Getting Around: Bus rapid transit for Ashland Avenue hits road bump in Chicago

"Everybody has their work cut out for them to make this work. But I think it's worth the time and effort to keep the jobs here in the city," said Burt Klein, president of PortionPac Chemical Corp., 400 N. Ashland. The company makes cleaning detergents.

For other critics, the problem with bus rapid transit isn't so much the idea as where the city intends to build it.

"No one disputes we need rapid transit for the bus routes, but I am not sold on this plan for Ashland," said Ald. George Cardenas, 12th, who has met with CTA and city transportation officials about the Ashland BRT proposal. "The proponents are just like salesmen. They are set on selling you that car. But you start digging and you hit rock, you find out it is not as good as you are being told it is."

Cardenas said a BRT route on Western is a better choice because more working-class neighborhoods would be served, he said.

City Hall originally selected but then delayed Western and settled on Ashland during the fallout from the parking meter privatization deal that was made during the Daley administration. There is more onstreet free parking on Ashland than on Western, according to an analysis by the CTA.

Under the 75-year parking meter lease, the city must reimburse the contractor, Chicago Parking Meters LLC, for parking revenue that is lost due to the removal of metered spaces, in this case because of the BRT street redesign.

"Even if it will cost more to run BRT on Western because of the parking meter scandal, we should spend the money," Cardenas said. "Ashland already connects some neighborhoods that have undergone gentrification to the downtown. This investment in transportation is needed more on Western Avenue, where the working-class communities are buffered — in North Lawndale, Little Village, Pilsen and Humboldt Park — where people who work at hotels and in the service industry downtown need better transit to get to their jobs."

The Ashland BRT corridor enjoys backing by civic and environmental groups, which see streets with fewer vehicles and more public transit riders as a way to promote a world-class image for Chicago. National boosters of BRT, including the Rockefeller Foundation, have also offered praise and seed money for preliminary design work.

Advocates also say an Ashland corridor would improve both bus and rail connections between the North and South sides, and they dismiss the idea of a big-time penalty on cars and trucks by pointing to a preliminary city traffic analysis that shows about one-third of drivers who currently use Ashland would avoid it. The problem is that other arterials are already congested during much of the day.

At least one organization that the CTA said is a supporter of BRT on Ashland told the Tribune it is actually on the fence.

"Our members include a lot of restaurants and other businesses along Ashland that are service-oriented. Better transit for their employees and customers is important,'' said Adrian Soto, executive director of the Eighteenth Street Development Corporation, which represents businesses in Pilsen and the Lower West Side. "But we also have warehouses and distributors that would be hurt by no left turns."

The features of the Ashland BRT design roughly represent how BRT works in other cities, such as Cleveland and Mexico City. But the CTA and CDOT's limited record in deploying bus rapid transit has already hit some road bumps.

Last year, a scaled-back version of bus rapid transit was introduced on Jeffery Boulevard on the South Side. The J14 Jeffery Jump service is still operating without two key components that were supposed to be installed earlier this year — bypass lanes at intersections and a traffic signal priority system, similar to what would be on Ashland, to allow buses to get a jump ahead of other traffic.

"There were many technical details that needed to be worked out," CDOT spokesman Pete Scales said. He said the traffic signal priority communications equipment is being installed on Jeffery and will be tested over the next few weeks, with implementation to start sometime this fall.

A milestone on the Ashland project is expected to be reached in October with the completion of an environmental assessment. Then the CTA and CDOT will open an official public comment period to receive feedback on the plan, said Joe Iacobucci, CTA manager of strategic planning and policy.

"We have seen a lot of questions about the project and how it will work," Iacobucci said. "But there has also been a lot of support.''

And last, though certainly not least, money is a big question. The city hasn't yet secured federal money, which would represent 80 percent of the project's funding, for construction and new buses. City officials are aiming to be ready to launch in late 2015 or early 2016 — if funding is available, Iacobucci said.

Complicating things further, the $160 million price tag, or $10 million a mile, is a preliminary estimate that doesn't include the cost of improvements to cross streets. City officials said it is too early in the design process to anticipate what the exact needs will be or how much they will cost.

But critics say all that uncertainty doesn't warrant a timetable of having the corridor up and running within three years and that, in turn, should invite a deeper conversation with the public.

"Community groups should be part of the design concept and have a definitive say," Waguespack said. "If (the CTA and CDOT) are just paying lip service to them, instead of providing substantive answers to each of the concerns, that is not helping anyone."

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

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