Ashland BRT seems all but dead with return of Ashland, Western express buses

SHARE Ashland BRT seems all but dead with return of Ashland, Western express buses
SHARE Ashland BRT seems all but dead with return of Ashland, Western express buses

The CTA’s $160 million plan to build 16 miles of dedicated bus rapid transit lanes down the center of Ashland Avenue was shoved to the back of the bus Tuesday in favor of a $30 million plan to use express buses and “smart” traffic signals to speed travel times on Ashland and Western.

During his re-election campaign, Mayor Rahm Emanuel backed away from the Ashland BRT after vanquished challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia sided with local residents, businesses and aldermen who oppose the project.

On Tuesday, the mayor made it clear that, although the CTA continues painstaking planning for the Ashland BRT, the project is nowhere on his radar.

“It’s way in the future. . . . The only bus rapid transit I’m focused on right now is the one we’re investing in in the Central Business District,” Emanuel said, referring to the Loop Link now under construction, which will move buses in dedicated lanes along Washington, Madison, Clinton and Canal streets.

As for the Ashland and Western express buses, “we need to do this to be more effective with 50,000 people every weekday relying on these two routes. . . . It cuts up to about 22 minutes off the route and it’s a way of being smarter with people’s time” on two of the “busiest bus routes [and] streets in the city.”

CTA President Dorval Carter added, “I wanted to do something sooner rather than later.”

Instead of forging ahead with a BRT system that lacks both funding and local support, the CTA will restore express bus service along the No. 9 Ashland and the No. 49 Western bus routes. That express service was eliminated five years ago because of a decline in mass transit funding.

The new express buses will stop only every half-mile and at rail transfer points. Local trips will be reduced by up to 12 minutes after “smart” traffic signals are installed and bus stops with relatively few passengers are eliminated.

The $3.5 million cost of restoring express bus service will be covered by the CTA’s operating budget. The price tag for new traffic signals and bus transponders is pegged at $27 million. Roughly $17 million will come from the RTA. The remaining $10 million will be a mix of federal and local funds.

“Transit signal priority upgrades traffic signals to be able to talk to the buses so that the signals can hold green lights longer when buses are approaching the intersection or shorten red lights when buses are stopped at the intersections, especially if buses are running behind schedule,” Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld said at a news conference at the CTA’s 74th Street garage.

Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, said the decision to restore express bus service on Ashland and Western will be a relief for commuters, though he still wants the Ashland BRT to be built.

As originally outlined, the CTA Ashland bus rapid transit plan would create dedicated bus lanes down the center of Ashland, from Irving Park to 95th Street, and place boarding stations in center islands. All other traffic — cars, trucks and the possibly the regular Ashland Avenue bus – would be relegated to mostly one lane in eachdirection.

A former city traffic expert labeled the idea “ill-conceived,” saying it was unlike other BRT systems that typically have at least twice as much capacity for regular traffic on their BRT street or within a block of it.

In addition, the CTA’s initial proposal called for allowing only a handful of left turns from Ashland — and only onto expressway ramps. That raised concerns that businesses would be cut off from patrons and trucks would be making three right turns through residential areas to access loading areas or make deliveries.

Charles Paidock, co-director of Citizens Taking Action for Public Transit, applauded the mayor’s decision to restore express bus service and bury the “ill-conceived” Ashland BRT on the furthest of back-burners.

“We’ve lost basic service and routes. It makes no sense to spend $10 million a mile on some rock candy mountain gimmick. It’s a totally unnecessary infrastructure project that doesn’t enhance service,” Paidock said.

“They had express buses and they discontinued them because they maintained they didn’t have sufficient ridership,” he said. “If you didn’t have ridership for express buses, why are you then putting in a BRT, which is another version of an express bus? Their statements didn’t match their actions.”

CTA president Dorval Carter speaks at a news conference Tuesday about the return of express buses to Ashland and Western avenues. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

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