CTA planning manager Joe Iacobucci is the first to acknowledge at the transit agency that "if you ask the average person in Chicago what BRT is, you get a blank look."
BRT, or bus rapid transit, is Iacobucci's special project. He hopes to transform those blank looks into satisfied smiles.
Yet riders of top-notch BRT service in cities like Bogota, Colombia, and Cleveland might not recognize the CTA's first foray into BRT as "rapid" — because a much-abbreviated form will hits the streets toward the end of the year on the No. 14 Jeffery Express route between the South Side and downtown.
In its pure form, BRT operates like a transit rail system on city streets. Traffic problems with cars and trucks all but disappear. Bus commuting times dramatically shrink, creating opportunities for quick transit-to-transit connections that could tempt even the most die-hard motorists to give BRT a try.
Under BRT criteria, bus stops are more widely spaced than on traditional bus routes, up to a half-mile apart, to provide quicker trips. The bus lanes are dedicated to buses around the clock, like railroad tracks are to trains.
In addition, passengers pay their fares at stations and then when the bus arrives they board quickly at more than one door on raised platforms that are level with the bus floor. And the buses are equipped with transponders that communicate with traffic signals to give the buses more green lights to pass up other vehicles at intersections.
But the CTA isn't going down that ultraexpress route, not yet.
In the agency's upcoming $11 million federally funded BRT experiment on Jeffery Boulevard, the main features will be limited stops; the traffic signal priority for buses on an approximately 11/2-mile stretch (73rd to 84th streets); and part-time bus-only lanes on Jeffery between 67th and 83rd streets (7 to 9 a.m. inbound and 4 to 6 p.m. outbound on weekdays, coinciding with existing parking bans). City officials say they are being careful to implement BRT without imposing major negative impacts, like full-time bus-only lanes, on car drivers.
But the traffic signal priority for buses won't be ready when the CTA introduces BRT on the No. 14 route in November or December, according to officials at the CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation, which is managing the construction.
"My guys tell me the signal priority system will be ready for buses to use sometime within the first quarter of 2013," CDOT spokesman Pete Scales said.
Also delayed until early 2013 is a bypass lane at a traffic pinch point on Jeffery at Anthony Avenue, near an entrance to the Chicago Skyway toll bridge. The northbound bypass lane, or queue jump, will be equipped with a special traffic signal to give buses a head start on other traffic to move faster through the intersection and under the viaduct, officials said.
BRT-related construction is scheduled to start Monday at 67th Street and Jeffery, Scales said.
To build excitement about BRT, the CTA has surprises that it is keeping under wraps for now. The BRT buses starting on Jeffery will have a bold color scheme and branding on the outside of the vehicles, said Iacobucci, who is the CTA's manager of strategic planning and policy. Monitors inside the buses will provide Bus Tracker and Train Tracker information.
The buses themselves will be the 60-foot accordion-style buses currently in use on the No. 14 Jeffery Express, which will become the BRT service. The No. 15 Jeffery Local route will continue without changes.
New shelters with the BRT branding and information kiosks will be built at bus stops, which will be spread out up to 1/2-mile apart on the No. 14 route, officials said. A "showcase BRT station," larger than the CTA's current JCDecaux bus shelters and outfitted with lights, will be built at the 71st Street bus stop, which is one of the busiest on the route, officials said.
No fare increase will be imposed on the BRT route, at least for now, officials said.
Corporate naming-rights sponsorships of BRT service may be added in the future, city and transit officials said. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has also said that BRT projects are potential candidates for use in his planned Infrastructure Trust that involves private-sector investment. The move could open the door to the first privatized CTA bus routes and premium fares matched to the premium-level service, officials hinted.
The current focus, however, will be to spur improvements over the snail-like 9 mph average speed of CTA buses, officials said. Still, the modest experiment is a far cry from CTA plans unveiled only two years ago to help address the city's congestion crisis.
By now double-long buses stopping only about once per mile were to be serving part of an eventual 50-mile network on four major Chicago arterial streets and increase average bus speeds by as much as 48 percent over buses operating in traffic on regular bus routes. In 2008, the CTA and city were awarded, then later forfeited, a $153 million federal grant for the BRT project. The grant was rescinded after a deadline was missed for the city to develop a congestion-pricing parking meter program aimed at reducing the number of automobiles downtown.
With gridlock worsening on Chicago's streets and a slower growth in bus ridership than on rail, CTA officials say they are compelled to act. They consider the 16-mile No. 14 Jeffery Express route the perfect place to test BRT because it traverses a range of traffic conditions, from residential neighborhoods and retail districts to Lake Shore Drive for miles and downtown serving Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center.