The Navy Pier Flyover Is Taking Longer to Complete Than the Golden Gate Bridge

Illustration: Mike Centeno, Chicago Reader
Illustration: Mike Centeno, Chicago Reader

[The Chicago Reader publishes a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate a portion of the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online.]

Thankfully, the 40-year-old bicyclist who was struck by a Suburu driver near the Navy Pier Flyover construction site last week wasn’t seriously injured. But the crash sparked a new conversation about why the $60 million initiative to build an overpass for cyclists and pedestrians, to improve safety near Illinois’s second-most-popular tourist attraction, is taking so damn long.

The flyover is meant to relieve crowding on a narrow section of the Lakefront Trail between the Chicago River and Ohio Street Beach. Currently this stretch of trail is just a narrow sidewalk along Lower Lake Shore Drive, with poor sight lines at the busy Grand and Illinois junctions. According to Illinois Department of Transportation data, there were a total of six reported bicycle and pedestrian crashes at these two intersections between 2009 and 2015.

The serpentine overpass, which resembles a spinal column when viewed from below, will widen the path to 16 feet, eliminate dangerous street crossings, and provide breathtaking views of Lake Michigan by taking trail users alongside Upper Lake Shore Drive and back down again.

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The flyover at Grand Avenue, looking south. Photo: John Greenfield

Chicago bike advocates have been pushing for the flyover since before 2001, when the first public meeting on the proposal was held. But the project didn’t really get rolling in earnest until Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011.

“We at the city have discussed this, we have debated it, we have deferred it for decades, and now it’s time to build it,” Emanuel said at the 2014 groundbreaking. At the time, CDOT announced that the overpass would be completed in 2018, which means the project is technically still on schedule.

According to police, the cyclist hit last week was riding west on Grand when he was struck by the driver, who was coming from the southbound exit ramp of LSD. That means that, even if the flyover had already been open, it wouldn’t have made a difference in this case.

Running and biking motifs have been painted on the flyover. Looking north from Grand. Photo: John Greenfield.
Running and biking motifs have been added to the flyover. Looking north from Grand. Photo: John Greenfield.

Still, the story inspired a thread on the Chainlink, a social networking site for local cyclists, in which members wondered aloud why, three years after the groundbreaking, the flyover still isn’t finished.

For example, a commenter named Jim Reho noted that, incredibly, it’s taking as long to construct the overpass as it took to build the entire Golden Gate Bridge. That massive span was built between 1933 and 1937 with far less sophisticated equipment.

Some people also argued that the roughly three-block bikeway is a waste of federal transportation funding that could be better spent on other cycling projects.

“It makes me weep to think of how much good could have been done for cyclists and pedestrians in Chicagoland for the $60 million they’re wasting on that ill-conceived boondoggle,” Reho wrote.

A worker welds the underside of the flyover. Photo: John Greenfield
A worker welds the underside of the flyover. Photo: John Greenfield

In comparison, all the hardware for the Divvy bike-share system, including 580 stations and 6,000 cycles, cost about $36 million, according to CDOT. (As with the flyover, most of the money came from federal transportation grants.)

The day after the Grand/Lower LSD crash, I got a message from one of the anonymous creators of a new Facebook page called Complete the Navy Pier Flyover. And Soon. The sender told me there are three people involved with the campaign, but they need to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing their day jobs. He or she said the group was “organized to put pressure on the city to complete the Navy Pier Flyover without further delays. With increased usage on the [existing trail], we are very concerned about public safety.”

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke has also expressed concerns about the construction time line, calling the overpass “a worthwhile investment given that it’s such a busy bike/ped corridor,” but adding that he’s “disappointed it’s taking so long.”

The off-ramp to Navy Pier. There are also separate staircases at the exits to the pier and Ohio Street Beach. Photo: John Greenfield
The off-ramp to Navy Pier. There are also separate staircases at the exits to the pier and Ohio Street Beach. Photo: John Greenfield

When I alerted CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey to the recent complaints, he blamed the construction schedule on the project’s complexity and cost. The new bikeway has to snake around on- and off-ramps for the Drive and pass through a Chicago River bridge house, and construction has required temporary lane closures.

Phase one of the project, from Ohio Street Beach to the Ogden Slip (a man-made harbor just north of the Chicago River), will cost $26 million, including $18 million in federal and and $8 million in IDOT funds, and is nearly finished.

