LAKEVIEW — With its very own opposition coalition and a decent chunk of media attention, the proposed Brown Line bypass at the Belmont station has been ruffling feathers since it was announced last spring.
Officials from the Chicago Transit Authority are hopeful that a June 3 public hearing will give them a chance to fully explain the need for the flyover, answer questions and get feedback from neighbors. Ahead of that, DNAinfo Chicago sat down with CTA representatives to ask six common questions about the project.
CTA says: Overcrowding on trains, especially during rush hours, can leave passengers stranded on platforms or suffering delays as Red and Purple line trains wait for the northbound Brown Line trains to cross over at the Belmont station. The CTA has been adding more trains to the lines during peak hours, but "we're at capacity now. Even a one-percent growth (in ridership) would put us way past capacity," said Steve Hands, CTA senior project manager of strategic planning. After considering 20 alternatives, the bypass was the project that would disrupt the neighborhood the least while still increasing capacity.
To get federal funding for the Red-Purple Modernization project, it must increase capacity by at least 10 percent. While plans to update and replace track lines and structures will help to a smaller degree, "you have to relieve the bottleneck before you can deal with the other constraints that are limiting capacity," Hands said. Adding the flyover as a fifth track at the junction will increase capacity by more than 30 percent, the CTA estimates.
2. Hang on. I thought this was all about shortening the wait time.
CTA says: The wait times are a symptom of the capacity constraint. Eliminating that constraint allows the CTA to run more trains with fewer delays, boosting hourly ridership by 7,200 per hour on the three lines. As for the fluctuating average wait times, it's difficult to measure how the Brown Line crossing over slows trains as far down as Armitage or Clark and Division stations. "It's like saying you're at a traffic light and it's backed up — how long is the wait time? When do you start the line for the light? Traffic doesn't start at the intersection," said Mike McLaughlin, vice president of planning and federal affairs.
Last year, the CTA hit its highest annual ridership since it began recording the data in 1961. "Ridership is expanding nationwide, and the trend has been continuing for 20 years," McLaughlin said. To measure ridership growth, the CTA made projections based on the number of train riders, loading flow and Red and Purple line boardings. Even the most conservative estimate showed an "urgent need" for increased services, Hands said.
CTA says: Plans are only between 10 and 30 percent complete at this stage, which means there's plenty of time for residents to voice their opinions. Aside from the flyover itself, the CTA said its willing to consider a range of alternatives to lessen the impact on the neighborhood. "Absolutely, 100 percent, there is wiggle room," said Jeffrey Wilson, senior manager of government and community relations.
Wilson also promised the agency would meet with any neighborhood organization looking for more information, now that the environment assessment has been released. Prior to construction, the CTA also wants to know what side effects are of most concern to neighbors. "We think we have all the answers with regards to mitigation, and then you go to a community meeting, and they say, 'Well we don't care about that, we're more worried about our neighborhood being overrun with rats,'" Wilson said.
In renderings released Tuesday, the CTA depicts what the Brown Line flyover would look like at the Belmont station. [Provided/CTA]
CTA says: The agency is hoping to get federal funding for about half of the $1.9 billion Red-Purple Modernization project. The money would come from the Core Capacity program that began in 2012. To get the money, the project must improve capacity by at least 10 percent, which is why the flyover is vital to the project. "If you just do [track improvements] from Lawrence to Bryn Mawr, you're talking over $1 billion of just local funds. The local share actually increases if you don't do the bypass," McLaughlin said. The remainder will be state and city, and despite Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposed transportation cuts "there's talk about a capital funding bill, so we're hopeful."
CTA says: One of the first steps following the environmental assessment is starting work on a Neighborhood Redevelopment Plan. Along with the office of Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), chambers of commerce and neighbors, the CTA will create a plan to determine what sort of redevelopment will fit with the neighborhood and establish recommendations from the community. The plan will be completed before construction begins.
Ideally, the CTA would like the areas surrounding the Belmont station to see the same redevelopment progress as neighborhoods near the Brown Line expansion project. The agency pulled the Wilton Avenue lot from listings when the Great Recession struck in 2009. About 100 feet of the plot is currently on the market, but by the time the economy had recovered, the CTA pegged the land for the Red Purple Modernization. "Did we, in good faith, put those properties on the market when the project was done? Yes, we did. But we didn't have a crystal ball, and we didn't know there would be a recession. Nothing was moving," Wilson said. The Neighborhood Redevelopment Plan is designed, in part, to remedy that problem this time around.
6. Affected property owners are tired of waiting around to see if their homes will be sold. What's going on with the acquisition process?
CTA says: Property owners ready to sell can begin the early acquisition process, which some have already done. The CTA has appointed a real estate consultant who is at the owners' disposal any time and hand-delivered multiple letters about the project's progress. Neighbors still have at least two years before construction begins, meaning renting properties can also be a viable option for those ready to move on, said spokeswoman Tammy Chase.
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