Residents debate CTA's proposed Belmont bypass

Jacob Peters doesn't live near the Belmont stop in Lakeview, but Thursday he waded into what is shaping up to be a neighborhood fight over a CTA proposal to create a bypass near Belmont Avenue to ease Red, Purple and Brown line train travel.

Peters, who lives in Logan Square, said he rides the CTA through Lakeview several times a week—the Red Line to visit his girlfriend in Lakeview and the Brown Line to visit his parents in Albany Park. He said he has frequently waited at the train bottleneck north of the Belmont stop.

Peters said he supports creating a Belmont bypass, but he opposes the CTA's proposal to forcibly purchase 16 buildings to make the bypass happen.

"The improvement is direly needed, but I don't think 16 buildings have to be torn down," said Peters, 27. "It just has to be done in a scapel-like way rather than a hammer-like way."

Peters was one of more than 170 people who attended a CTA hearing Thursday in Wrigleyville about the proposed $320 million flyover. Participants who talked to RedEye expressed mixed reaction to the bypass, which would allow Brown Line trains to travel up and over Red and Purple Line tracks to avoid having to wait for those trains to pass at the junction near Belmont.

The CTA said the bypass, which would be 40 to 45 feet tall at its highest point, is needed so that it can increase train capacity by 30 percent and reduce train wait time there. But the proposal has drawn ire from Lakeview residents who say they oppose the CTA's building demolition plan, which would alter the neighborhood's skyline.

There is no timetable for construction, which could begin in 2017 at the earliest. The CTA still is working to identify funding for the bypass, which is part of its plan to modernize the Red Line with proposed projects such as extending the Red Line from 95th Street to 130th Street and renovating four North Side stations and accompanying track.

The flyover is by far the most controversial proposal of the Red Line modernization.

Mariela Bayer, who lives in Lakeview and rides the Red Line frequently, said at Thursday's hearing she is concerned about the fate of the buildings in the crosshairs. She is not sure that the CTA's current proposal is the best route.

"I don't want to have 16 property owners lose their locations just because I don't want to be a sardine in a train car," said Bayer, 25.

Some of the 16 buildings targeted for CTA purchase are residential, but some are businesses such as Johnny O'Hagans Irish Pub & Restaurant, 947 W. Roscoe St., and Beggars Pizza and Beer bar, 3415-3419 N. Clark St. Residents and businesses learned their buildings could be impacted through letters mailed to them.

But the CTA said this work is necessary. The agency said the average delay for trains waiting at the junction near Belmont is 84 seconds, though residents who have self-timed the trains say the average delay is much less.

The CTA says the project is not just about reducing delays—it's also about increasing capacity. The bypass would allow the CTA to add six to nine Red Line trains per hour during rush periods, the agency said. Additional trains could serve 7,200 more riders.

"If CTA does not address the rail configuration, the current level of service will stay the same in the future despite the fact that more customers will be taking public transportation. In other words, ridership will be capped, with long-term consequences for Chicago and its residents," CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said in an e-mail to RedEye.

This is not the first time the CTA has purchased parcels for a construction project. The CTA bought 40 properties for its $530 million Brown Line project to renovate 18 stations five years ago.

At Thursday's hearing, two CTA board members in attendance, Ashish Sen and Kevin Irvine, said they were listening to rider feelings and haven't formed firm stances on the proposed bypass. Both board members are Brown Line riders.

"There is no doubt that the Red Line has reached capacity and something has to be done," Sean said. "But I have an open mind on what that something is."