On Thursday morning, five days before Christmas, Chicago runners and bikers got a long promised gift: the opening of the first section of the Navy Pier Flyover.
The Flyover is essentially a bridge that connects the north and south parts of the city on the lakefront path. This first section soars over a congested section of lower Lake Shore Drive around Grand Avenue that has been plagued by safety issues — accidents and close calls — for a decade.
“This is one of the more dangerous places as it relates to bikers and runners enjoying the lakefront,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at a press conference to announce the opening. “So it’s not just an incredible access (improvement) but also an incredible safety improvement for the city of Chicago.”
The mayor, a well-known biker and jogger, has promoted the Flyover since its early days of planning and the start of construction in 2014. But the project has been dogged by financial and logistical delays that have pushed back its completion from spring 2018 to an estimated end of 2019.
WBEZ first started investigating the delays after getting questions from a Curious City listener. At the time, the city promised the first section of the three-part Flyover would be finished by the end of 2018. On Thursday, the city delivered on the promise, albeit with temporary plywood standing in for concrete on the last segment of the bridge.
The impressive bridge, which runs past one of the Lake Point Tower buildings, features markings meant to keep northbound and southbound bikers and walkers in their respective lanes.
“So in Chicago you will never have to hear again, ‘On your left,’” Emanuel joked, referring to the common warning bikers give to walkers as they pass them by.
While Thursday’s partial opening marks a milestone in the project, the Flyover is not close to finished.
Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey said he expects a second section to be completed by spring of next year. It has been nearly complete for two years and connects the Flyover to a ramp that glides down to Navy Pier. In the meantime, bicyclists can alight near Navy Pier using a staircase off the Flyover with nifty grooves that allow you to easily guide the bike up or down.
A third section, which will replace the remaining part of the narrow lower Lake Shore Drive path and goes over the Chicago River, is expected to be completed by the end of 2019.
Claffey said the city awarded the contract for that part in recent weeks for a price that will bring the total Flyover bill to $64.2 million, well over its original estimate of $45 million.
Last week, Emanuel announced the completion of the bike and pedestrian lane separations on another part of the lakefront trail. He called the projects, along with new suspension bridges over Lake Shore Drive, “the culmination of what I think is the most comprehensive modernizations to our lakefront.”
Biking advocates like Randy Neufeld of the Active Transportation Alliance agree that, despite the setbacks, these projects mark a huge step forward.
“The delays are frustrating, but this kind of project, like The 606, is a bicycle project of an unusually high scale,” he said. “So, on one hand, it’s exciting to see this much money spent on a bicycle project, but on the other it takes a while and a lot of different funding sources to come up with that. So it’s good to see that they kept at it and got the funding.”