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BRT good concept with devilish details … not a done deal for Ashland… your input is needed
In the last two weeks, the subject of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on Ashland Ave. had residents, business owners and organizational people polarized on both ends of the subject with others trying to wrap their mind around the idea.
The devil still seems to be in the details but for the first time, a BRT representative said, "This is not a done deal. We have zero dollars for features and zero dollars for construction…We want as much feedback as possible."
There was commonality in dialogue at the meetings of East Village Association (EVA), the Wicker Park Committee (WPC), Industrial Council of Northwest Chicago (ICNC) and the Ashland-Western Coalition as well as in conversations with individuals who will be effected by this transformational concept.
The BRT project and its vision was created by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) in partnership with the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), the Department of Housing and Economic Development and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
The concept is to move more people faster on public transportation. In the long run, such a system is to meet the needs of an increasing population and reduce automobile usage. Most people agree that those are good goals. To achieve this, Chicago’s BRT vision is to balance the needs of all street users, improve quality of life in local neighborhoods, provide better access to jobs and services and make local streets more attractive, safer and less congested.
An example of this is the Blue Line. Most people who use it do not think twice about taking public trans versus driving to O'Hare or into the loop, expect for special occasions. They gladly take the "El," knowing that they will be at their destination in a shorter amount of time with the cost being that of the CTA, not that of using their vehicle and the high cost of parking.
The direct advantages to be gleaned from the overall BRT concept are:
- Having faster rides with dedicated lanes, limited stops and transit signal priority
- Moving more people
- Allowing for and encouraging urban growth
- Reducing vehicle use which leads to making the environment greener (less pollution)
Each of these advantages then has a series of benefits that can positively impact quality of life across all economic levels and generations.
Process to date
While the points above sound good to most people, there is the reality of applying this concept to Ashland Ave. Currently CTA has bus service that runs from 5800 North to 104th South. The full length for the project (16 miles) is intended to go from Irving Park Rd. (4000 North) on the north to 95th St. on the south, linking with 37 bus routes, 7 CTA trains and 5 Metra trains. Phase one is proposed to go from Cortland to 31st St.
To date they have spent 7,000 hours doing traffic counts and modeling flow and speeds as well as usage along Ashland Ave. As with other projects in the City, they used the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's (CMAP) broad overview software looking at highway impact then using Synchro which works off CMAP to show the impact at intersections.
Progress to date
Joe Iacobucci, CTA, Strategic Planning and Policy, explained at EVA's Aug. 5 meeting, "In order to get a candid response [on the project], we have to adopt a project vision, present it and have you respond to that." The CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) are in the process of developing a proposal to deliver to the public. However, before making the formal presentation, they have been talking with local groups. In September and October they are to have a couple of public meetings at which they are to present the whole proposal with data from various studies.
When asked why they released some information but not the whole presentation to date, Iacobucci said that they wanted to engage as many people as possible. "We want everyone to express their opinion," he said. Then based on public input and technical analysis, the go or no-go decision will eventually be made.
He also said that this project is not a done deal and that there are no funds set aside to pay for the project. With an estimated cost of $10 million per mile, they will be looking for a grant from the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) Small Starts program. According to Iacobucci this could provide funding of $25-250 million and locally there would probably be a 20% match required. Such funding is not possible, however, until the project has gone through several more phases as explained by the FTA.
Reality vs Concept
With details no more spelled out than in April, people are very skeptical, concerned and distrustful of what is going to transpire with the purposed BRT running down the center of Ashland Ave.
Some of the devilish details brought out are:
- reduction of two lanes of traffic, one traffic lane in each direction
- no left turns
- reduction of parking by 8%
- reduction of loading zones by 4%
- no bike lanes
- reducing two-lane north-south streets to two in the entire City (Western and Cicero Avenues)
- rider safety: center-street stations require passengers to cross traffic
The public's response to two of the key questions above brought forth other facts and questions:
- One lane of traffic
- This will include continuation of existing local bus traffic for handicapped and seniors
- How will deliveries for residential and commercial be possible in many cases? (Often no alley deliveries are possible. What about UPS, Fedex and other truck deliveries to residents and business establishments?)
- Emergency vehicles are to be accommodated by using the bus lanes (What about the safety and reality that the different surface levels could cause unexpected slipperiness in winter. What happens when the emergency vehicle is blocked by bus and cars?)
- This will add to the existing congestion
- No left turns
- How will access to businesses not be impacted if access is more complicated?
- Local streets will have to accommodate more commercial and passenger vehicles (damaging not only streets but also homes)
- No thru traffic across Ashland on several east west streets will also impact accessibility for commercial and residential
A long time resident who lived just off of Ashland near Belmont and still works just east of Ashland on Division commented, "When they put the planters in, that was bad enough in increasing congestion, to say nothing of the construction phase.
"This is going to make it next to impossible! It is one of only a couple of streets where you can more quickly travel from north to south in the City."
Though the Active Transportation Alliance has indicated that they are ok with there being no bike lanes on Ashland, many cyclists do not share that opinion.
A retail florist and wholesaler, Kennicott Brothers Company has been in business in Chicago since 1881 and are currently located at 452 N. Ashland Ave. "The BRT on Ashland is a two-edged sword," said Red Kennicott, Kennicott's CEO. "Traveling here for our employees could be easier and faster but congestion for customers and deliveries could be very difficult." Currently traffic is so heavy that a stoplight is needed at Hubbard, said Kennicott. The idea that Hubbard would no longer be an east-west thru street left him somewhat speechless.
