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Ashland Express Bus: Tension Mounts as Residents Slam CTA with Questions

By Alisa Hauser | September 18, 2013 11:50am
 A West Town gathering to discuss CTA's plan to bring a high-speed express bus to Ashland Avenue packed a room with about 60 people.
Ashland Express Bus Meeting Sept. 17
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CHICAGO — West Town residents on Tuesday gave CTA officials an earful during a heated question-and-answer session about the city's plan to bring a high-speed bus to Ashland Avenue while eliminating traffic lanes for cars and banning left turns.

"This is going to ruin my small little street. I am very much against this project," East Village resident Dan Ryan told CTA planner Joe Iacobucci.

Iacobucci delivered a presentation on the bus plan during a meeting attended by about 60 people, after which Ryan told the official he found his presentation "disingenuous." 

"You were selling, selling, selling," Ryan said.

The CTA's plan to bring express, high-speed bus service to a 5.4-mile stretch of the "Ashland Corridor" between 31st Street on the South Side and Cortland Avenue on the North Side would affect residents in East Village, West Town and Wicker Park.

 A rendering of a proposed express bus coming to Ashland Avenue.
A rendering of a proposed express bus coming to Ashland Avenue.
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The plan is part of a larger $160 million effort to offer a center bus lane on a 16-mile stretch of Ashland Avenue between 91st Street and Irving Park Road by 2016.

The high-speed bus is projected to travel more than 80 percent faster than the current No. 9 Ashland bus, while cars and trucks — relegated to a single lane on each side of the north-south arterial street — would slow by 1 to 3 miles per hour, according to the CTA.

The plan bans left turns, except for turns at expressway exits connecting to the Stevenson, Eisenhower and Kennedy expressways. 

Nora Beck, 34, an East Village resident, said she supports the plan because taking public transportation allows her to save money she'd otherwise spend on a car. The extra money she could instead spend on restaurants and "higher rents," she said.

Beck was heckled by man who shouted, "How many kids do you have?"

Later, Beck told a reporter, "Maybe I will have a kid [one day], and maybe I will have to get a car. I'm not going to slow down now because that could happen."

Residents who live on side streets off Ashland Avenue, such as Suzi Wahl, expressed concern about trucks and cars diverting off Ashland Avenue and traveling in front of their homes.

Citing a 2010 traffic count of 27,000 vehicles daily on Ashland Avenue near Grand Avenue, Wahl said the CTA's claim that 35 percent of traffic could divert off Ashland Avenue translates to 9,450 cars.

"Where exactly will these vehicles shift to?" Wahl asked.

Iacobucci told Wahl "some will shift to Damen, Western, California and Kedzie" and "after a while, people will figure out what their alternative route is."

According to the CTA, some 230,000 people live within walking distance of Ashland Avenue, and there are 31,000 daily boardings of the No. 9 Ashland bus, which is one of the most-used, slowest buses in the system.

While many in the room appeared to mainly travel by car, those who ride the No. 9 Ashland bus, such as Sandra Ruiz, didn't seem convinced of the plan's benefits.

Ruiz, 57, said, "It's hard enough for the elderly to get to the bus," and now she will have to cross the crosswalk to get to this "so-called rapid bus that will be there every half mile?"

The CTA has maintained that it will keep the local No. 9 Ashland bus, which makes more frequent stops than the express bus.

Even some supporters of the plan, such as Noble Square resident Lindsay Bayley, had some concerns about the ban on left turns and wondered whether the CTA had considered "hook turns" that enable cars in the right lanes to make left turns based on signals.

Martin Swift earned thunderous applause after he suggested the CTA do "a dry run" this winter and reduce lanes from two to one with barricades and block left turns to "see how the public really feels about it."

Roger Romanelli, a member of the "Save Ashland" group which had been lobbying the CTA to modernize the existing Ashland bus as an alternative to the plan, asked for transparency on what the 20 percent "local match" on funding for the $160 million project will be.

Iacobucci told Romanelli, "This is still a concept plan. I can't stress that enough."

The CTA plans to release more details on the plan at public hearings in October that will coincide with the publishing of an environmental assessment. The assessment will be available electronically.

After the meeting, held at at Talcott school, 1840 W. Ohio St., Liz Kuhn, a board member of the Chicago Grand Neighbors Association, said her group has "not formed an official stance" on the plan but she personally is in favor of it.

Kuhn mainly commutes by car to her job in the West Loop but said "If there were a faster and more reliable transit option" she would walk from her home just west of Damen Avenue to Ashland to take the bus.

"I understand community concerns, but I also hope [the Ashland express bus] can reduce reliance on cars," Kuhn said.