Chicago Infrastructure Metro Rail

Chicago Completes Brown Line Renovation

Credit: Patrick Houdek

» $500 million project speeds trips and ensures ADA compliance at all stations.

With its century-old rapid transit system, Chicago has a huge maintenance backlog: almost $7 billion in unfunded capital needs, in fact. Fortunately for the city’s commuters, after four years of construction work, the reconstruction of the Brown Line was completed this week. The $530 million renovation program was the largest in the CTA transit system’s history and will provide relief to the corridor’s roughly 100,000 daily riders.

The Brown Line, also known as the Ravenswood Line, operates as a local along an 11.4-mile corridor between Northwest Chicago and the downtown Loop, and is the system’s third most-popular service. Sections of the route are shared with the Red and Purple Lines. Most of its track length opened in 1907; much of the line had not been renovated since — until now.

Like the $740 million renovation of the Philadelphia Market Street Elevated, which opened for service in September 2009, and Chicago’s own $483 million Douglas Branch renewal, which was completed in 2005, the Brown Line reconstruction was necessary to shore up the structural integrity of the line’s stations and track, which is mostly set along a viaduct. The corridor was in terrible condition before construction began, with wooden platforms in a state of deterioration, skinny hallways and stairs, and trains slowed by ancient, dangerous track.

The project has corrected many of those issues. Some curves were straightened. Additionally, as is required by federal law, all stations were made handicap accessible, an important step forward for all users, who will benefit from elevators and larger station spaces. All but one of the Brown Line’s 19 stops were completely rebuilt, incorporating wider stairways, additional exits, and more turnstiles.

Northwest Chicago, through which the Brown Line runs, has been experiencing significant gentrification since the 1980s; one result of these changes has been a large increase in ridership on the transit corridor, stressing it to capacity during peak periods. As a result, the Brown Line’s main improvement will come from the fact that all stations have been expanded to accommodate eight-car trains, up from six cars previously. This will expand capacity by one-third, reduce waiting times at stations, and speed travel along the corridor. After the work was completed, travel times from the line’s terminus at Kimball and the primary downtown station at Clark/Lake decreased to 40 minutes, down seven from before.

The CTA was able to take advantage of federal New Starts grant funding, which accounted for 50% of total spending. The work, however, was not easy for those who use the Brown Line daily. Though new stations opened throughout the project’s timeline beginning in 2006, cost constraints required stops to be closed as they were being renovated. This reduced ridership and irritated customers. More seriously, beginning in 2007, the four-track mainline between Belmont and Fullerton, shared between Red, Purple, and Brown Lines, was reduced to three-track operation because of the need to reconstruct tracks and expand stations. The result was a slow down throughout the elevated network. This week’s full reopening will be a relief.

Chicago still has billions of dollars of work left to be spent on renovating its rapid transit system. It is already at work on the reworking of the Blue Line thanks to $88 million in stimulus funds. But with plans for extensions of the Red, Orange, and Yellow Lines, as well as for the creation of a new Circle Line, it is unclear where the transit agency will find the funds for the important program, especially since budget cuts are forcing service reductions throughout the system.

The national government is aware of the disastrous condition of infrastructure along Chicago’s non-renovated transit lines and similar older systems throughout the country, but Congress has not done enough thus far to expand spending on the fixed guideway modernization program, whose needs the Federal Transit Administration estimates at $4.2 billion more annually than currently provided. Chicago’s Brown Line renovation demonstrates the benefits of such spending, and in many ways, it is more important to ensure the state of good repair of existing systems than to move on to the construction of new lines, though of course both are necessary.

Congress is considering another stimulus focusing on jobs creation through infrastructure construction. With transit projects producing twice as much employment as equivalent road programs, the government would do well to increase investments in the reconstruction of existing transit lines.

Image above: Chicago Fullerton Station, from | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

19 replies on “Chicago Completes Brown Line Renovation”

Those of us who ride this line are not nearly so sanguine about the project. It was sold as one thing and delivered as quite another. The CTA deliberately did not disclose to the public that it was going to close the stations for 18 months after it made the decision. (It previously had sold the project by saying that the stations would stay open during construction). Also, there was major downscoping of the project, including not including canopies at the stations, which is crazy in a Chicago weather as it frequently rains here. Also no escalators, etc. Nor did the CTA do significant track work. The elevated structure was not even painted (or were the stations for that matter) except within station limits. I’m not aware that any significant stretch of track was replaced (though there did seem to be a tie program), nor signals, etc. (except for the Fullerton to Belmont segment of the north main). How did station wait time improve if the CTA did not add frequencies? The rationale for the project was to expand to eight car trains since we were told it was not possible to add new peak period runs. In fact, service cuts mean the CTA is reducing frequencies.

