The CTA is getting ready for RPM, the mother of all Chicago transit projects

Journalists check out the future site of the Belmont Flyover with CTA staffer Chris Bushell, right. The flyover will pass by the white control tower, with the tops of northbound Brown Line trains a bit higher than the top of the tower. Photo: John Greenfield
Journalists check out the future site of the Belmont Flyover with CTA staffer Chris Bushell, right. The flyover will pass by the white control tower, with the tops of northbound Brown Line trains a bit higher than the top of the tower. Photo: John Greenfield

Last week I, along with a few other Rita Skeeter types, was invited to a press event in the CTA’s top-secret briefing room, aka the former basement-level sneaker and skateboard department of Lakeview’s shuttered Belmont Army store. We were there to discuss the $2.1 billion first phase of the Red and Purple Modernization project (RPM), the biggest single initiative in the history of the transit agency. Phase I involves rehabbing four stations in Uptown and Edgewater; track and signal improvements; and the controversial Belmont Flyover, which will address a conflict area just north of the Belmont Red, Purple, and Brown stop by routing northbound Brown trains over the other tracks.

CTA president Dorval Carter Jr. kicked off the roundtable by discussing the origins of the massive project back in 2007, when staffers argued that “if we don’t rebuild RPM, it’s going to fall apart. In January 2017, just before the transit-hostile Trump administration took over Washington D.C., Barack Obama essential put out a lifeboat for RPM, in the form of $1.1 billion in funding. Much of the remainder of the cost will be covered by revenue generated by a tax-increment financing district that was designated around the project area. “There’s no project in my career that I’ve felt more connected to than the RPM project,” Carter said.

Carter, second from left, and Bushell in the briefing bunker. Photo: John Greenfield

Carter cited the Wilson station rehab and the 95th Street Reed Line terminal reconstruction as other ambitious CTA projects that were arguably carried out successfully. He asserted that, like those initiatives, RPM will have positive impacts for people across Chicago. “Even though this project is being built on the North Side of the city, it’s going to benefit the entire city.”

Carter said that in planning the project, the CTA has focused on job creation, workforce development, and POC- and woman-owned business participation. 20 percent of the design work and 20 percent of the construction work will go to such firms, called Disadvantage Business Enterprises, which he said is among the highest DBE participation in any major U.S. project.

Next RPM project executive Chris Bushell provided an overview of the nuts and bolts of RPM. He noted that the 24/7 service on the Red Line provides roughly 75 million rides per year on a century-old structure. The entire RPM project covers 9.6 miles of track, from Belmont Avenue to Howard Street.

Bushell with a historic photo of the Clark Junction (seen in the top photo of this post), the future site of the flyover. Photo: John Greenfield
Bushell with a historic photo of the Clark Junction (seen in the top photo of this post), the future site of the flyover. Photo: John Greenfield

Bushell discussed the Belmont Flyover, officially called the Red-Purple Bypass, which was contentious because it required the demolition of about 16 local buildings. It will be constructed between this fall and winter 2024. Currently Red and Purple line trains must wait for northbound Brown trains to pass them at the same grade. The CTA says separating the grades with the flyover will improve train speed, capacity, and reliability. The CTA promises that by eliminating the conflict point between the different lines, the flyover will allow for up to a 30 percent increase in service during rush hours, with up to eight more trains per hour on the Red Line alone noted that grade separation is common in highway projects.

Lawrence to Bryn Mawr Modernization (LBBM) will take place between late 2020 and spring 2024. This will involve reconstructing the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn, and Bryn Mawr stations to make them wheelchair-friendly, as well as rebuilding six miles of track, associated structures and viaducts. Bushell noted that this is the longest continuous stretch of non-accessible stations in the system.

Rendering of the Belmont Flyover.
Rendering of the Belmont Flyover.

Unlike the historic steel elevated structures, the new track will be made of concrete with a closed deck, and Bushell promised that this would allow for a straighter, smoother ride, that would also be quieter for people walking under the tracks. “Seeing light through the tracks is nice. What’s not so nice is when a train goes over your head and it’s so loud you can’t even think.”

