CHICAGO — Sixteen miles of new "flex lanes" will allow PACE buses to breeze past traffic along I-90 going west from O'Hare Airport, suburban transportation officials announced this week.
The lanes will carry six new bus lines all along the Jane Addams Tollway, half of them linking up with the Rosemont Blue Line station to give passengers direct access to the city.
Ratcheting up bus service was the last piece of a $2.5 billion effort to widen the tollway between O'Hare and suburban Elgin, officials said. Construction wrapped up last December.
The extra lane will stay clear most of the time, open only to emergency responders, according to Dan Rozek, a spokesman for the Illinois Tollway. But any time traffic dips below 35 mph — as measured by an intricate network of cameras and sensors — PACE buses will hop over and bypass the gridlock.
PACE saw eye-popping results after it rolled out similar program along the Stevenson Expy. going into Downtown in 2012, according to spokeswoman Maggie Daly Skogsbakken.
The transit agency saw a nearly five-fold spike in ridership along the Stevenson after authorities marked off a lane for buses, Skogsbakken said. And passengers get picked up on time for 92 percent of their trips, up from 68 percent before 2012.
PACE ridership has already jumped 27 percent along the I-90 corridor since its six new routes came online late last year, Skogsbakken said.
"We're already seeing our biggest expansion ever along that route, and we think it's going to be an even better option as soon as we're able to bypass all that traffic," she said.
The new routes are being populated with new buses, complete with free WiFi, USB outlets and leather seats, Skogsbakken added.
Last year, state transportation workers broke ground on a multi-year project to widen the Kennedy Expy. between Harlem and Cumberland avenues, although officials haven't announced dedicated bus lanes for the route.
Nonetheless, transportation planners are scrambling to get ahead of a surge of business openings they expect to hit the Northwest Side and nearby suburbs in the coming decades, Skogsbakken said.
"The I-90 corridor is set by 2040 to have as many employment opportunities as the [city]'s central business district, but we haven't had enough bus routes to accommodate all that development going on," Skogsbakken said. "With improved frequency, we think this is going to be a legitimate competitor to private automobiles and trains."