Downtown bus-rapid-transit project pushed back until 2015

Written By Fran Spielman Posted: 06/23/2014, 06:09pm

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $32 million plan to bring bus rapid transit to downtown Chicago to shave 7 1/2 minutes off round-trip bus travel across the Loop has been pushed back until next year, City Hall disclosed Monday.

Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld said it’s taking “longer than expected to complete the design” of the project and consult with building owners and stakeholders. The Emanuel administration is more interested in getting it right than rushing it through, she said.

“We’re finishing the design, which is complex,” Scheinfeld said Monday. “This is a transformative project that will improve the quality of life for millions of people traveling downtown and across the Loop. We need to make certain that the design of the corridor meets the CTA’s operational needs and that the design of those platform stations reflects the input of stakeholders along the corridor, including businesses and building owners.”

Scheinfeld refused to say precisely how long the delay would last or whether it has anything to do with the construction complication disclosed by the Chicago Sun-Times last fall.

It will require Water Management crews to dig up portions of Washington and Madison Streets and relocate water mains before installing eight raised passenger boarding islands in the street.

Last year, the Chicago Department of Transportation chose what it called a “balanced” approach over two other designs to shave 7 1/2 minutes off round-trip bus travel across the Loop.

Then-Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein said the design was chosen because it “balanced the right-of-way in favor of all users” and created “less friction” by segregating cars, bikes, buses and pedestrians.

On eastbound Washington, it called for two car lanes, a dedicated bus lane, a raised bus island and a bike lane. Westbound Madison would have a similar configuration but with a curb-level boarding area. The bike lane would be relocated to Randolph.

What Klein did not mention — and what City Hall sources subsequently acknowledged — is that before the eight raised passenger boarding islands can be installed, the water mains beneath must be relocated to guarantee access to city crews in the event of a water main break.

That will add six-to-10 weeks of construction time and driver inconvenience to a $32 million project that, the city anticipates, will be bankrolled by federal funds.

Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, said he’s not surprised that the timetable to bring bus-rapid-transit to the Loop has been pushed back indefinitely.

“From what I heard from CDOT, it sounds like the kind of thing any roadway project encounters. I don’t think it had anything to do with money,” Burke said.

“This Loop BRT project stands to create a much faster and more reliable trip across the downtown area, which is awesome. The sooner it can happen, the better. But it’s also a unique, first-of-its kind project. It’s more important for that reason that the city get it right. If that requires taking a little more time, so be it.”

Also on Monday, Burke acknowledged that, as part of the downtown BRT project, bike lanes will be removed from Canal and Madison Streets and replaced by protected bike lanes on Randolph, Washington and Clinton. The should help ease a bottleneck in the congested area around Union Station.

“It has to do with the overall configuration of what’s gonna work best downtown in light of BRT as well as creating an east-west connection,” Burke said.

“On the whole, this reconfiguration is an improvement, compared to what was anticipated a while back. We’re especially excited by the fact we’re now gonna have protected bike lanes on Washington and Randolph similar to the ones on Dearborn. You’ve seen how popular they are on Dearborn and Kinzie. We expect these to be popular as well. A lot of people come into the Loop traveling in an east-west direction, but there is only one east-west bike lane across the Loop right now and it’s a traditional striped bike lane in one direction. Now, we’ll have two east-west connections and they’ll be protected.”

Earlier this year,  Scheinfeld was asked whether it was worth all of that trouble to shave just 7 1/2 minutes off round-trip bus travel across the Loop.

“It’s a significant improvement, if you’re thinking about how long it takes for that round-trip. And that’s peoples’ life every day. So, every minute counts for people trying to get to work and trying to get home to their families,” she said then.

“The point is to have the most efficient use of the limited roadway space we have. We can’t build more roads in the Loop. So, what is our option? To move more people through the same corridors more efficiently. Central Loop BRT is an opportunity to do that…so people can actually move in buses more quickly than walking.”

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