WICKER PARK — Armed with experience as an urban planner and expertise in transportation, 25-year-old Wicker Park resident Alan O'Connell met with a group of neighbors largely opposed to the CTA's "bus rapid transit" plan for Ashland Avenue and asked them to compromise rather than try to overthrow it.
"This isn't something you should all be scared of," O'Connell told a number of skeptical Wicker Park residents gathered Wednesday night for a meeting inside Jerry's at 1938 W. Division St. "It's really good when done right."
The CTA plans to transform a 16-mile stretch of Ashland Avenue from Irving Park Road to 95th Street into a "Bus Rapid Transit" system, which would mean eliminating certain lanes for traffic and dedicating them to faster buses with fewer stops, prepaid boarding and priority traffic lights.
The overhaul, which tackles the city's most-used bus route, is expected to cost $160 million and be completed in 2016.
Some of the many concerns residents have expressed include the removal of most left turns, added congestion for motorists, impact on area businesses and truckers and the possibility that traffic will divert to arterial neighborhood streets.
The first phase, which includes installing center bus lanes on Ashland between 31st Street and Cortland Avenue, would impact neighbors in East Village, West Town, Bucktown, University Village, Pilsen and Noble Square.
"It will destroy our community totally," said Wicker Park resident Mitchell Hutton, who after O'Connell's talk was still unconvinced of the Ashland plan's merits and asked residents to sign a petition against it.
Among Hutton's worries is that pedestrians could be hurt in oncoming traffic as they cross streets to get to the bus stops.
"Tell me nobody is going to get hit," Hutton said.
The CTA is still in the stages of assessing community feedback after formal comment ended in December. But O'Connell, who has a master's degree in urban planning from Ohio State University and now works for Coyote Logistics, said he thought now was the time to come up with ideas for how to tweak the plan.
O'Connell said the CTA, like the system in his hometown of Cleveland, could implement the plan while making sure motorists could make left turns at major intersections.
He also said the CTA should be exploring ways of ensuring cars and trucks don't divert to residential streets and that it ought to get rid of the regular No. 9 Ashland bus — which would still run along Ashland and make regular stops as it does now — which could "undermine" the new system by splitting ridership.
Also like in Cleveland, O'Connell said he saw the potential of Chicago's new system to create needed development in struggling neighborhoods.
While he doesn't have all the answers to how the CTA should specifically solve each problem, O'Connell said his goal was to bridge the gap between staunch opponents of the plan, like Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Randolph/Fulton Market Association, and the CTA, he said.
"I think right now there's no group willing to come in the middle," O'Connell said.
Wicker Park Committee President Leah Root said that after talking to O'Connell, she was convinced it might be best to compromise with the CTA and hopefully have a better chance to contribute to a plan that could work.
Next, O'Connell said he'd like to see if he could get other neighborhood organizations on board.
"We're the people paying for this," he said of taxpayers. "We should have a say in it from the beginning to the end."