BOYSTOWN — Robert Hughes was looking forward to the CTA's public hearing on its proposed Belmont flyover project Wednesday, seeing a chance to have his voice heard.
What he found when he got there, he said, looked more like a "high school science fair."
Held in an upstairs gymnasium at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St., the event billed as a "public forum" did not involve any speeches as Hughes and some others had expected. Instead, dozens of CTA representatives stood in front of billboards detailing the aesthetics and impact of the proposed $320 million project, which would add an elevated Brown Line track over the Red and Purple Line trains at the Belmont stop in order to speed travel times for commuters.
About a hundred people reportedly showed up at the event.
"We're here waiting for there to be a community process — we think we should have a say in the future of our neighborhood," said Steve Johnson, who lives on the 3200 block of Wilton Ave. "Instead the CTA is just putting out this propaganda, and it doesn't even show any of the engineering or where they're going to build."
Specifics are critical for Johnson, whose house is one of 16 properties the CTA would re-purpose or demolish to make the flyover a reality. Last summer, Johnson joined neighbors like Hughes and his wife Ellen, another outspoken critic of the project, to form the Coalition to Stop the Belmont Flyover.
Hughes, who lives across the street from the Belmont CTA station, said the project represents a threat to his neighborhood.
"I don't buy that this project is going to help redevelopment at all. I mean, has the Chicago Skyway improved development prospects for people in the far South Side?" Hughes said. "It's going to turn this place into a no-man's land, all to shave 20 or 30 seconds off people's commutes."
But the project isn't just about shortening delays, said CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase.
"What we have [at Belmont] now is a rail junction built in 1907 that requires Red, Purple and Brown Line trains all to wait for each other," Chase said. "Ridership is growing, the population is expected to grow, so if we don't add service now, we're only going to see quality decline."
CTA officials have also said that new developments could be sparked by the work.
As for Hughes' concerns about the project's impact on the surrounding community, Chase said that would be addressed by a "neighborhood redevelopment plan" that will reach out to local residents, business owners and Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) "before the first shovel hits the ground." And Wednesday's event, she said, was a crucial step.
"Public hearings like we're having tonight are incredibly important. The project is not fully designed yet, so we need community input on how the bypass is built," Chase said. "We want anyone who has a stake in this project to have a seat at the table."
But Johnson, faced with the prospect of losing his house, feels the CTA has treated him like an afterthought.
"I've asked multiple times for the CTA to come and have an actual conversation with impacted property owners, and they keep refusing," Johnson said. "There's been no community process at all. Instead they're just saying 'Hey, we want to do this, and you're in the way.'"
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