$7.3 million OKed for downtown ‘bus rapid transit’

Chicago steps up with TIF funds for a route across the Loop

February 21, 2012

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TransmilenioChicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has decided to channel more than $7.3 million in tax increment financing toward a “bus rapid transit” line downtown, according to transportation and economic-development officials.

The money will combine with an announced $24.6 million from the Federal Transit Administration to speed up trips between Union Station, the Ogilvie Transportation Center, several Chicago Transit Authority lines, Streeterville and Navy Pier.

“About 50 percent of the commuters who come to work every day in Chicago’s central business district arrive by bus or train,” said Peter Skosey, vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit group working on the project. “If they’re getting off at those Metra stations in the West Loop, it’s quite a hike over to North Michigan Avenue or even just to State Street. So this really facilitates the use of transit for downtown Chicago.”

Bus rapid transit, known as BRT, delivers many benefits of rail at a fraction of the cost. The most advanced BRT systems have sprung up in Bogotá, Colombia; Guangzhou, China; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Ahmedabad, India.

BRT remains largely unknown in the United States. Modest systems are running in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas and Eugene, Oregon.

In 2008, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration said it was moving on a BRT pilot project. But the city bungled an application for $153 million in federal funding for it.

Emanuel’s mayoral transition plan last year promised a “full bus rapid transit pilot” within three years. The pilot, according to the plan, will include “dedicated bus lanes, signal preemption, prepaid boarding or on-board fare verification, multiple entry and exits points on the buses, limited stops, and street-level boarding.”

The Chicago Department of Transportation is keeping lips tight about its design of the downtown line, known as both the “East-West Transit Corridor” and “Central Loop BRT.” It’s not clear the design will include many of the timesavers listed in Emanuel’s plan. A CDOT plan announced in 2010 would remove cars from some traffic lanes, rig key stoplights to favor the buses, improve sidewalks, install bicycle lanes and build specially branded bus stops equipped with GPS-powered “next bus” arrival signs.

The CTA, meanwhile, has a separate $1.6 million federal grant to plan BRT options along a 21-mile stretch of Western Avenue. Another $11 million from the feds is funding bus improvements this year along the South Side’s Jeffrey Boulevard. That line, though billed as BRT, will lack many features for speeding up trips.