The old stations were a bit gritty, but frankly not much different from a passenger perspective than the current ones. The neighborhood station houses look a little nicer (the public art is especially nice) and are a bit more spacious, but do not offer any more amenities than they did previously. Problems like flaking paint were addressed by simply not painting the new stations. The Fullerton/Belmont Stations are pretty nice at street level if not the platform, and the new spaciousness is a huge relief there.

I guess this project seems successful and inspiring from the casual onlooker but it was noting but a diaster.

The project was initially put out to bid and came WAY over budget. Subsequently, the designs were severely scaled back and the CTA went back on its promise to not close any stations. The station designs are terrible, elevators and stairs open out onto uncovered platforms, as the canopy designs at most stations were cut back. One station features a gap of a couple feet between the stair roof and platform roof! Stations look unfinished and cold because guard rails was left partly unpainted. Instead of auxiliary exits, the CTA installed “emergency exits” due to the lack of funds for a fare exit gate.

The quality of the work has been very poor as well. Not over a year after being done, rust is forming at some stations, wood on the platforms has already been replaced in sections, and concrete laid at Belmont and Fullerton is rough, uneven, and sloppy.

Then there was the great big glass block issue. Some designer thought it would be “great” to lay out glass block on the platform above the street to let light shine through. Unfortunately they didn’t conferrer with any rail ops managers who immediately saw this would be a disaster. They were installed at another station undergoing renovation. The blocks shattered and were extremely slippery in wet and icy conditions. Because of this they were never installed at Belmont or Fullerton and the places were filled in with concrete only after the superstructure was reinforced for the extra load.

I’m not sure what a “curve being straightened” was in reference to but that did not occur. The only remote change to the ROW was a better interlocking at Clark Junction.

The Pink Line (Douglas Park) renovation was handled much better than this and because of that the residents get truly unique stations that were designed better and used higher-quality finishes.

The north side gets the shaft because some idiots in CTA planning couldn’t properly estimate costs or manage quality control of the work performed.

Aaron, Ryan –

Thanks for your valuable local assessment of the renovation of this line. It’s clear that a lot of the reconstruction was shoddy — perhaps this had a lot to do with the need to stay within the budget, set in stone in 2003. Sounds like Chicago still has a lot of work to do…

Hey, they only had so much money. So I can understand the logic behind some of the decisions. But projects like this put in clear relief how we short change transit in America from a design standpoint. I can’t imagine a European country designing a line like this.

the hideous material chosen for most of the project was chosen because it requires nearly no maintenance. Meaning this years maintenance budget for the Brown line should be reduced drastically. Somehow I doubt that has happened.

It is also odd that the railings were engineered to the specifications of highway guardrails. meaning a train could derail in the station (the least likely derailment scenario) and the railings would still be there.

That means that the railing use more than twice, near thrice the material needed for their function. Ad on top of that, that “warming” shelters do not shield the wind at the point where the heat lamps are. Meaning on a windy day, turning on the three heat lamps @ Sedgewick, Damen, etc has a negligible effect. Whereas, where this wasn’t done: Belmont, Fullerton, Rockwell; the warming shelters actually warm you.

This was a poorly executed design project from day one, but a great idea for increasing accessibility and capacity for peak hour service. (Which is not being decreased on this line as part of cost cutting)

I would venture that neither Aaron nor Ryan has any experience bringing in $500 million infrastructure projects on time and within budget. But they have been among the loudest at taking potshots at CTA for the near Herculean efforts required for this project. If only these two complainers really knew how difficult it was for CTA to accomplish what has been done, they would be on their knees with gratitude rather tha hurling insults at “CTA planners”.

From someone that rides the line daily, the project also had some amazing successes. The plan was to move to eight-car trains at the completion of the project, but that happened in March 2008, 18 months earlier, due to construction efficiencies. And the whole project came out on time and on budget, almost unheard of for urban transportation projects. The architecture on parts of the line (the western end) is actually quite good, depending on the architecture firm that the contract was let to – which was not the CTA’s fault.

A couple of notes: The Brown Line “viaduct” is actually a 100+-year old steel structure. Also, the Blue Line project is ongoing and began soon after the derailment in 2007 and has reduced the slow zones on the system from something like 22% to 7%. The CTA’s next big renovation project, separate from but concurrent to the planned Red, Orange, Yellow Line extensions, and eventually the Circle Line, is a major reconstruction of the northern Red Line and the Purple Line, which is the last completely unrenovated section of the L, most of it having been built in the 1920s.

I would venture that neither Aaron nor Ryan has any experience bringing in $500 million infrastructure projects on time and within budget.

The CTA has no experience bringing $500 million infrastructure projects within budget, either. The Brown Line renovation would not be a $500 million project in a city without severe cost overruns. Building an el that long from scratch wouldn’t cost $500 million.

If an agency decides that it can’t stick to reasonable budgets and assumes everything will cost 5 times as much as it should, and then completes the project for 4 times the normal cost, that’s not coming within budget; that’s failing to come within budget by less than expected. It’s shooting for a D and getting a D+.

