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

Critics raise traffic, funding questions about $160 million bus rapid transit proposal

Jon Hilkevitch

Getting Around

September 30, 2013

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Chicago is pushing to start by 2016 its boldest reordering of a major thoroughfare since the city first built roads for the automobile: a 16-mile stretch of Ashland Avenue fashioned around buses that travel in dedicated lanes at almost twice the speed of their regular CTA counterparts and make stops about every half-mile.

The idea, called bus rapid transit, comes with many advertised benefits, such as streets made safer by fewer accidents and less congestion, a rise in public transit use and increased economic development, all while maintaining most street parking and shaving 1 or 2 mph off speeds for cars and trucks along the same road.

But push-back on the estimated $160 million project, which lacks a clear source of funding, is as far-reaching as its ambition:

Proposals to eliminate most left turns and shoehorn other traffic into one lane each way has elicited an outcry among car-driving commuters, companies that rely on truck deliveries and residents who have told city officials they are concerned that shortcut-seeking motorists will bring more noise and danger to cross streets off Ashland.

Some people say bus rapid transit is a good concept, but one that should be built somewhere else, specifically, along Western Avenue, where it would help more working-class people who need it.

There are critics who point to what they see as a heavy-handedness from Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration and who question the accuracy of predictions about how the project would affect others who use Ashland.

"The mayor wants to see this project done at any cost, so I think it is going to move forward no matter what," said Ald. Scott Waguespack, whose 32nd Ward would be affected.

Martin Swift, a former taxi driver who has attended community meetings on the project, said, "The activists who are pushing BRT seem to feel that any resistance is unreasonable." But, he adds, "If a motorist just tries to remember the last time a busy four-lane thoroughfare was under construction and narrowed to one lane in each direction, it becomes quite simple to see why there is resistance."

CTA and city transportation officials acknowledge there are challenges, and they have promised the public will be involved in fine-tuning decisions — all the way until a final design is approved, probably late next year.

Bus rapid transit, billed as a thrifty alternative to constructing a new rail line, would be launched along a 5.4-mile section of Ashland between Cortland Avenue and 31st Street. It would eventually expand to 16.1 miles, between Irving Park Road and 95th Street.

Many destinations that draw great numbers of transit riders are along or near that corridor, including the Illinois Medical District, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Malcolm X College, the United Center, as well as manufacturing plants and dozens of public schools.

The ultra-express service would be served by articulated buses with doors on both sides, like on trains, so that the buses could provide traditional curb service when they are not in rapid transit mode on the buses-only center lane in each direction.

To speed the boarding process, passengers would prepay their fares at the BRT stations, which would be spaced about every half-mile and near CTA "L'' stops. The floors of the buses would be level with the bus station platform, just like they are on a rail car.

BRT buses would communicate with traffic signals to extend "green" time through intersections or when the buses are running late, according to the plan. Bus speeds would increase from an 8.7 mph average now for CTA buses on Ashland to 15.9 mph, and commuting times for each rider would be slashed by an average of 65 hours annually, according to preliminary traffic modeling. The modeling also predicted an increase in bus speeds during rush periods of up to 83 percent.

The assumptions are over the top to some people. They question how BRT, which by design dominates any street it operates on, would successfully fill critical gaps in transportation without gumming up traffic by transferring half of the four lanes on Ashland to the BRT fleet.

Cars, trucks and the non-BRT No. 9 Ashland all-stop local bus would all be crowded into the single right lane in each direction, likely resulting in most drivers being stuck behind the No. 9.

Alternately, those cars and trucks would be left to find other routes, which introduces the potential for drivers to weave through residential areas and past schools to reach other thoroughfares.

That tendency could be acute on the Near West Side, where owners of industrial companies warn that a ban on most left turns would bring more truck traffic into neighborhoods.

"If you are planning to turn left and you see you can't, you take the next available right turn. But if you do that on either the north or the south end of our industrial corridor, you will go right through a residential neighborhood and grade schools," said Steve DeBretto, executive director of the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago. "It will only be a matter of time before the neighbors say this isn't going to work. So we want to figure out a way to avoid that before it happens.''

The first phase of BRT construction calls for left turns to be limited to expressway entrances: northbound at Armitage Avenue, Robinson Street and Van Buren Street; and southbound at Congress Parkway, according to the CTA. It's unclear whether additional left turns would be eliminated by project's end.

"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.