The $17 Million Belmont Blue Line Station Rehab Prioritizes Form Over Function

The fancy new canopy may not do much to shelter customers waiting for buses from blowing rain and snow. Photo: John Greenfield
The fancy new canopy may not do much to shelter customers waiting for buses from blowing rain and snow. Photo: John Greenfield

Let me start out by saying that I like the design of the giant new canopy at the CTA’s Belmont Blue Line station in Avondale, which was officially unveiled on Friday. On the other hand, I appreciate Googie architecture, defined on Wikipedia as “a form of post-modern architecture… influenced by car culture, jets, the Space Age, and the Atomic Age… popular among motels, coffee houses and gas stations.” I’m also a huge fan of Superdawg, the legendary drive-in hotdog stand in Chicago’s Gladstone Park, which shares a similar design aesthetic with the canopy. Others who don’t share my taste in architecture might not appreciate the new station awning.

But I’ve been seeing a lot of complaints on social media is that this major investment of taxpayer money is all show and no go, which isn’t completely off-base. I’ve previously written about the fact that the Belmont rehab, part of the CTA’s $492 million Your New Blue O’Hare branch renovation, doesn’t include making the station wheelchair accessible. The CTA said adding elevators, and making necessary station modifications to accommodate them, was estimated to cost an additional $55 to $75 million.

Adam Ballard from the disability rights group Access Living Chicago told me that while the situation is “frustrating,” he trusts the CTA’s cost estimate and understands that their are other barriers to making stations accessible, such as the need to acquire adjacent properties for elevator shafts. He added that the situation is less disheartening than it would have been a few years ago because of the agency’s recently announced All Stations Accessibility Program to make every ‘L’ stop wheelchair-friendly within the next 20 years. But not everyone agrees that the lack of elevators is acceptable.

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A post on New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens.

Amber Masselli-Urbach, who works at the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, posted about the issue on the widely read New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens Facebook group. “It’s disheartening to see so much money go into needed renovation without considering the needs of marginalized people, including wheelchair users,” she told me.

The city of Chicago, of course, is touting the Belmont project as a major community investment. “Improving Chicago’s infrastructure is critical to keep our city moving and growing,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a statement. “The CTA’s Belmont Blue Gateway project has not only created another showcase station for residents, but also helped create good-paying jobs to ensure our future is even brighter than our past.”

The south side of the station, where the semi-permanent prepaid boarding area will be. Photo: John Greenfield
The south side of the station, where the semi-permanent prepaid boarding area will be. Currently westbound passengers are catching the #77 bus at the northwest corner of Belmont and Kimball. Photo: John Greenfield

CTA President Dorval R. Carter, Jr. stated that the new station design creates “a safer, modern, more efficient travel environment with a one-of-a-kind experience that is only available here in the Avondale community.”

A city news release states that the canopy, designed by local architecture firm Carol Ross Barney, “creates a community gateway for the station and local neighborhood, while also visually enhancing the street-level entrance to the subway station.”

The new station entrance. Photo: John Greenfield
The new station entrance. Photo: John Greenfield

The problem with the canopy, to my eyes, is that it looks like it’s not going to be particularly useful as a shelter from the elements for customers waiting to transfer to the #77 Belmont and #82 Kimball-Homan buses. It soars so high above the sidewalk that it looks like that riders will still get hit by blowing rain and snow unless they keep their backs to the box-shaped glass station entrance. A similar issue exists with the downtown Loop Link bus shelters, whose plentiful seating gets soaked when there’s precipitation.

Before and after views of the Belmont Blue station. Photos: Google Maps, John Greenfield
Before and after views of the Belmont Blue station. Photos: Google Maps, John Greenfield

That’s not to say that this project was a total boondoggle. Improvements include:

  • New LED lighting, additional overhead heaters, repaved surface, and new signage in the bus waiting areas
  • Enhanced communications systems, including new Bus and Train Tracker signs, and an upgraded public announcement system
  • New LED lighting and repainted surfaces inside the station
  • New concrete platform decking
The platform area has been spruced up a bit. Photo: John Greenfield
The platform area has been spruced up a bit. Photo: John Greenfield

Most importantly, the project will create a semi-permanent bullpen on the south side of the station where westbound Belmont bus passengers will wait after paying their fares. Prepaid, all-door boarding has been piloted at this station since June 2019 during the evening rush, although the timesaving feature never gained traction on Loop Link or anywhere else in the system.

A CTA employee, who asked to be anonymous, told me that prepaid boarding is expensive to operate here because it requires paying an employee to supervise a fare card reader and the pullpen. (Even after the project is completed, it would otherwise still be possible for people to walk into the bullpen from the street and board a bus without paying.) But the prepaid boarding system does reduce bus “dwell” time and it’s popular with customers, so the CTA can’t get rid of of it, the employee said.

