STREETERVILLE — The construction of the $64 million Navy Pier Flyover was meant to give lakefront trail users a safe path over a congested and dangerous Downtown bottleneck while providing a sleek, critical link to the trail on both sides of the Chicago River.
But rising Lake Michigan levels and violent waves have crippled the trail at the flyover’s northern end, creating blockades of ice, sand and torn asphalt slabs, forcing the Chicago Park District to block access.
It’s sent users scrambling for new routes — but it’s also led some to take their chances. And it raises the larger question of what the future is for the trail.
A critical section of the larger lakefront trail, the narrow strip that guides cyclists and pedestrians from Ohio Street Beach through Oak Street beach has been closed for much of the winter after a January storm destroyed large sections of asphalt and left what remains a slippery patch of ice created by waves that spill over the entire trail.
Construction of the Navy Pier Flyover began in 2014 under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The project was meant to be completed in 2018, but has been delayed repeatedly. The third and final phase of the project, the section that sends the trail over the Chicago River, is now estimated to be completed later this spring.
The flyover is meant to provide a safe and easy passage for cyclists and pedestrians from south of the Chicago River to Ohio Street Beach, but unless the lake waters recede or the city prioritizes infrastructure upgrades, the northern access of the flyover could remain inaccessible for long stretches.
The Chicago Park District, which maintains the trail, has placed barriers warning users to stay off the dangerous area north of Navy Pier, but some commuters have told Block Club they’ll continue to bypass them, preferring to risk the peril of slipping into the lake to avoid biking on Chicago streets, which they say can be even more dangerous.
Cathy Breitenbach, director of cultural resources at the Park District, said the closures won’t be going away any time soon and stressed that the district doesn’t take closing portions of the trail lightly. The danger is serious, she said.
“When there are barricades up it’s for people’s safety,” she said. “You’re not just risking your own safety, you’re risking the safety of first responders who might have to help you if you get in trouble.”
Earlier this winter, a Park District maintenance truck slid into Lake Michigan while working to get the trail ready after a winter storm.
“We work very hard to keep the trail usable year round, but we won’t put our own staff at risk either,” she said.
Maintenance of the trail continues year round, but certain areas, like that just north of the flyover, have suffered structural damage that make it difficult and sometimes unsafe to maintain, she said.
“If we could keep it open we would. I mean, we really do try to keep that resource available to the public. Until structural repairs can be made, we cannot safely maintain them,” she said.
“Models show that lake levels are likely to remain high through this year, and so, at least in the near term future we’re going to be dealing with this,’ she said.
Those structural repairs, largely to replace the asphalt that has been ripped up by waves and deposited along the trail, cannot be made until the spring when asphalt plants reopen.
The Park District regularly updates users on trail closures on its website and social media accounts. The section north of the flyover is not the only portion of the trail to be closed, and the district has had to install heavy concrete barriers in areas where users were simply moving wooden ones aside.
Sarah Eddy works for an environmental nonprofit and described herself as an avid cyclist. She said she wasn’t speaking on behalf of the nonprofit but worried that this is the “new normal.”
Eddy said if the city had a larger network of protected bike lanes, cyclists wouldn’t be forced to the lakefront trail in the winter.
“How sad is that, that people are literally saying, ‘Oh, it’s safer for me to be on this potentially icy sharp curve where I could slip into the lake’ rather than ride my bike on the street. I think that says something about where we are in our bike advocacy and how much further we have to grow,” she said.
High water levels and frequent storms brought on by climate change led Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker to declare a state emergency last month, but it’s unclear what will be done for the trail system itself.
“It sucks that it has to take these really kind of drastic visual measures,” Eddy said. “… But I don’t want them to just go and repave something again to get all ripped up however many months later. I’d rather them take their time to figure out what’s the best way to actually make sure that this is a lakefront trail that we can continue using 25 years from now and not just a literal band-aid pave-over.”
Maggie Gabrek described herself as a run commuter from her job at Union Station to her home in Lincoln Park. She’s run 22 marathons and trains along the lakefront year round. She said her running group began worrying about the area in the summer when water was swishing at their feet.
“Everyone’s like ‘oh s—, the winter is coming’ and the water levels haven’t gone down,” she said.
Throughout the winter she and her friends have been in contact, alerting each other to trail conditions.
“We’ve been texting back and forth, like ‘is it any better yet?’ and everyone’s like ‘No!’ ” she said. Gabrek said when the path gets too slippery she’ll detour westward and run along Inner-Lake Shore Drive.
Chris Burke was biking home from work in the Loop when he paused to survey the area just north of the flyover. He bikes as often as he can even though he lives near an express bus route that runs on Lake Shore Drive. The bus is nice but it still gets stopped in traffic.
“I would take the express bus and have a look over just to see the conditions to see if I can ride,” he said. “The main area I’m concerned about is the corner…that corner gets really slippery. … I’ve actually fallen on that corner before.”
Burke was speaking about the corner that guides users along the S-curve that mirrors Lake Shore Drive just east of Oak Street Beach. Last Friday, the corner was completely covered in ice. Earlier this week, after unseasonably warm weather over the weekend, the ice was gone but Lake Michigan waves spilled over the entirety of the trail.
Eddy said it’s particularly hard to lose the trail to climate change because other forms of transportation are driving the CO2 emissions that led to the crisis.
“The transportation sector is the leading cause of carbon pollution in this country,” she said. “…We need to be encouraging people to do more biking, more walking, more public transit. I think one of the greatest assets that Chicago has is the Lake Front Trail.”
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