December 21, 2021

Long-Term Changes, Impact for CTA Red-Purple Modernization

By Cyril Dela Rosa and Steven Perez

Aria Machinski always uses a little extra caution when walking to and from Uptown CTA stations.

“Walking home by myself, I would always have to walk in a crowd of people because it is so dark over there [near the stations],” she said.

Taylor Martin, another Uptown resident, said that when their families come to visit Uptown, they are forced to take Ubers for transportation because of the lack of accessibility to the Red Line stations.

On Nov. 19, the Chicago Transit Authority debuted the newly constructed Belmont Flyover, otherwise known as the Red-Purple Bypass. Now in operation, this infrastructure allows northbound Brown Line trains to pass over the Red and Purple Lines without any stoppages. This first step spells out what is to come for “the largest reconstruction project in CTA history.”

The CTA is currently working on modernizing the Red and Purple Lines. The plan is called the Red and Purple Modernization Program (RPM). The first phase of this plan includes the complete rebuilding of the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn, and Bryn Mawr stations. Combined with the initial steps of constructing the Flyover, this project phase totals in cost at $2.1 billion and is expected to be completed over the next three years.

The Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn, and Bryn Mawr tracks and embankments are over 100 years old. This is the reason the CTA chose these stations as the first to modernize on the Red and Purple Lines. The goal is that these stations will all be 21st century modern and fully accessible with escalators and elevators. Another major issue that is addressed in these new stations is lighting and bike parking. All of the new stations will be equipped with an adequate amount of lighting and bike parking.

The additions of escalators, elevators and better lighting are essential in making the stations more accessible and safe for those in the community. Uptown is home to a diverse community, possessing a large number of elderly residents living in the neighborhood that are in need of better accessibility to the station platforms. Better lighting and wider stairways at stations could help residents like Machinski and Martin feel safer at night when walking near or accessing the stations.

The RPM project will be completed in two stages. Stage A will work on the east half of the tracks and will be worked on from Spring 2021 to Winter 2022. Stage B will work on the west half of the tracks and will be worked on from Winter 2022 to Winter 2024. The construction of the new stations and tracks was split up into two stages so that the CTA can maintain and continue service on one side of the tracks throughout the duration of construction.

One major contribution to this project is the development of The Gantry System. The Gantry System that is put in place to assemble the new Red Line tracks is custom built and unique to this project. This system is put in place so the CTA can reduce construction impacts on nearby communities by working on the foundation on-site and working with subsequent substructure offsite. These steps allow the workers to save time by being able solely to focus on assembling the track on site.

While several long-term benefits are predicted from the modernization of the Red and Purple Lines, concern has arisen for many local residents from its impacted communities of Uptown and Edgewater. Ongoing transit construction also signals to wary onlookers the impending waves of redevelopment and gentrification that may follow after the public infrastructure has been improved.

When thinking about the potential impacts of the RPM on her students, Goudy Public School teacher Emma Lee shared concern about the plan being a possible factor that pushes more families towards displacement.

“[A] lot of students are in our school… and one thing we find out is that they can’t afford to live here anymore,” she said. “That’s what their parents would tell us.”

For Lee,new transit infrastructure may be a sign of more development within the area that indirectly increases overall costs of living for her students’ families.

ONE Northside organizer Chris White described the modernization program as “a shiny new thing [that the city] can sell” so as a means to increase the profit margins of developers interested in buying/building out spaces nearby the redeveloping Red Line. He points to the Bridgeview Bank Building, the Lawrence House, and the flipped Wilson Men’s Hotel all rising in rent to exemplify a greater trend of costs increasing nearby the Red Line. Each of these buildings is a few blocks away from the Wilson or Lawrence stations close by.

The RPM particularly holds weight in incentivizing new development along its transit corridor because the program is an example of “transit-oriented development” (TOD). This term can be best understood as the tailoring of resident, commercial, and business growth toward the design of public transportation infrastructure. In a more concrete sense, the City of Chicago has employed a TOD Ordinance that places land redevelopment near the Red-Purple Line for more profitable real estate investments.

However, claims that the RPM neglects community input and decision-making are challenged by Latrice Phillips Brown, a community relations liaison for the CTA. Brown argued that the “[CTA] worked closely with the stakeholders to make sure that this station and design… reflected the characteristics of the community.”

Kate Lowe, University of Illinois Chicago urban planning and policy professor, looked at the issue from a broader view, assessing the implications of the RPM. She said she does not interpret the improvements being made as significant indicators for gentrification, but instead as greater inequities in the CTA presuming northside growth.

“It’s a huge investment in an area that already has great access,” she said. “It will bring huge collective benefits, but these benefits disproportionately go to those who already have easy access and [who are] disproportionately white and affluent.”

This viewpoint expands upon a study co-authored by Kate that highlights racial equity issues embedded within the disproportionate funding amongst American municipal transit systems.

Which impact will then dictate the greater outlook of the Red-Purple Modernization Program in years and decades to come?

Machinski summed it up this way: “I’m just weary of [gentrification]. Because I think it’s inevitable. And I do think that there are some positives that can come from [the RPM]… if the community cares.”

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