By Daniel Cazares and Remy Edstrom
Posted: Friday, May 17, 2019
Diego Quiñones, 27, lives in Wicker Park, works in information technology has been a passenger of the CTA Blue Line for the past year, but has had to change is commuting routine.
“The Damen Blue Line is the nearest to me, but I have to use the Western stop for the time being,” Quiñones said.
The reason: Having suffered a broken foot from a car accident, he underwent surgery which at first required him to use a wheelchair, but is now getting around on crutches. The Western Blue Line stop is disabled-friendly. Damen is not.
“The overall nature of my situation is frustrating to say the least, but I remind myself to be grateful that it’s only temporary,” he said. “I have a couple more weeks before I fully recover.”
Quiñones isn’t alone in his frustrations with the CTA. At CTA El stops such as the Belmont Blue Line and the Sheridan Red Line stop, people who are injured or are disabled face a daunting task -- no elevators and stairs they cannot climb.
In March 2019, the CTA completed a $17 million renovation on the Belmont Blue Line station located in the Avondale neighborhood. The shiny, modern structure lacked one key thing -- elevators for the disabled. The CTA failed to respond to several interview requests about why no elevators were built in the Belmont renovation.
The construction was part of a $492 million modernization project named “Your New Blue” aimed at renovating the O’Hare branch of the Blue Line.
In addition to an expansive platform, the newly renovated station boasts a designated drop-off and pick-up area for buses -- including one which allows riders to prepay before boarding. Moreover, the station includes better LED lighting and eases transportation during the winter months with numerous overhead heaters.
While the improvements to the Belmont station create a better experience for many, and offers CTA customers increased peace of mind in their transportation, it leaves out the physically disabled.
In addition to a citywide bus system, the CTA operates 145 rail stations along eight train lines: the Red, Blue, Yellow, Brown, Green, Pink, Orange and Purple lines.
According to the CTA, it operates the nation’s second-largest public transportation system behind New York City’s Metro. Based on CTA statistics and information for the year 2016, there was an average of 1.6 million riders on a given weekday, 759,866 riding the rail system. More specifically, around 80,000 daily riders commute using the Blue Line, but it's unknown how many CTA passengers have physical disabilities.
In recent years, the CTA has worked to increase wheelchair accessibility along some train lines. According to its website, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, less than 10 rail stations were wheelchair accessible. In the 29 years since then, the CTA has updated its infrastructure to include wheelchair accessibility for 103 of its 145 stations.
“The CTA is, I think, pretty proud of their record with investing in accessibility,” said DePaul professor and public service and transportation expert Joe Schwieterman.
However, when it comes to the Blue Line, accessibility is still lacking. Out of 33 stations, only 14 offer accessibility to disabled passengers. That is only 42%, much less than the 70% accessibility rate the CTA boasts across its entire rail system. (See map)
So, with the CTA actively working toward 100% accessibility, why didn’t the Belmont station include an elevator as part of the renovation plan? The common answer publicly has been budget and logistical constraints. The addition of accessibility points can often result in large structural changes to rail stations which greatly increases the cost and time associated with projects.
“You’ve got difficult configurations with some of the stations where you need a lot of room to make the investment,” Schwieterman said. “Also, there hasn’t been a lot of major station work on the Blue Line, usually the CTA times accessibility with major overhauls of stations. [Although] Belmont may be an exception, a lot of those stations are in need of overhaul so hopefully when overhauls are made they’ll put in the investment.”
Quiñones is one of many CTA passengers inconvenienced by the accessibility issues and construction.
“My dad has been in construction for the past 20 years; therefore, I understand the costs associated with becoming ADA compliant,” he said. “However, I feel money is always an issue, but if we don’t do it now, when?”
Erik Gunderson, 28, of Bucktown, works as a project manager for a general contractor for Reed Construction in downtown. He’s been a Blue Line passenger for the past five years and his daily stations are Western (accessible) and Clinton (non-accessible).
“In construction there’s specific codes and by-laws that are required in regards to being ADA compliant," Gunderson said. "A recent project of mine was that of a tenant conference center. Since it was deemed as an assembly space by the City of Chicago, certain requirements called for us to have ADA compliant restrooms, which came at a great expense to the owner.”
Although Gunderson is not physically disabled, he shared some of the struggles he witnesses on a daily basis: “Not having elevator access or a ramp creates issues far beyond those who are wheelchair-bound. Some of the circumstances I’ve encountered entail the elderly, individuals who may be overweight, families with strollers, and passengers with luggage trying to get to the airport.”
“The biggest inconvenience is disabled passengers having to get off before or after their designated stop to accommodate not having accessibility,” he said.
In 2015, the CTA announced its All Stations Accessibility Program, a four-part initiative to make all remaining CTA rail stations wheelchair accessible within 20 years. Completion of the outlined improvements requires $2.1 billion in funding. So far, “phase one” of the program is only partially funded, with another $140.3 million still needed in funding to complete the first eight rail stations.
Although the initiative highlights short-term goals for improving accessibility, the lack in funding makes it unclear when improvements will be made. To quickly solve the disparity in transit accessibility, some cities have included alternative transportation services for the physically disabled -- with mixed results.
“They have pretty poor service quality records [and] they’re very expensive,” Schwieterman said. “That’s kind of a stop-gap measure, but in some cities it’s allowing them to focus their paratransit service on those who need it the most, and those who are able to access conventional vehicles can subsidize Uber and Lyft rides. But that doesn’t solve the problem of making transit more accessible - it’s sort of an alternative to transit.”
So, although alternative services can help bridge the gap in transit accessibility, it makes most sense for the city to improve on existing infrastructure, especially since it already has a plan in place.
However, while Belmont is currently slated for “phase three” of the accessibility initiative, like many of the other remaining CTA rail stations, it still lacks funding. Despite its fresh look and brand new facade, the Belmont Blue Line station will most likely remain inaccessible for the foreseeable future.
When asked what steps could be taken to speed up accessibility development, Gunderson said that the city “should consider rerouting taxpayer dollars to fix these ongoing issues. Also, partnering with organizations to help funding efforts.”
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