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CTA, CDOT Unveil Bus Rapid Transit Plans for Western and Ashland

By Patty Wetli | October 23, 2012 12:19pm

ROSCOE VILLAGE — Stephen Klozik's commute to reach a presentation on Bus Rapid Transit illustrates why BRT is being considered for Western and Ashland avenues.

"It took me an hour to go four miles to get here," Klozik said.

The public economics student, who lives at Western and Devon, rode the Western Avenue No. 49 bus from his home to Lane Tech High School, where he attended an open house on proposals for BRT. His commute time indicates why the CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation want to introduce BRT to Chicago.

BRT systems, which have been implemented in scores of cities around the world, from New Zealand to New Brunswick, aim to duplicate the speed of rail service along bus routes by constructing dedicated bus lanes, traffic signal upgrades and enhanced stations. The negative trade-offs can include lost parking, no left turns or no provision for bicycles.

On congested thoroughfares such as Western and Ashland avenues, buses typically travel at less than 10 mph, said Joe Iacobucci, CTA manager of strategic planning and policy.

"It's death by a thousand paper cuts on these streets right now," Iacobucci said. "If we can run a bus as fast as rail, a lot more people will take it."

According to CTA, one in four Chicagoans lives within a half mile of Ashland or Western, and 45,000 residents within the area don't have cars, making the two routes, which rank second and third for CTA ridership, prime targets for a BRT makeover.

At last week's open house held at Lane Tech — the third such public forum — CTA and CDOT displayed a second round of options depicting how BRT might roll out on Ashland and Western. Four separate plans were presented, with a detailed analysis of how each would affect travel speeds and transit ridership, as well as the projected cost of each option, which tops $100 million per route and will be funded with federal dollars.

"All of them are buildable," said Keith Privett, CDOT transportation planner. "All of them are physically feasible."

Among the more controversial aspects: Some of the plans eliminate left turns — not just left turn lanes but left turns altogether — which raised concerns about impeding residents' ability to get to their homes and a possible increase in traffic on side streets.

Other plans reduce auto travel on Western and Ashland to a single lane in either direction to make room for center bus-only lanes and a median to accommodate boarding stations. Another possible scenario: maintain current lanes of traffic, with rapid bus lanes in the center, but lose the space for parking.

"We understand businesses need loading zones and parking," said Iacobucci. CTA is working with neighborhood chambers of commerce to mediate the issue in the event the center median option proves the winner, he added.

Asked whether the city — and its taxpayers — would be on the hook to the owners of Chicago's parking meter lease for lost revenue if parking is eliminated, Iacobucci replied, "That's still an open question."

Other BRT highlights: Stops would be spaced every half-mile instead of the current quarter-mile; riders would pay prior to boarding similar to rail service; and BRT corridors are considered "transit priority" thoroughfares, meaning bike traffic is given little to no consideration.

For his part, Klozik, a regular on the #49, was ready for BRT to start rolling, though construction is still two to three years away.

"I take the CTA everywhere," he said. "This changes my transit options."

CTA will present the preferred option to the public this winter. A detailed design, engineering and environmental analysis will then be conducted through winter 2014. Construction is dependent on the availability of federal funds.