Is CTA Excuse for Not Adding Elevators to Belmont Blue Legit? An ADA Advocate Weighs in

The new Belmont Blue Line station canopy takes shape at Belmont and Kimball in Avondale. Photo: Nathan Olson
The new Belmont Blue Line station canopy takes shape at Belmont and Kimball in Avondale. Photo: Nathan Olson

In October 2016 the city announced upgrades to the Blue Line’s Belmont stop costing up to $15 million. The plans called for adding a Jetsons-esque weather canopy and permanently adding prepaid bus boarding to the station, plus other improvements. However, installing an elevator to make the stop accessible to wheelchair users and others with mobility challenges wasn’t part of the immediate plan. The same was true for several other stations along the O’Hare branch that were being upgraded as part of the CTA’s Your New Blue initiative, and many residents had a problem with those omissions.

When I asked CTA spokesperson Tammy Chase about the elevator issue, she noted responded that the agency had recently announced its All Stations Accessibility Program to make every ‘L’ stop wheelchair-friendly within the next 20 years. But Chase added that the physical constraints posed by decades-old rail infrastructure make expansion to accommodate elevators difficult and expensive in many cases.

“Making an existing station [Americans With Disabilities Act] compliant sometimes requires more than just the addition of an elevator,” Chase wrote. “Depending on the layout of a station, multiple elevators would be required and platforms would also need to be widened/lengthened among other things.” She said that making the Belmont station fully accessible was estimated to cost an additional $55 to $75 million.

At the time I wrote that it was “somewhat understandable” that the CTA was choosing to make short-term improvements instead of waiting until a lot more funding becomes available. “Still, it’s a shame that residents with disabilities may have to wait as long as two decades until they gain access to a facility that’s supposed to serve all Chicagoans.”

This weekend I snapped a photo of the under-construction Belmont Blue station and tweeted out with a link to my 2016 post. University of Chicago doctoral student Matthew Borus tweeted this response:

Borus argued that I shouldn’t have taken the CTA’s cost estimate and explanation at face value, and that I should have checked in with an accessibility advocate for a different perspective, which were reasonable criticisms.

So today I contacted the disability rights group Access Living Chicago to get its take on the elevator issue. Advocacy manager Adam Ballard said that he trusts that the CTA’s cost estimates is accurate, and he understands that there are other major barriers to making stations accessible, such as the need to acquire adjacent properties for elevator shafts.

“I’m not going to pretend that [the Belmont situation] isn’t frustrating,” Ballard said. “But I’m less frustrated about it than I would have been a few years ago, before the ASAP plan existed. We do put our hope in ASAP because it lays out a blue print for accessibility.”

A rendering of the station.
A rendering of the Belmont Blue station.

Former Access Living board members Jack Catlin, an architect, and Kevin Irvine, a CTA board member, were involved in drafting the document. “They definitely are familiar with our perspective and know what our community wants and needs,” Ballard said. “Overall, the CTA is on the same page with us. Our main frustration is the timeline, so we really need to make sure that whenever transit funding becomes available, especially capital funding, ASAP is at the top of their list. Hopefully we can shorten that timeline.”

Ballard added that he was frustrated when the North and Clybourn Red Line station was rehabbed several years ago, using private sponsorship funds from Apple Computer, which has a store next door but the project didn’t include an elevator. “The CTA made sure that the renovations wouldn’t trigger the ADA requirements.” According to the law, if an upgrade project chiefly involves cosmetic improvements, rather than major structural changes, wheelchair access isn’t required.

While Ballard suspects that the CTA took a similar approach to Belmont and other Your New Blue stations that aren’t getting elevators in the near future, he says he considers that strategy to be less problematic now that the ASAP plan is in place.

Reached this afternoon CTA spokesperson Jon Kaplan reiterated the CTA’s previous talking points. “As you noted in your 2016 article, there are challenges in making existing, decades-old infrastructure accessible, especially with a system as old as the CTA,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges at a station like Belmont are the constraints of being a subway, which requires additional construction considerations and costs. However, despite these constraints and others, CTA is committed to making every rail station accessible – including Belmont – as outlined in our ASAP Plan.”

Kaplan added that the Belmont rehab is slated for completion by June 21, 2019.