"With no left turns and Hubbard without cross traffic, customer trucks and commercial delivery trucks will have to probably use Grand and Paulina to get to our location," said Dan Andrews, a Kennicott Manager. "That is a concern for those other streets, particularly if they are residential."
Even a local eatery could be affected by this new configuration said Andrews about Gaudi Café at the corner of Ashland and Hubbard. "Though they have a lot of local customers, not being able to cross Ashland can impact their business as well… This last weekend, I noticed people with signs on various corners along Ashland saying 'Save Ashland Ave.' It looks like alot of residents are concerned too."
Reflecting on how many businesses went out of business during a two-year construction period on Roosevelt Rd., an ICNC member, Phil Contursi, Product productions, Inc. on Grand Ave., said that the business community needs to begin being proactive about this project. "Things will happen that no one has thought of and it will take longer than expected, so we need to plan ahead."
"BRT is a new way of doing things," explained John Paige, a city planner who is a Commissioner on Wicker Park / Bucktown's SSA #33, a bicyclist and public transportation user. "Think of BRT as a web. It connects various transportation systems together. It will take about 20 years for Chicago's system to evolve and Ashland is a good place to start."
Mike Giza, Mike's Furniture, 1259 N. Ashland, spoke at the WPC meeting saying that his family's business, which opened in 1975, can not get big trucks in the alley behind their store. While they have an unloading zone on Ashland, they often have multiple trucks delivering at the same time which does then block a traffic lane.
Roger Romanelli, Executive Director, Randolph/Fulton Market Association (RFMA), explained at the WPC meeting that, that his organization and the Ashland-Western Coalition are not against BRT nor are they Nimbies ("not in my backyard"). "We think there should be alternatives. There have been no improvements to transportation on Ashland since streetcars were removed and buses were put on the route in 1957."
A group, the Ashland-Western Coalition, was formed around the issue of BRT when the discussions began in choosing Western or Ashland as the next BRT line.
They believe that transportation should improve on Ashland but that it should be done for less cost and less impact on surrounding areas.Their concept is Modern Express Bus (MEB).
As stated in their material, "Our MEB concept includes positive aspects of BRT; positive aspects of other bus systems; and common sense ideas to modernize bus service with Ashland's current street configuration:
- Maintain two vehicle lanes in each direction
- Maintain vehicle left turns
No new vehicles flooding neighborhoods seeking traffic congestion relief or left turn relief
Less Cost to Taxpayers
- One modernized bus operation instead of two buses (BRT, local bus)
- Emphasis on 21st century technology over 20th century street reconstruction
Faster Buses and Passenger Boarding
- Reduce stops by 30% by placing stops at 1/4-mile intervals instead of BRT’s 1/2–mile or today’s 1/7-mile intervals
- Special stops for CTA and METRA stations and for schools, churches, social services and hospitals
- Stops across intersections to expedite vehicle right turns and reduce traffic congestion
- Traffic-signal technology to expedite traffic and increase bus speeds
- Intersection bus-jumps by removing 60’ of north and south corner parking
Faster Passenger Boarding
Fare boxes for quick-scan passes instead of cash fares that slow boarding, front and rear boarding
Better Bus Stop Locations and Amenities
- Maintain curbside service for better passenger safety and consistent with locations of CTA/METRA stations
- Install larger, heated and lit shelters at all bus stop corners for basic amenities and for east-west bus riders
Vegetation and Street/Sidewalk Improvements
- Retain and expand median planters, increase parkway trees, encourage rooftop gardens
- Repair deteriorated and missing sidewalks, install superior crosswalks/streetlights/vehicle speed-limit signs
Expanded Service and Hours
New north service to Clark St. for Uptown, Ravenswood, Andersonville and Edgewater; 24-hour service
How to Pay for MEB
Beyond FTA funding for BRT systems, CTA’s FY2013 budget identifies many other federal programs:
“FTA grant programs include Alternative Analysis (AA), Bus and Bus Facilities/State of Good Repair grants (SOGR), Bus and Bus Facilities/Bus Livability Initiatives, Clean Fuels Program, the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER), TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act), Innovation, Coordination, and Enhancement program (ICE), Unified Work Program (UWP), Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant (CMAQ) and Department of Homeland Security grants.”
CTA should develop an MEB cost estimate, allowing taxpayers to have an educated choice on this historic issue.
As stated at the beginning of this story, most people are interested in moving people in the city faster on public transportation in Chicago. BRT is agreed upon as a good concept. Opinions on how and where to implement this vary.
Whereas the original transportation issues in the 1800s and early 1900s were focused on getting people into downtown Chicago, the needs have changed, while much of the transportation routes have remained in the same spoke-like configuration.
Decisions to make these big changes are really in the hands of the people...you and me,,, IF we choose to participate.
September and October will present opportunities for you…and me…to hear what the stats are. Then it is up to all of us to talk about it…not just accept it...but discuss it.
CTA has repeatedly said, "We take your concerns very seriously." So it will be up to us to make sure they do. We'll let you know when to plan to attend a meeting.
In the meantime… let's hear your opinions right here!
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