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Public Transportation Fri Dec 20 2013
Conceptual rendering of Ashland BRT/ CTA
Today is the last day Chicago Transit Authority will be collecting public input and formal comments on the Ashland Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, as part of their Environmental Assessment, before moving on to the next phase of design.
City transportation officials say the BRT is a necessary modernization project that would meet a high demand by providing faster, more efficient and more reliable service than current Ashland bus lines.
Ashland was chosen for the BRT because it has the highest annual bus ridership in the city, with over 10 million boardings in 2012, CTA says.
Still, last week's open house meeting held by city transportation officials at Pulaski Park Fieldhouse was not without critical public sentiment.
How would BRT work?
The BRT system would run down the center of Ashland Avenue for 16 miles between Irving Park Road and 95th Street.
Two of Ashland's current four general traffic lanes would be dedicated as center running bus only lanes. This would leave one auto travel lane and one parking lane going in each direction on Ashland Ave. Most left-turns off Ashland would be eliminated, as would the ability to cross Ashland from many side streets.
CTA says Ashland's rapid transit buses would have limited stops, about every half-mile and at CTA stations, and traffic signal priority, making them much faster than current buses. Multiple wide doors, level boarding between bus and curb and ability to pay fares at stations before boarding will also speed up bus travel, officials say.
According to transportation officials, the Ashland BRT system would be twice as fast as current buses, with average speeds projected at 16 mph. This would make Ashland bus speeds almost as fast as average El train speeds at 20 mph.
The BRT would connect with major destinations and existing train networks, save travel time, improve reliability, improve streetscaping, enhance shelters and increase opportunities for economic development along the Ashland corridor, CTA says.
Conceptual rendering of Ashland BRT/ CTA
So what's the problem?
Critics argue the $160+ million Ashland BRT project is a waste of money that would hurt local businesses and neighborhoods while further congesting already jam-packed north-south arterial vehicle traffic routes.
A number of local residents, schools, churches, businesses, social services and neighborhood groups have even banded together as the Ashland-Western Coalition to fight CTA's planned BRT.
Heather Egan, a member of the Ashland-Western Coalition, said the BRT threatens the livelihood of her business, Rickard Circular Folding Company, which has been operating for over 113 years.
"We're located at 325 N. Ashland and our loading docks are on Carroll," Egan said in an interview. "If they put this in with no left-hand turns, that means our semis will have to make either five or six right-hand turns through residential neighborhoods in order to get to our loading docks."
If trucks can't get to the store and trucking costs go up, suppliers might find other places to send their business, she said.
Suzann Wahl is an East Village homeowner and supporter of the Ashland-Western Coalition. Her family lives in a quiet neighborhood between Ashland and Western that would be ruined by the BRT, she said in an interview.
"The CTA's estimating that between Chicago and Grand, that 9,450 vehicles will be diverted from Ashland at that point because of the BRT," she said. "That westbound traffic is going to skedaddle over to Western and it's going to destroy our neighborhood as we know it."
Wahl's daughter attends Mitchell School on Ohio. She's concerned that cars are going to come speeding past the school to get from Ashland to Western.
"We've all been frustrated drivers at one time or another and I'll be the first to admit that I behave erratically behind the wheel when I'm running late," Wahl said. "And you're going to close an entire lane of Ashland for 16 miles? Those drivers who are diverting are going to be more than frustrated, they're going to be like practically postal careening down Ohio past our school."
John Polich, president of Gabriel Environmental Services on North Elston Ave., lives and works about two blocks from Ashland.
"Traffic is already bad and I cannot picture how bad it will be if this new bus configuration goes through," Polich said in an interview. "And not just on Ashland. That traffic's also going to spill over onto Elston, Clyborn and Damen, all streets that are already fairly loaded with vehicles."
"Ashland is a major north-south thoroughfare," Egan said. "If you try to take it down to one lane with one lane dedicated to buses, it will be absolute gridlock."
Egan also pointed out that with BRT's planned center-loading lanes, pedestrians are going to be running across traffic to catch buses. It's another hazard they don't need, she said.
Many critics say that Ashland BRT seems like an unnecessary project, especially considering the negative impact they say it would have on local neighborhoods.
Wahl, who said she is a big supporter of public transit in general, doesn't think Ashland BRT would actually serve the large number of commuters that city transportation officials claim it would.
"People mostly commute east to west and if someone was really going to travel 95th to Irving, they would hop on the El, the Red Line or something," she said.
Wahl said the BRT only appeals to a certain segment of young renters, not to the community stakeholders.
"There are a small number of people who will see a benefit from the BRT, but at what cost to everybody else?" Polich said. "For every one that benefits, eight, ten, twelve, twenty will suffer."
Polich said the BRT doesn't really make sense to him, particularly because there are viable, less destructive alternatives such as the Modern Ashland Bus project proposed by Ashland-Western Coalition.
"What it's really all about is the mayor wants this federal grant, and the federal grant has to be used for a BRT like system," Wahl said. "And he wants to shove it down our throats."
It's a "sexy" project that the mayor wants on his resume when he goes back to Washington, she said.
"In pictures it's going to look great and I'm sure it will be very beautiful and the stations will be very nice," she said, "but the impact to residents is going to be horrific."
For the record, CTA says the Ashland BRT is not the mayor's personal vision, but rather "a vision that reflects planning processes and community engagement undertaken in 2012."
Image/ Ashland-Western Coalition