Like Talking to a Wall

If you want to know why the cost of the CTA’s Brown Line reconstruction project is so high–$530 million–the documents that clutter Martin Oberman’s downtown law office offer some clues. He and other residents of the neighborhood around the el station at Fullerton amassed the piles of engineering reports, architectural drawings, and photos as part of their three-year fight to get the CTA to reduce the size of the new station. “The CTA has never seriously considered the alternatives to their construction plans for Fullerton,” says Oberman, who used to be alderman of the 43rd Ward. “We would waste hours shooting down straw-man arguments that they created.”

Last week in this space Oberman vented his frustration at the CTA’s decision to shut down 15 Brown Line stations for up to a year during construction, which is supposed to start in the fall and finish in 2009. The CTA wants to close the stations to help it save $152 million–the amount it underestimated costs by–but bigger cuts elsewhere might keep the stations open. Oberman thinks his piles of documents are full of ideas about where those cuts could be made.

Oberman concedes that CTA officials faced a difficult task at Fullerton, the largest and most costly station-reconstruction project on the line. The highest priority is to make the station accessible by installing elevators. The Americans With Disabilities Act required transit authorities to make all “key” stations accessible by the end of 2000, and that includes the Fullerton station, where the Brown, Red, and Purple lines converge. “Fullerton is the last remaining key station in Chicago that’s not accessible,” says Kevin Irvine, an advocate with Equipped for Equality, a disability rights group. The ADA doesn’t require that other stations be made accessible until they’re rebuilt, and right now only two Brown Line stations north of the Merchandise Mart–Kimball and Western–are. In December 2000 the CTA got an extension giving it until December 2008 to make the Fullerton station accessible.

The platforms in the station are too narrow to accommodate an elevator and still give wheelchair users room to maneuver. So the main challenge has always been to design wider platforms while minimizing the amount spent on moving the tracks and buying and tearing down adjacent buildings.

The station now has two 13-foot-wide, 400-foot-long “slipped” platforms, meaning they’re staggered–the northbound one juts farther north than the north end of the southbound one, and vice versa. This allows the platforms to fit into the relatively narrow space between the existing buildings. In addition, the outside southbound set of tracks curves around some of those buildings so that it can hug the wall of the one just west of the platform, a complex that’s owned by DePaul and whose tenants include a Dominick’s grocery store.

The plan the CTA announced in 2001 replaces the platforms with two 24-foot-wide, 520-foot-long platforms that sit directly across from each other. It also straightens the bend in the outside southbound tracks, leaving about 12 feet between the platform and the Dominick’s wall instead of two to three feet. In essence, the plan shifts the station east by roughly 30 feet. That will force the CTA to buy and tear down several buildings east of the tracks, including the gothic Hayes Healy Athletic Building, which has been part of DePaul’s campus for more than 75 years. The CTA estimates that acquisition and demolition costs will be around $20 million.

At first Oberman and his allies opposed the CTA’s plan because they wanted to save the gym. “It’s a lovely old building that we felt the CTA should not destroy,” says Oberman. “But once we got into the project we were fascinated by the engineering challenges. Our point was to reduce the size of the project. You shouldn’t design the station as if it were in the middle of a Kansas cornfield. This is in a tight urban area–you have to squeeze it in. We think it’s particularly wasteful to have 12 feet of wasted space next to Dominick’s, while moving the station so far to the east that you have to knock over the Hayes Healy gymnasium.”

By the fall of 2001 three local architects–Walker Johnson, Fritz Biederman, and Chip von Weise–had come up with a counterproposal. It has two 20-foot-wide, 428-foot-long platforms–shorter and skinnier than those in the CTA’s plan but still wide enough that wheelchair users can easily get in and out of elevators. It keeps the slipped platforms and leaves the outside southbound tracks as they are, with the curve that puts them just a couple feet from the Dominick’s wall. This plan requires building only three instead of four new sets of tracks, and the gym no longer had to be torn down. Oberman and his allies estimate their plan would save at least $15 million in acquisition and demolition costs and that reducing the length of the platform and building one fewer set of tracks would save up to $5 million more.