Alon, I share your frustration that these projects seem to cost too much, but what is to be done? You frequently talk about projects in places like Chicago and NYC costing 2-3 times what they “should” not just 20-30%. Am I to infer from your snappy comments that CTA could easily build more for less but just chooses not to? Put yourself in the place of CTA’s President — what would you do differently? Unless you have some really realistic advice they can use, things cost what they cost and its a choice between sucking it up and feeling like you’re overpaying or simply not making any major improvements. Isn’t it?

I’m not sure how easy it is – I’ve seen no study about Chicago-specific cost issues. But in New York, the problems seem to center around excessive administrative bloat and one-bid contracts: there’s been little rail construction until now so there are few contractors who know how to do it, and those contractors submit joint bids instead of compete, driving up prices. In addition, the excessive use of consultants in the US tends to double costs over in-house experts, and union work rules increase the number of workers necessary by 50-100%.

The solution to the consultant problem would require the CTA to convince the politicians who fund it that funding cuts reducing in-house expertise end up increasing costs. With good case studies from Britain, which is consultant-dominated, and Continental Europe, which is not, this may be doable.

The solution to the contractor problem would require some combination of antitrust lawsuits against contractors who submit joint bids to avoid competition, and inviting foreign contractors, especially Spanish ones, who are world leaders in cost control (Madrid subway construction costs are about one third those of the rest of Europe).

I have no idea what to do about the union issue, except maybe invite foreigners. It might be possible to strike a deal where unions agree to have fewer workers per construction project in exchange for more projects, which would be possible due to reduced costs. But it’s very unlikely such a deal could be struck.

There’s also a mafia problem increasing the cost of trucking raw materials, but that’s not what raises costs by a factor of 3.

Thanks for the insights, Alon. It’s clearly a difficult task to address these issues but it’s helpful to spell them out. Limited bidders is indeed a problem in Chicago — CTA or the consulting engineers may propose innovative construction methods to save costs, but the contractors have CTA over the barrel if they collectively do not wish to use such methods. It’s even more difficult when the contractors have plenty of other work to keep them busy, as was the case when Brown Line went to bid. Some of this is chicken-and-egg, as you suggest. With limited transit work overall, there’s limited incentive for contractors to adjust their methods to save money as a means to get more work — certainly no promise of longer term reward for doing so.

The new stations are very handsome, but the new platforms are disastrous — partly because of poor design, and partly because cost overruns led to scalebacks, they actually provide much less shelter from the elements than the older ones did. The absence of windbreaks makes waiting for a train during a Chicago winter a particularly brutal experience. I gather that the original idea was that there would be a train-tracker system in the stations to announce approaching trains, so that passengers could wait inside rather than on the platforms, but the installation of this system stalled after problems in the initial testing and nobody at the CTA seems to want to talk about it any longer…

Damn consultant, yeah Alon?

I am always curious as to what exactly caused these over runs. In my mind, there are 3 types of overruns on a project:

1. Extra costs that could not have been anticipated. These could include geological differences, unknown utilities, changes in code requirements during construction, etc. With types of costs you are generally paying for something that is unavoidable.

2. Screw ups – poor design, poor management, graft, etc.

3. Added scope – making something bigger, or adding new features.

#2 are of course the types of cost that are the worst kind. Avoidable, expensive, and you don’t get anything back for these costs.

sigh… the Brown Line. The poor design on the heatlamps never really bothered me, but I’m the kind of guy who dresses pretty warmly, since I’m probably taking a sizable walk before and after the train ride. I’m just happy that it’s done, and that the line will now be fully-functional for the rest of my lifetime. I’d rather not quibble over the details. I’m more hopeful for the line extensions, where the new stations can be built from scratch to a high standard.

I do have to wonder where the money went, given that complete reconstruction of the Douglas branch on the Blue Line during 2003-2005 cost a third less than simply doing a mixture of station renovations and station rebuilds on the Brown Line during 2007-2009. Staging is obviously a factor, as the contractors on the Douglas had the luxury of having the line shut during weekends, but bear in mind they did COMPLETELY replace the elevated structure from end to end, and also they used much higher quality designs and materials for the stations.

I’ll give them one small bit of credit though — the project came far enough under the revised budget that they were able to restore the Belmont and Fullerton stations to the original, pre overrun-panic, plan, including almost full-length canopies and escalators.

I believe the Fullerton and Belmont stations were in excess of $100 million each, which is one differences vs. the Douglas project.

Regardless, one can’t properly say this project came in on budget as significant scope was jettisoned to get it there. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they stopped spending when they hit the limits of funds available.

“Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they stopped spending when they hit the limits of funds available.”

this is why you see the historic canopies at all stations other than Rockwell, Kedzie, Belmont, and Fullerton.

The only good thing that came out of the bungling of the design portion of this project.

Two years later, the stations needed new platforms because of the incompetence of the state. Spending other peoples money is easy, doing it wisely is nearly impossible.

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