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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 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

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 provided this rendering showing that with redeveloped buildings on Clark Street, the flyover wouldn't be visible from the street.

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. 

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