Oberman and the architects presented their plan to the CTA, but after numerous meetings and phone calls the CTA rejected it. According to CTA documents, the architects’ 20-foot platforms were too narrow to conform to federal mandates. The documents said the tracks couldn’t bend toward the Dominick’s building because the existing curve was blind–motormen didn’t have a clear view of the platform and tracks as they pulled trains into the station. They said slipped platforms were a bad idea because they make security more difficult–a guard at the end of one platform has farther to run to stop a crime happening at the end of the other. They also said that the platforms had to be 520 feet long because someday the CTA might want to run ten-car trains. The CTA did, however, agree to reduce the width of the platforms, to 22 feet for the southbound and 20 for the northbound.

Dubious, the architects and other local residents researched the CTA’s arguments. They discovered that there were no federal rules mandating platform width. Oberman tracked down one of the authors of a federal manual that does include guidelines, Alan Danaher, an engineer in Orlando, and Danaher wrote a letter saying that he thought 18-foot-wide platforms at Fullerton would accommodate elevators and leave plenty of room for wheelchairs.

The residents also reassured themselves that the curve on the southbound track wasn’t blind. “I’m convinced they just made up that blind-spot argument,” says Oberman. “I’ve stood on those tracks many times and watched trains come in. If I can see them, they can see me. But just to be sure, one Sunday I went up to a motorman and asked if I could see what it looks like. I could see the Fullerton stop all the way into the station.”

Oberman also measured the length of every station on the Brown and Red lines to see if any had 520-foot platforms. None did. “I asked the CTA, ‘Why do we need a 520-foot-long platform at Fullerton?’ And they said, ‘Because we want to be prepared to run ten-car trains.’ I said, ‘Why would you want to run ten-car trains if no other station can handle them?’ They said, ‘Well, 50 years from now we might want ten-car trains, and then we won’t have to put them in at Fullerton.’ I said, ‘If that’s the case, come back in 50 years–I’ll be dead, and you can do anything you want.’ After a while it gets ridiculous. In 2001 they finished a multimillion-dollar reconstruction of the Chicago Avenue Red Line stop. They spent millions and millions of dollars on that project. Guess what? It’s only 468 feet long.” The longer platforms, he adds, make it even harder for security guards to run from one end to the other.

In 2002, after the CTA officially rejected their plan, Oberman and his allies appealed to the Federal Transit Administration, which oversees the Brown Line project. The FTA sided with the CTA. “The FTA just quoted back the stuff the CTA had been saying to us, even though we had refuted most of it,” says Oberman. “We spent over two years banging our heads against a wall of bureaucracy.”

Now Eugene Schulter, alderman of the 47th Ward, plans to hold City Council hearings on the station closings. Brown Line riders have been letting him know they’re not happy. That gives Oberman hope that at the very least the CTA may be forced to reconsider its Fullerton design.”I’m not saying they have to adopt our specific plan,” he says. “I’m just saying what we’ve been saying all along–there are more efficient ways to build this station for a lot less money.”

A Plague on Both Their Houses

Not everyone in Lincoln Park was happy with the crusade against the CTA’s Fullerton design. “They’re fighting to save the gym,” says Tim Sullivan, who lives near the station and uses a wheelchair. “DePaul doesn’t even want it, but they’re fighting to save it.” Indeed, DePaul is already negotiating with the CTA to sell the building.

Sullivan admits that the CTA’s redesign is extravagant and expensive. “It doesn’t have to be really fancy,” he says. “It has to be functional.” But he’s upset that all the arguing back and forth is only delaying the start of the project and therefore the installation of elevators. “They have a deadline,” he says. “And we’re watching to make sure it gets done.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.