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Ashland Express Bus: Neighborhood Group Narrowly Votes Against Plan

 The East Village Association voted to oppose the express plan for Ashland Avenue.
The East Village Association voted to oppose the express plan for Ashland Avenue.
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CTA, DNAinfo/Emily Morris

EAST VILLAGE — A neighborhood group Monday night narrowly voted against the "bus rapid transit" plan for Ashland Avenue in its current form after months of debate.

"At the very least, it says to the city — the CTA, the Chicago Department of Transportation — they need to do additional planning," East Village Association President Neal McKnight said of the 11-9 vote.

As the $160 million plan stands, center lanes in each direction of a 16-mile stretch of Ashland Avenue between Irving Park Road and 95th Street would be devoted to a faster bus, leaving one lane for motorists in each direction and eliminating left turns except on roads leading to expressways. More details are available on the CTA's website.

The first phase tackles Ashland between 31st Street and Cortland Avenue and would impact East Village, Wicker Park, West Town, Bucktown, University Village, Pilsen and Noble Square.

Some common concerns that were echoed at the meeting at Happy Village, 1059 N. Wolcott Ave., include the impact on industrial businesses that operate along the north-south thoroughfare as well as what effects the system would have on traffic congestion along Ashland and neighboring streets.

“As a guy who lives on Winchester, that lives in a 120-year-old house, right, and I’ve got two kids on the street, and I’ve already got a street that’s filled with vehicles," said McKnight, who's worried that semi-trucks will drive through his street and compound the traffic woes.

A few potential benefits also brought up Monday night include speeding up a slow bus line, creating another option for people to get to work at places like the Illinois Medical District and saving money on alternative options, like a pricey extension of "L" lines.

East Village neighbor Robert Schickel said he was initially opposed to the idea of the "bus rapid transit" but hoped it could be revised. He's suggested traffic barriers like speed bumps, turnabouts and one-way roads to keep motorists from using neighborhood streets to get around.

"Behaviors will change," Schickel said. "Will it suck for the first year, two, three? Yes. But as it moves along people will learn."

The East Village group had been holding out on voting in hopes it might hear from the city about what it will do with resident feedback.

New Transportation Department Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld said in February the agency was considering tweaking the plan to allow for more left turns.

But months after formal comment period ended in December, McKnight declared that it was time to take a vote so elected officials would have input from more constituents. McKnight said the association could revisit the issue if the city did officially decide to make changes that might alleviate worries from neighbors.

"The plan wasn’t that well thought-out," resident Jeremy Netzel said before the show of hands. "This is our opportunity to go back to the people who will have an impact on the final plan and say, 'We don’t think it’s good enough.' "

Previously, the Wicker Park Committee voted against the plan, though the group met last week and heard from an urban planner who asked neighbors to work with the CTA to improve the proposal. The committee did not take another vote.

"I want to be aspirational," McKnight said. "I want [it] to be better than what they’re offering us, and I think that what they’ve offered us is kind of half-a**ed at this point."