Corridor Signal Improvement will happen from early 2021 to early 2025. This will include 23 track miles, and Bushell said it would allow for increased throughput of trains, and more reliable train service, with the primary goal of maintaining safe separation between trains.

Carter and Bushell praised the construction contractor Walsh-Flour for figuring out a way to reduce incorporate fewer support columns in the project without sacrificing structural strength, which they said cut six-to-seven months off the construction schedule. “Reducing the construction schedule is probably the single biggest gift we can give to the community,” Carter said. He added that, for a project of this size, getting the first caisson in the ground seven or eight month after the contractor is given a notice to proceed with work “is very rare.”

To help residents deal with hassles associated with service interruptions, truck traffic, noise, dust, and loss of street parking, the CTA plans to open a community project office in the late fall in the LBBM area, where residents can get input and provide feedback. “We’ve never done that before,” Carter stated. While train service will generally be maintained, with some off-peak service cuts, arguably the biggest disruption will be the closure of the Lawrence and Berwyn stations for more than three years, starting as early as 2020. The CTA has promised to help draw customers to local businesses with an “Open for Business” PR campaign.

The timeline for the Belmont Flyover project.
The timeline for the Belmont Flyover project.

The CTA will open a community project office later this fall in the LBBM area where residents can get info and provide input. “We’ve never done that before,” Carter said.

Next we left the bunker for a short tour of nearby CTA facilities with Bushell. At the north end of the Belmont station platform, he showed us the future site of the flyover, which will go past an existing signal control tower, with the top of the northbound Brown Line train passing a bit higher than the top of the tower.

The Red and Purple tracks will be widened over the public right of way. Photo: John Greenfield
The Red and Purple tracks will be widened over the public right of way. Photo: John Greenfield

Next we headed north down the alley under the Red/Purple tracks. Bushell said the tracks will be expanded further over the public right of way, something the CTA has done at other sites. Track utility lines will be moved underground to prevent service disruptions due to falling trees, and dirt surfaces under the tracks will be replaced by pavement.

On the way back to the Belmont Army building, we walked down Wilton Avenue, past a gravel parking lot to the east of the Belmont station where buildings were demolished for the Brown Line Capacity project a decade ago. It’s a bit of an eyesore, which the CTA has tried to camouflage with evergreens and flowers in planters.

Flowers camouflage the Wilton parking lot. Photo: John Greenfield

I noted that, due to this history, some residents may be understandably concerned that the vacant lots created by the demolitions for the flyover may never be redeveloped. Bushell said that the CTA has long been planning to use some of this land for RPM, but they couldn’t announce that until the funding was lined up. After the project is completed, the remaining real estate may be sold off to a developer.

Bushell added that while the Brown Line project didn’t involve a redevelopment strategy, for RPM the CTA collected community input for a transit-oriented development plan, which he said should help reassure neighbors. “We asked them what kind of buildings they want to see when we start to sell off these properties in 2024 or 2025.”

For updates on the RPM project, email with the subject line “Add to list.”

  • Jacob Wilson

    How can it take 3 years to rebuild a station?

  • rwy

    The 147 bus serves the area around the Berwyn station, perhaps a few bus lanes could speed up service on that bus to offer an alternative to the red line.

  • Jeremy

    I am nervous about the bypass being made out of concrete. Water can permeate the concrete, causing extensive costs to properly maintain the integrity of the structure. I live in a concrete high rise that has had significant water damage. Concrete at Wrigley Field was falling because it wasn’t properly maintained.

  • Austin Busch

    They can’t rebuild the station until they’ve moved the tracks, because the gap between tracks is too narrow to expand. They have to move 4 tracks of urban rail a few feet up and a few more feet over, and somehow still move 40K+ passengers a day. 3 years isn’t too bad, the other option might be to shut the line down between Granville and Wilson entirely for a year or more.

  • Christopher Wagner

    Check out the orange line fly over near 18th and State. Its made of concrete and in great condition after 1993 construction. Plus is whisper quiet, so much better than the clanky steel!

