way more time than at stations north and south.

  • Michael

    Red Line South is awesome. 95th to downtown in like 20-25 minutes. I think the “neglecting the south side” argument (primarily just a distraction) was for the planned 130th extension (which is seriously needed). But the argument is foolish because the funding sources are approved on a project by project basis. Its not like the CTA is sitting on a stack of cash that they’d rather give to the white folks on the North Side. Its all coming from feds.

  • How much time, effort, and treasure has IDOT spent turning congested stoplights into grade-separated interchanges for cars? If there was ever an intersection where grade separation would undo a bottleneck affecting hundreds of thousands of people every day, this is it.

  • Neil Clingerman

    Yeah to add to that the biggest issue that residents bring up is the fact that the CTA never allowed redevelopment of the property they acquired around the Belmont station.

  • simple

    Many of the comments below about capacity of track junctions and ridership demand on CTA rail lines are missing key points. The capacity of these track junctions is not a function of how many riders *per day* are carried on the lines they serve. Capacity is measured by how many trains can pass through the junctions during a peak period of time, which is determined by ridership demand along the affected train lines *during that peak period*. Ridership demand along the Brown/Purple Line peaks more strongly than the Red Line and consequently requires more Brown/Purple trains to pass through Clark Jct during the peak period than Red Line trains.

    Overall daily ridership (where the Red Line is indeed dominant) is not really relevant. Peak hour-peak direction ridership is what matters. But most important is simply peak train count, which is actually not exactly proportionate to peak ridership (lower ridership lines like Green and Pink have disproportionately higher peak train counts simply because they’re less crowded and/or run shorter trains). So the truth is that more Brown/Purple trains pass through Clark Jct in the peak period than do Red trains, and also more Brown+Purple+Green+Pink+Orange trains pass through Lake/Wells than do Brown+Purple+Red trains at Clark Jct. I may be off by a few trains but my estimate is that Clark Jct handles about 76 trains in the AM peak hour and Lake/Wells about 84.

    The point is that Clark Jct capacity is very much about meeting the needs for Brown/Purple service, and Brown/Purple service is very much affected by capacity of Loop junctions — not just Clark Jct.

  • decisivemoment

    This is an opportunity for Chicago to finally have a world class transit line — a Red Line that actually operates to its potential, and with a high degree of reliability. The lack of grade separation at Clark Junction puts a huge crimp in the Red, Chicago’s single most important transit route. With the flyover, peak Red Line capacity increases to 24 trains an hour from 16, bringing it finally into line with comparable routes in other major cities, Toronto, San Francisco, New York, London. The Cubs overcowding stops. The AM peak overcrowding stops. No more waiting for three trains to go by. And, a notoriously unreliable interlocking is removed. Remember the collapse of service on Superbowl Sunday this year during the snowstorm? Clark Junction, frozen again. It failed last year on Pride Day. It repeatedly jams up at the most inopportune times, usually late in the day and/or during a Cubs game. This would put a stop to these 20, 30, even 40 minute breakdowns in service. It would improve reliability across the entire Red Line route, as well as the Brown and Purple.

    If this ends up being a debate only about Brown Line service, for the enclave that is North Center and Ravenswood, and the dislike of the flyover for the immediate neighbors of the junction, that sells most of the rest of the city wretchedly short. This is more about the Red than anything else, and it’s a city-wide and even region-wide issue.

  • decisivemoment

    That difference in growth rates is because the Red Line has already hit its capacity limit due to this wretched bottleneck, and also because people farther north are often forced to drive due in part to service reliability problems including the long delays at Clark Junction every few days or weeks due to interlocking failure. The Brown Line just got a huge increase in capacity and still has some way to go to completely fill trains.

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