Bus rapid transit to ‘maximize potential’ of Ashland Avenue

April 19, 2013

The first phase of a closely watched Chicago bus project would “maximize street potential” along more than five miles of Ashland Avenue for about $50 million, city officials announced Friday.

The project would establish bus rapid transit (BRT) along that congested artery from 31st Place to Cortland Avenue. The city will study possible extensions stretching as far south as 95th Street and as far north as Irving Park Road, according to a statement from the Chicago Transit Authority and the Chicago Department of Transportation.

“Bus rapid transit is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to expand and modernize our city’s transit network for the 21st century,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in the statement. “We will work with our local communities to best determine how to maximize the positive impacts BRT would provide to riders, while boosting local economic development and improving quality of life for all city residents.”

WBEZ revealed the Ashland route and the project’s key design elements in January. The buses would have a lane to themselves on both sides of a landscaped median. Traffic signals at some intersections would favor the buses. Passengers would board from platforms a half-mile apart. Parking would remain on both sides.


The statement says the design would “allow the potential” for off-board fare collection, a feature that averts delays from collecting fares in bus doorways. A new CTA video (above) shows that payment taking place at kiosks on station platforms.

Cars and trucks would have just one lane in each direction — a plan that has sparked opposition from some business groups along the route. City officials have responded that the project would slow automobiles and trucks just slightly and speed up bus service more than 80 percent during peak hours.

Transit experts say banning turns across bus lanes is the key BRT intersection treatment. The video renderings of reconfigured Ashland intersections do not show any left-turn lanes.

CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis confirmed Friday that the Ashland project will eliminate left turns from the avenue at some intersections. She said her agency is embarking on a study to help determine which ones.

The elimination of turns is another step that worries the business groups.

“Getting trucks around, where they might turn left into a loading dock now, they’ll have to obviously make three [right turns] to be able to do that,” said Benjamin Spies, a spokesman for the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago, which represents 430 member businesses in the Kinzie Industrial Corridor. “They’re concerned about what this would do to freight traffic.”

The Emanuel administration was also considering Western Avenue for the BRT line but has put that possibility on the back burner.

The initial Ashland phase, creating a 5.3-mile leg of the BRT route, would link several CTA and Metra lines. It would also improve transit service to the University of Illinois at Chicago, Malcolm X College, the United Center and a cluster of hospitals within the Illinois Medical District.

“One of the things that all of the hospitals talk to us about is a lack of parking,” Warren Ribley, the district’s executive director, said at a downtown roundtable promoting the BRT project. “They all have parking decks that are full. If you drive along Harrison or Congress on any given day, you can’t find a parking spot.”

“Public transportation is critical to the growth of the medical district,” Ribley said. “There is going to be growth. That’s why this is such an important proposal for us.”

Neighborhoods along the planned initial route include Bucktown, Noble Square, East Village, West Town, University Village and Pilsen. The CTA’s No. 9 bus, which runs on Ashland, in 2012 had 10 million boardings, the most of any Chicago route that year, according to the city.

The city’s statement says CHA and CDOT will “begin working with local stakeholders on developing a plan” for Ashland.

The project has potential to outshine a bus line in Cleveland, Ohio, that transit experts consider the most advanced BRT system in the United States. The Cleveland line includes 4.3 miles of dedicated bus lanes but also some features that slow down the service. Those include tightly spaced stations — about four per mile — and turns across the busway.

Ashland would not stack up to BRT lines in several other countries. The world’s most advanced bus system is TransMilenio in Bogotá, Colombia. That Andean city segregates 65 miles of busways from traffic using physical barriers and grade separations.

Chicago has studied BRT options in the Ashland and Western corridor using a $1.6 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Emanuel administration estimates that the project would cost about $10 million per mile. Lukidis, the CTA spokeswoman, said the city would count on further FTA funding for some of the Ashland construction.

Chicago is planning another BRT project in a 1.1-mile downtown corridor between Union Station and Millennium Park. The project, managed by CDOT, will include a new bus terminal next to the train station. A CDOT spokesman says the city is aiming to finalize the route design this December and finish construction by November 2014. The project’s funding includes $24.7 million from the FTA and $7.3 million in Chicago tax increment financing.

As the city unveiled the Ashland design elements, Emanuel prepared to join former President Bill Clinton at a Friday meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. Emanuel’s office described the topic as “innovative and cost-effective ways for cities to invest in local projects.”

Chip Mitchell is WBEZ’s West Side bureau reporter. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMitchell1 and @WBEZoutloud, and connect with him through Facebook and LinkedIn.