  • ardecila

    Any structure can be built cheaply or poorly; there’s nothing wrong with concrete specifically. Managing water is a challenge no matter what the structure is made of; this is one of the biggest responsibilities for architects and engineers. It sounds like your highrise may have had design issues. But concrete works just fine in 99% of civil construction projects, most of which (highway bridges) are subjected to extreme conditions of moisture and salt that don’t apply in Lakeview.

  • ardecila

    What he said. It’s a ship in a bottle, but that bottle has trains and thousands of passengers roaring through every day. If they could shut the Red Line down for a year, they could maybe do an expedited construction schedule, but obviously they can’t do that – it would cripple the North Side, especially during Cubs season.

  • FG

    A lot of high rises have been poorly maintained in Chicago (sorry, but that’s the truth). Steel is just as problematic if not maintained – take a look at the el columns that are built out of steel where they haven’t been rehabbed and they are rusty. It’s all in the initial quality, but even more so in maintenance, which Chicago is notoriously poor at.

    The north main line viaduct is already concrete and rebuilding it in concrete will provide a quieter ride for passengers as well as neighbors.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Here’s the CTA’s full explanation:

    “We anticipate closing those stations for reconstruction the end of 2020 or early 2021 for about 3 ½ years.

    The reason for that length of time is that in order to continue to provide rail service during the construction period, we have to rebuild two of four tracks at a time so we can run train service on the two remaining tracks.

    We will rebuild two of four tracks (northbound Red and Purple) from 2020 to 2022 and then the remaining southbound tracks 2022 to 2024. The Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr stations will be rebuilt during that period, and, as you know, we will have temporary stations open to provide rail access at Argyle and Bryn Mawr.”

  • Carter O’Brien

    But do we have examples of concrete in great condition that date back to more like an 1893 construction? I’m no CTA history expert, but it seems like at least some of the L tracks are original, no?

  • planetshwoop

    I wonder how the green line numbers were impacted from when they did that in the 90s. Running bus service for a year was probably a killer.

  • ardecila

    The ridership impact was indeed awful, which is why CTA committed to rebuilding the Pink Line one stick at a time while trains kept running. In CTA’s defense, the Green Line has plenty of alternative service, from the Red Line on the South Side to the Blue Line on the West Side and multiple bus routes. When CTA rebuilt the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line, they rewrote a huge chunk of the bus lines on the South Side – and that was just for a basic track replacement and cosmetic work on the stations, not a whole new structure.

  • FG

    Most of the early el was on steel or iron structure. The north main line and oak park end of the green are the only ones I can think of that are on concrete structures. Lots of heavy rail viaducts (in fact almost all but the bridges) around Chicago are concrete if they have vertical edges – some older viaducts are stone. Those are all essentially retaining walls with earth fill (solid concrete would be too expensive and I doubt they are hollow). In fact the el through Evanston has sloped earth edges in many places.

    Concrete needs to be maintained, however, the older structures were overengineered compared to today’s. Of course, if they (and we, today) built like the Roman’s, they’d like for millenia…

  • Carter O’Brien
  • planetshwoop

    Many of the sidewalks in my neighborhood have the tag from when there were built in like 1927. Still fine and they would have been subject to all the usual weather, etc.

  • **

    Let’s hope the RPM staging lot at the Lawrence Station that was ALREADY sold for a mere $1 doesn’t end up as (mainly) a parking garage despite all the community input that it should be a TOD site with businesses and affordable housing : “The department was further authorized to sell a city-owned parking lot
    at 1130 W. Lawrence Ave. to those same developers for the bargain price
    of $1 for the Uptown’s use.”

  • **

    So true about maintenance!

  • neroden

    Oh, the ridership impact of the Green Line closure was horrific. It took more than 5 years after they reopened for ridership to recover.

  • The entire RPM project covers 9.6 miles of track, from Belmont Avenue to Howard Street

    The original environmental documents included the Purple Line up to Linden. Not sure if that’s still in the plans or not. Maybe a future phase?