Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CTA president Forrest Claypool say the $320 million Belmont bypass would shave a few minutes off the north-side commute. Then again, maybe it wouldn't.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CTA president Forrest Claypool say the $320 million Belmont bypass would shave a few minutes off the north-side commute. Then again, maybe it wouldn't. Credit: Jean Lachat/Sun-Times Media

When Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced plans to spend about $320 million on the CTA’s “Red-Purple Bypass,” I started pondering this important question: How much is four minutes of Mayor Rahm time in real time?

It’s a relevant question, even for people who don’t study the mayor’s brain and behavior for a living, since hundreds of millions of public dollars are at stake.

The bypass project is part of the mayor’s “Red and Purple Modernization” plan, an ambitious effort to rebuild those lines from Belmont to Linden. That sounds good to me so far.

In fact, let me pause for a moment to offer a compliment to Mayor Emanuel and Forrest Claypool, his handpicked CTA president. In case any of you thinks I never say a kind word about the mayor, here goes: I believe the mayor and Claypool have done a pretty decent job running the CTA.

All right, they shouldn’t have killed the number 11 bus, which ran up Lincoln Avenue. And yes, that Ashland Avenue bus rapid-transit plan looks like it will cause more problems than it solves. Plus, we all know that the Ventra card rollout has hardly been smooth sailing. And then . . .

Wait—I was supposed to be complimenting the mayor and Claypool, wasn’t I?

OK, good job rebuilding the Red Line on the south side. And if you actually extend it to 130th Street—as you say you’re going to do—that would be worthy of enshrinement in my mayoral hall of fame.

For now, the mayor is proposing to spend about $4.7 billion—most of it federal money—rebuilding the tracks and a few stations on the north-side Red and Purple Lines.

“The rail infrastructure on those lines is simply not designed to handle 21st-century rail transit,” says Brian Steele, a CTA spokesman. “The tracks are not in the condition they should be.”

As part of the larger project, the mayor is also proposing the bypass. And that’s where things get tricky.

The bypass will attempt to clear the bottleneck at the Clark Street junction, just north of the Belmont stop, where the northbound Brown Line tracks cross the Red and Purple Lines.

As it is, Red or Purple Line trains must stop to let the Brown Line trains pass—or vice versa.

“Every day trains have to stop and wait,” says Steele, adding that 150,000 riders travel through that intersection each weekday. “In order to be able to move trains more efficiently, we have to find a way to uncross those tracks.”

At the April 17 announcement of the plan, Mayor Emanuel said he personally understood the importance of the project because he often rides the Brown Line. As such, he said, he feels the pain of commuters who have to wait for another train to pass while they’re running late for work.

“We’re going to increase the capacity by 30 to 50 percent of moving trains on time rather than the three- to four-minute wait,” the mayor said.

I tracked more than 30 trains, and not one of them waited anywhere close to four minutes.

Well, as a longtime rider myself, I realize that when you’re standing in a crowded car with someone’s elbow in your ear, a 30-second delay can seem like an eternity. Especially when you’re in a hurry to make an appointment. Or you’re late for work. Or you just want to get home and listen to some Hendrix.

But three to four minutes? That seemed like an exaggeration.

And so on a blustery rush-hour afternoon, I made my way to the far north end of the Belmont platform to determine what the mayor’s “three to four minutes” actually means to the rest of us.

There I stood, stopwatch in my hand, tracking how long each train had to wait while another train crossed its track. Other people looked at me as if to say, “Who is that nutcase in the Bulls cap?” I felt like Darwin studying tortoises in the Galapagos Islands.

Actually, it wasn’t so bad. If nothing else, it made me appreciate the operators who do a great job under rush-hour pressure to get those trains in and out of Belmont. Hey, Forrest, give them a raise!

I tracked more than 30 trains, some northbound and some southbound, and not one of them waited anywhere close to four minutes. The longest delay was for a southbound Purple Line train that had to wait roughly 40 seconds. The typical delay was maybe 25 or 30 seconds.

So I have to conclude that four minutes to our hard-charging, hyperactive mayor is about half a minute in real time. I’ll let you know if I publish my findings in a scientific journal.

When I was done, I caught a northbound Brown Line. The train had to wait about 20 seconds for a Red Line to pass, and then it took a little more than seven minutes to get to Montrose, the mayor’s stop.

Seven minutes from Belmont—that’s not so bad.

Does this mean that the Red-Purple bypass is a complete and utter waste of $320 million? Well, that’s a little strong. Building the bypass may allow the CTA to run more trains, Steele says. More trains mean more passengers, faster trips, and fewer people driving cars.

“Once the bypass is constructed, it will handle up to six more trains an hour,” says Steele. “We could have the potential to accommodate thousands more new riders.”

In a perfect world, I’d say, go ahead, Mayor Emanuel—take that $320 million and build that bad boy.

Alas, this world is far from perfect. In this case, the CTA is talking about a headache of a project that will involve buying up and tearing down 16 buildings, which would displace dozens of residents and businesses. The eminent domain lawyers are undoubtedly licking their chops.

As Steele points out, the CTA doesn’t yet have the federal grants it needs to build the overpass. So it’s not certain that the project will ever happen.

In which case, Mayor Emanuel’s going to have to deal with those horrific delays of 30 or 40 seconds.

My suggestion, Mr. Mayor? Try yoga. It’ll certainly save everyone a whole lot of money.