Customers wait for buses in the prepaid boarding area in June 2016. Photo: John Greenfield
Customers wait for buses in the prepaid boarding area in June 2016. Photo: John Greenfield

While the Belmont station initiative wasn’t a complete waste of money, it does appear that much, if not most, of the cash went into the fancy canopy that turns the station into a nicer-looking conversation piece. Why was this so important to the city of Chicago? Probably to spur more development and property tax revenue generation in Avondale, the next neighborhood to fall as gentrification and displacement moves northwest up the Blue Line from Wicker Park and Logan Square.

  • Austin Busch

    Maybe a question for the weekly Q&A, but how much revenue lost would there be if CTA buses were free to board at the outlying L stops? I’d assume at a location like the Belmont Blue, or the overpass stops on Dan Ryan/Forest Park branches, that well over half of customers are transfers.

  • planetshwoop

    making more of the bus free would definitely speed the buses up.

  • Jeremy

    I’ve wondered about this. Would the increase in speed due to the lack of collecting payments be greater than the decrease in speed due to the number of people taking a bus for two blocks? I definitely think it is worth an experimental test run for a couple of days.

    I like the idea of making bus boarding free at train stations at the ends of train lines.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Unfortunately, all this “semi-permanent bullpen on the south side of the station where westbound Belmont bus passengers will wait after paying their fares” does is ensure CTA, CDOT and IDOT will never work across their silos to address the colossal negative impacts of this bus turning into the station in the first place. It means pedestrians don’t support businesses on the north side of Belmont as traffic to/from 94 is prioritized, and makes trying to bike through this intersection a nightmare. Motorists don’t seem very happy with the disruption that causes either, and it often ends up interfering with the eastbound 77.

    This is a colossal systems fail, and installing some mediocre element of BRT will now make it that much harder to get the bus out of there, which is joined at the hip with getting a second ADA compliant entrance across the street.

  • Leggy Mountbatten

    Yaaaaaay! I’m moving to this area because they built a fancy bus shelter!

  • Anne A

    The closest comparison I can think of is the free shuttle bus service that CTA offered on the far south side during the major red line overhaul a few years back. The buses were “load and go.” A train full of people would come off the green line and go to the shuttle bus for the appropriate red line station. When the bus was completely full (or pretty close to it), it would leave.

    It was mind blowing how incredibly fast it was to have people get on the bus and just sit down, instead of having lots of people waiting outside the bus while lots of people had to do multiple scans of their Ventra cards, slowing things down. A whole bus full of people could load up in just a couple of minutes. In comparison, if I’m on the 95th St. bus and we get to Ashland, where there are 15-20 people waiting to board, it might take 3 stoplight cycles (occasionally longer) for all those people to board and pay.

  • Courtney

    As I’ve said on Twitter, that money could have been better spent to speed up the 77 and the 76: signal priority, a bus-only lane, fewer stops, pre-board boarding at the Red Purple Line, Western, Damen, and the Blue Line. Lots of folks who can’t use the Belmont Blue Line stop due to accessibility needs ostensibly use the 77 and 76 as an alternative. By forcing folks to continue to use slow ass buses, you create more inequity in our transit system.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I was really impressed with how fare-readers at the back entrance of San Francisco’s buses improved passenger flow. Retrofits may not make sense from a financial standpoint, but CTA should look at this for future RFPs. And yes, I am sure *some* people cheat and don’t pay the fare, but I’d also wager that efficiency gains for the bus system as a whole more than make up for it.

  • Mike Harris

    This reminds me of when they replaced the bus stations across Chicago. In a city that usually gets severe winters, they took away the existing massive solid bus shelters and replaced them with Parisian-designed bus shelters that have huge gaps to let the wind through, thin glass panes that easily shatter and easily conduct the cold … but most importantly, big advertising space they could sell. Talk about form over freaking function.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I’m there almost every day and I agree with your assessment 100%. The vast majority of people are either getting on the bus from the Blue Line itself, or are making a transfer in conjunction with the Kimball bus, which connects to the Brown Line to the north and Green Line to the south.

  • david vartanoff

    Over at Second Ave Sagas it appears that a Federal Judge has ruled against NY MTA in a similar case.
    http://secondavenuesagas.com/2019/03/12/mta-must-install-elevators-during-all-station-renovations-unless-technically-infeasible-federal-judge-says/
    I concur. The next issue will be whether NY MTA appeals.

  • planetshwoop

    Study the system Pittsburgh uses. It’s free to use the subway within downtown, and outside downtown, you pay when you exit or enter. (Same with the bus, I think.)

    Anyway, I thought it was great when I used it.

  • Jim Green

    The headline on the Streetsblog page says “Belmont Blue Line Station Canopy Has Already Sprung a Leak.” I clicked expecting to read about a leak. There is no leak.

  • johnaustingreenfield

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