“We knew from the outset that it . . . would be a challenge to fund [the flyover]—especially without a state capital bill or a dedicated federal funding source,” Claffey says. “In order to get the project completed within our existing resources, we have had to spread it over several years.”

While there was a tight deadline to complete phase one, Claffey says the city needed more time to line up funding for phase two—from the Ogden Slip to the river, starting this summer—and phase three—the southernmost flyover portion crossing the river, slated to start this fall.

The east end of the flyover (so far).
The east end of the flyover (so far). Photo: John Greenfield

“The three phases started design at different times and have been progressing on separate tracks,” Claffey says.

A commenter on the Chainlink thread named Jorge defended CDOT’s explanation of the project’s cost leading to its seemingly slow completion.

“Why is it taking so long? Funding is spread out over years. It is that simple.”

He scoffed at the idea that the grassroots Complete the Navy Pier Flyover. And Soon campaign could accelerate the project. “There is no possible way for that to happen,” he wrote. “Might as well pray for it to happen sooner. Same effect, nothing.”

Jorge also pushed back at the notion that the $60 million project is a boondoggle, noting that it will prevent crashes and injuries, and improve access to Navy Pier. “When are cyclists ever afforded luxuries in our car culture?” he wrote.

Jorge’s got a point. We often take massive expenditures to facilitate driving for granted. Last week, for example, the Illinois Tollway board voted unanimously for a $4 billion expansion of the Tri-State Tollway. That’s the equivalent of 67 Navy Pier Flyovers. It’s about time that bike riders and pedestrians got some Cadillac-quality infrastructure for a change. While it would have been nice to see the flyover project expedited, in about a year and a half trail users’ patience will be rewarded with a first-class facility.

  • Leggy Mountbatten

    11 workers died building the Golden Gate Bridge, I guess that was good?

  • BlueFairlane

    I seem to remember having arguments with people on the predecessor of this site when I said there was no way this thing would come in on time and under what was then a $45-million budget.

  • skyrefuge

    As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the Flyover is now already out-of-date before it’s even 1/3rd finished. It will only be 16 feet wide, yet will have to squeeze 36-feet worth of newly-separated bike/pedestrian paths into that space. Though I guess even if construction was just starting now and only taking a reasonable 6 months, they wouldn’t very well be able to fit in a 36-foot-wide flyover due to space limitations.

    Great to finally get an answer about the 3-year construction process (“it’s the funding!”); I’ve been looking for an explanation for that since the day the plan was announced!

  • johnaustingreenfield

    As stated in the article, the project is still on schedule, according to the timeline announced three years ago. The jump from $45 million to $60 million was due to the decision to widen the trail south of the Ogden Slip, which requires tunneling through the bridge house.

  • decisivemoment

    I have to disagree with you there. There’s very little direct pedestrian traffic in that area on the one block immediately west of Lake Point Tower–it’s almost all to and from Navy Pier. That section around the east of Lake Point Tower will be freed of most bike traffic (which prior to the project was heavy both east and west of Lake Point Tower) and that will constitute the separation in that area.

  • decisivemoment

    It’s unfortunate that there does not appear to be any connection immediately south of Lake Point Tower between the flyover and the existing lower-level sidewalk/trail on Lake Shore Drive. That means 18 months of that dead-end bridge in that spot, I guess.

  • skyrefuge

    Sure, I can buy that the trails stay “separated” for the area around Lake Point Tower, but that’s only phase one. I recall no shortage of pedestrians on the actual river-crossing portions (phases 2 and 3), where the paths are physically required to be combined in some way.

    And even for the phase one section, unless pedestrians are explicitly prohibited, there will still need to be some sort of merging/crossover of the separated paths into a combined path.

  • Pat

    One of my biggest qualms was that they put very little thought or action into the detour. Before starting construction they should installed better connections to go around the construction, though now they have installed some.

    However, not once did they think to fix that puddle north of the ramp from the seawall that has persisted for as long as I can remember. Also, creating a dismount zone there rather than widening the ramp is obnoxious. The only time I’ve ever been issued a warning/ticket on a bike was right there by an ATV officer hiding behind a fence when there were no pedestrians.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Does anyone know exactly how/where Phase 1 will terminate? Will it be usable without/before the construction of the other two phases? Ditto for Phase 2?

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