Community discusses Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) at local meeting
January 3, 2014


By Patrick Butler

Despite the efforts of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and Chicago Department of Transportation, which have held 11 meetings with more than 18 community and business groups and 25 aldermanic briefings, vocal opposition continues concerning the proposal for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on Ashland Avenue.

Officials held a community meeting Dec. 10 at Benito Juarez High School, 1450 W. Cermak Rd., where Bridgeport residents Charles Paidock and Kevin Peterson of the Citizens Taking Action transit watchdog group shared their concerns. The CTA wants to introduce BRT on Ashland between Irving Park Road and 95th Street, eliminating one lane of traffic in each direction, some street parking, and most left turns off Ashland.

Special 60-foot articulated buses would run along the street’s center, stopping about every half-mile at specially marked stations and rapid transit stops. Green lights would last longer in an effort to keep vehicle traffic moving. BRT supporters at the meeting included Stephen Schlickman, ex-ecutive director of the University of Illinois at Chicago Urban Transportation Center; Ted Orosz, a New York transit official who flew to Chicago to lend support at the Dec. 10 meeting at Juarez; and members of the Active Transportation Alliance, whose director is Ron Burke.

The CTA on Nov. 19 released a BRT environmental assessment for public review; the document noted the project would remove left turn lanes along Ashland except at the Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Stevenson expressways and that BRT would reduce parking by about 12%.

BRT analysis, public comment, and design are moving forward, funded in part through $1.2 million in grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, but City or Federal funding has not been obtained yet for the approximately $10 million per mile cost for BRT project implementation.

‘Costly mistakes’

At that price, “showcase” projects like the 16.1 mile Ashland BRT are “costly mistakes,” said BRT opponent Paidock. He conceded BRT would speed up commutes in the articulated BRT buses but noted it would slow traffic and other CTA buses.

“The CTA tells you the BRT buses will run quickly, but they don’t tell you the regular buses along the route will slow down,” Paidock said. “From the average passenger’s perspective, it’s just a trade-off. And the BRT won’t operate 24 hours a day, so there’s no increase in service in terms of hours of operation.”

CTA spokespersons have said BRT buses would run every five to 15 minutes. Paidock said that “could be done tomorrow just by bringing back the express buses” without having to build 35 BRT stations about every half-mile along the route.

“Incredibly, the CTA eliminated express buses along Ashland, claiming they were unnecessary and not attracting enough ridership,” Peterson said. “So now the CTA wants to spend money on new buses and stations for a service it said wasn’t needed. If they had really decent service, without bus bunching, none of this would be necessary and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

The BRT plan has come under fire from groups such as the Ashland/Western Bus Service Coalition, which favors bringing back express buses as a low-cost alternative to BRT.

New York transit official Ted Orosz spoke about the importance of “working with everybody.” (Photo by Patrick Butler)
Coalition spokespersons point out express buses worked well on Ashland from 2002 until 2010, stopped with the same frequency as BRTs (every half-mile), and would cause no loss of traffic lanes or parking spaces.

Opponents note that, by the CTA’s own admission, BRT also would eliminate four percent of the loading zones on Ashland. Paidock offered another alternative to BRT.

“If they’re going to spend this much, they’d be better off going with light rail,” said Paidock, who is a librarian for the Federal government, railroad buff, and transit improvement advocate.

Light rail runs on tracks like those once used by Chicago’s streetcars and is “quiet, nonpolluting, and already in use in about a dozen other cities across the country,” Paidock said. Need for transit Schlickman offered some history, noting, “There has been an identified need for north/south neighborhood” rapid transit service for years.

“In the ‘80s they proposed a mid-city transit [el train] line connecting the Blue Line down Cicero to Midway Airport,” Schlickman explained. “That didn’t go anywhere because they didn’t have the money. Then the CTA looked at the Circle Line, a circumferential route connecting the transit corridors outside the Loop to enable people to get to destinations without having to go through the Loop.”

Now there is no money for anything that ambitious, with a $19 billion backlog of projects needed just to keep the system in a proper state of repair, he said, noting the BRT would achieve some of the same transit goals and “be doable.”

Schlickman agreed with the plan’s critics that the CTA does not have a funding plan for the BRT, “but they have a better chance of funding this than they would a light rail line or streetcars,” he said. “When you can’t afford the more traditional approaches, Bus Rapid Transit has proven an effective way of adding capacity to a transit system in a very affordable manner.”

Other cities, he added, have found BRT to be an effective neighborhood improvement tool.

“Studies have shown that, where Bus Rapid Transit has been introduced, property values have gone up and it induced development,” Schlickman said.

Traffic plan sought

Asked about concerns that BRT will mean most buses will have to slow down for a few fast ones and that the loss of parking spots and traffic lanes on Ashland will mean a spillover onto side streets, Schlickman said, “there needs to be a traffic plan worked out by the CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation if they haven’t already done so. There will be a transitional period where the traffic will find the best way to go.”

Today, mass transit is making a big comeback, said Schlickman, noting that “Google put a major office in the West Loop because of the Morgan Street Green Line station that opened in the past two years.

“They [Google] said that [CTA stop] was a factor because their employees want that option,” said Schlickman. Orosz, New York’s head of longrange bus planning, credited much of what he said is that city’s BRT success with a willingness to work with residents and businesses, block by block if necessary.

“If a city creates spaces for everybody, you’re working with everybody and making it work,” said Orosz.

The public may view the CTA’s environmental assessment at the CTA office at 567 W. Lake St, online at www.transitchicago.com/ashlandbrt, and at Chicago Public Library locations in West Town, Pilsen, and West Englewood and at the Harold Washington Library Center.

Editor’s note: Jane Lawicki contributed to this article.