  • canthaveaccessiblethings

    Berlin is installing elevators in 63 subway stations for a total of less than $150 million (2016 estimate). This seems like another example of US construction costs that are totally out of control, or they indeed made up the numbers.

  • Dennis McClendon

    CTA’s architects have a habit of making the perfect the enemy of the good, interpreting ADA requirements rather expansively—and thus, expensively. For instance, (AIUI) they insist that two wheelchairs must be able to pass on either side of an obstruction, rather than one on one side and the other on the other side.

  • planetshwoop

    Is part of the very high cost that one has to have one elevator to get to the gates, then a second elevator to the platform?

    I’m wish we could just do proof of ridership rather than having the fare gates. It would just make the system so much better.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Got a link to an article about that? Not seeing anything online.

  • what_eva

    The requirement of two elevators is definitely part of the problem for many stations.
    However, at Belmont an elevator directly to the platform isn’t possible because the platform is directly under Kimball. It’s definitely a tough one but that cost estimate seems really high.

    The station to mezzanine seems straightforward, expand the hall south of the escalators and add an elevator that comes up near the top of the escalators.

    The problem is mezzanine to platform. The platform isn’t very wide and all that width is taken up by the escalator and stairs. A possible solution would be to add a catwalk going out a bit for the stairs so that one could pass the stairs, then go under them next to the escalator to get to an elevator. It would be a bit of a maze but it could work.

    However, if was Dennis says below is true, I’m sure that wouldn’t be wide enough for two wheelchairs. So their super high cost estimate is probably to completely redo the mezzanine level in some fashion to make it all work.

  • canthaveaccessiblethings

    German source: (and h/t to Alon Levy for mentioning this is in one of his articles about high construction costs)

  • johnaustingreenfield

    OK, the article says that making 63 stations “barrier-free” will involve installing 25 “elevator systems” but, still, that’s an order of magnitude cheaper.

  • Dennis McClendon

    Many Berlin U-Bahn stations, especially in the former East, have an entrance in the middle of the street that just goes straight down, as a single flight of stairs, four meters to the center platform. If they’re not reconfiguring the stations, that means they can make each one accessible with a single simple elevator.

  • canthaveaccessiblethings

    @johnaustingreenfield:disqus , that’s not right — maybe an issue with Google Translate. I’m a native German speaker, and the 25 refers to an immediate priority list, funded with 5 million Euros. Translation of those two paragraphs:

    The list of priorities is divided into two blocks. At their party retreat in January, the Social Democrats decided to allocate EUR 5 million for the construction of 25 elevator systems. Cheapest will be the installation at the stations Kurfüstenstraße, Rathaus Schöneberg, and Victoria-Luise-Platz. Costs are projected to be around EUR 800,000 each. These station are directly below the street.

    More involved will be the project at Möckernbrücke, with two sets of platforms for the U1 and U7, on an elevated structure and underground. Here costs will total EUR 6.9 million. At the Zitadelle station on the U7 line in Spandau, the BVG will have to expend EUR 5.1 million for the two elevators.

  • canthaveaccessiblethings

    @DennisMcClendon:disqus That’s true. But almost all of those stations already have elevators. I would guess that the remaining ones are exactly those that are more complex.

  • FrancJ

    Considering the cost of installing and maintaining these elevators it would be cheaper to provide on-demand shuttle service for every handicap person in Chicago.

  • kastigar

    The Merchandise Mart stop on the Brown Line is marked handicapped accessible but I can’t figure out how and where. I was sent by an attendant to a ramp near the elevator but faced an obstacle going thru two door each with only manual places to push.

    If somebody knows a way to get in or out, let me know.

  • David P.

    This is not about the U-Bahn, nor specifically about elevators, but I think is very good at giving an idea why construction costs for rail in the US are so high:
    Points #2-5 and #8-9 seem relevant.

