WEST TOWN — Around 40 concerned residents and business owners turned out Wednesday evening to hear about what next steps the Ashland-Western Coalition is proposing to stop the city's plan to bring bus rapid transit to Ashland Avenue.
The group gathered at Orlando Glass and Trim, at 641 N. Ashland, to hear a presentation outlining the negative impact the city's plan on the street and neighborhoods, an outline of the group's alternative proposal and what the group needs to do next to succeed.
Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Randolph/Fulton Market Association, said the group was committed to improving bus transit along Ashland but was opposed to what the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Chicago Transit Authority are proposing.
"We want the best public transit for our city," Romanelli said. "We want to work with our mayor. We want to work with our aldermen and our congressman. We are saying 'No thank you' to the [express bus plan] as of today. We don't think Ashland is ready."
The city's current proposal for the Ashland project is for a center lane running express bus service from 31st Street to Cortland Avenue with stops every half mile. But in order to achieve this, the current four lanes of traffic on Ashland Avenue would be reduced to a single lane in each direction. Local bus service would continue, and except for a few intersections that connect directly to expressways, all left turns would be prohibited.
The group feels that because Ashland, along with Western and Cicero, is just one of three major arterial streets Chicago drivers use to quickly traverse the city from north to south, the proposed changes to the six-mile stretch of the street would prove disastrous.
"I'm confident an hour after this is done everyone in charge will realize 'Oh my god, what have we done?,'" said Jay Goltz of the Goltz Group. "To suggest it won't have an impact on business is crazy."
Other group members were concerned that traffic will be diverted onto side streets in their neighborhoods.
"There's nothing in writing where all the traffic would go," Romanelli said. "Where's the analysis?"
Mary Brown of the First Baptist Church at Ashland and Washington, lives near the United Center and said traffic on Ashland when the Blackhawks or Bulls have games is already a nightmare and will get worse if the express bus plan goes through.
"It will be a parking lot if they go to one lane," Brown said. "That's crazy, that's nonsense."
Reached earlier in the day, Joe Iacobucci, manager of strategic planning for the CTA, said traffic capacity would be reduced if the lanes are eliminated, but the effects won't be as bad as some people believe, and traffic will find its way to alternative streets like Western, Ogden, Elston, Halsted, Damen and California.
"The grid is robust enough to absorb all the extra traffic," Iacobucci said. "Chicago has a tight, continuous grid and auto travel is very agile. We're expect to see travel speed reduced by one to three miles per hour over all."
Opponents to the plan are trying to convince the city to take a less aggressive approach to modernizing bus service along Ashland.
"The CTA has not taken every measure they can to modernize the Ashland buses. We deserve to see that," Romanelli said. "The CTA has an obligation to improve Ashland bus service. It's the chicken-and-the egg concept. What came first on Ashland? Substandard bus service or traffic congestion?"
The coalition proposes retaining the current lane configuration but modernizing the bus service to improve the speed of buses. By reducing stops to every 1/4 mile, moving bus stops past intersections so buses don't cause backups at intersections, and employing technology that would extend green light times so more buses can move through intersections with traffic signals, bus speeds would improve, the coalition said.
But CTA officials don't believe the coalition's proposal would be as effective as the dedicated express bus lanes.
"We value their thoughts and it was something we considered early in the process," CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis said prior to the meeting. "What they're proposing is something the CTA proposed several years ago. It's not a solution that answers the need of that traffic corridor. Fewer service stops doesn't mean the bus will move faster."
The group also suggested extending bus service beyond its current termination point at Irving Park Road all the way to Andersonville as well as adding "bus marshals" on each bus to improve the efficiency of passengers getting on and off and ensuring the safety of riders.
The CTA and the city plan to release an environmental analysis along with new data to bring to a fresh round of public meetings on the plan this fall, Lukidis said. Meanwhile, the coalition is circulating petitions in the West Town area and online to gain support for its alternative proposals.
The coalition will hold another meeting at 1 p.m. Friday at the First Baptist Church, 1613 W. Washington Street.