  • Courtney

    Okay, even if they weren’t going to fix the elevator, money could have been better spent to speed up the 77 and the 76 by giving them their own dedicated lane, pre-board payment at Belmont Red/Brown/Purple, Damen, Western, and at the Blue Line stop, and signal priority.While I generally don’t encounter a lot of folks using mobility aids when I am taking the 77, one could presume since folks in wheelchairs, using walkers, etc are not using the Belmont Blue Line stop, they probably are taking the Diversey and Belmont bus.
    In a state and city which prioritized transit, the CTA could upgrade the Belmont stop with an elevator, create more bus lanes, install signal priority on major bus routes, and implement fair fares.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I’d just throw in here that the “under Kimball” argument should be viewed in the context of the fact that for a tiny fraction of that total cost estimate CTA could use eminent domain to pick up a lot adjacent to the station, or across the street. The older SFH/2 flats on the 3100 block of Kimball are selling for ~$400K or so, and the McDuks building looks like it might blow down in a strong storm.

  • david vartanoff

    Plessy v Ferguson? No Thank You! Experiences of my kin with disabled van service has been very negative. And, even if it were good, the idea should be that we can use public transit together when going out for whatever purpose.

  • Maybe it’s accessible via the elevators inside the Merchandise Mart?

  • This is dumb. It’s much more costly to operate a paratransit system than to make changes that would permanently include people who benefit the most from accessibility upgrades. In addition, accessibility upgrades help more people than those who have a permanent or temporary disability, including old people, and people with babies, luggage, or bicycles.

    In a 2010 study, the Government Accountability Office said that costs 3.5x more to provide a paratransit trip than a fixed-route transit trip (CTA/Pace routes are all fixed-route):

    “What GAO Found. Also, ADA paratransit trips are much more costly to provide than fixed-route trips. Similarly, the average cost of providing an ADA paratransit trip in 2010 was $29.30, an estimated three and a half times more expensive than the average cost of $8.15 to provide a fixed-route trip.”

    If 1,000 people a day needed an accessible trip via transit, that would be an extra $21,150 per day. That’s enough to pay for an elevator at this station in 7 years. Which isn’t a long time to pay for something, given that agencies like the CTA are working on very long timelines because they are designing permanent infrastructure that lasts much longer than that and because their capital infrastructure payment mechanisms (bonds) are multi-decades long.

    But my numbers are very conservative, because RTAMS reports that 8,005 people per day, on average, in December 2018, used paratransit service in Chicago. My example above considered only 1,000 people!

  • Christine Fox

    The elevators don’t work most of the time anyways. Welcome to Chicago, blue and broke.

  • david vartanoff
  • Brian Sheehan

    Getting into that station by any means is an absolute mess. Especially as a wheelchair user trying to access the outbound platform or get to the street from there.

  • what_eva

    AFAIK (and I’m not 100% on the station geometry, but I think I’m right…), the platform is quite literally under Kimball. As in right under the centerline of the street with the tracks on the outer side of the lanes/parking lanes, maybe into the parkway/sidewalks. Buying a house or two on Kimball doesn’t help. An elevator to direct from street to platform would have to be in the middle of the street.

    That said, picking up the Mic Ducks building would be an alternative to messing with the escalator hallway. ie a second entrance to the existing mezzanine, though not solving the mezzanine to platform issue.

    Another potential option would be to build a secondary entrance on the south end of the platform (down by Barry I’d guess?). The problem there is the connection to the 77 gets way worse.

  • ChgoJohn in Logan Square

    Diagonal trams and elevators have been installed up hillsides and mountains all over the world for a century. Instead of creating their own ADA access designs, the CTA should be required to acquire unused vacant adjacent land and issue requests for engineering design proposals long before station rehab jobs are bid out. Even narrow platforms could accommodate end-of platform lifts, with accessable fare gates only at street level and no need to stop at an intermediate station level. This solution should have been publicly discussed for Belmont and Damen (East side) stations long before project budget were discussed. Adding a 100ft. down(170 ft long)Jefferson-Desplaines-street-level down to West-end-of Clinton blue line lift would connect that stop with the Greyhound station and CkCty Domestic Violence Court, and could be built on under-highway land already owned by the State Dept of Trans. under the Eisenhower.

  • ChgoJohn in Logan Square

    Update: NY advocacy group files separate class-action suit in May:
    Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) filed on behalf of three plaintiffs and a coalition of accessibility rights groups, asserting that the MTA is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act when it overhauls subway stations without adding elevators.