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"Open Houses" -- but not traditional public hearings -- start Tuesday on Ashland BRT impact

To gather input on the environmental impact of a plan to run dedicated buses down the center of Ashland Avenue, CTA officials are forgoing traditional public hearings in favor of two days of “open houses” that start Tuesday.

Display boards will describe the 16-mile Ashland Bus Rapid Transit plan and summarize the 98-page environmental assessment of it, said CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis.

Photographs of various intersections will show “before and after” views of Ashland, and short videos about the “broad vision” for the Ashland BRT also will be available, Lukidis said.

Rather than allowing individual citizens to question officials in public, so that an entire audience can be informed by the exchange, officials will be available to answer individual questions at display boards, Lukidis said.

To provide legally-required public comment, visitors can dictate their comments to a court reporter at the scene. Or, they can write them down and place them in an open house suggestion box. They also can email them to AshlandBRT@transitchicago.com through Dec. 20.

Open houses will run from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10, at Benito Juarez Community Academy, 1450 W. Cermak, and during the same hours Wednesday, Dec. 11, at the Pulaski Park Fieldhouse, 1419 W. Blackhawk St.

The “open house” format is accepted by the Federal Transit Administration, which requires the CTA to gather “public comment” on the environmental assessment, Lukidis saidt. The CTA has used the format before, she said.

The CTA has proposed running dedicated buses down the center of Ashland, from 95th to Irving Park, that would enjoy traffic signal priority, board from the center of the street and stop about 35 times — every half mile. Trucks, cars and the No. 9 Ashland bus would share a single lane of traffic in each direction.

The estimated cost is about $10 million per mile, or $160 million for the entire 16-mile project.

The original proposal banned left turns off Ashland except at a handful of intersections emptying onto expressway entrances. Some business groups and area residents have blasted the left-turn ban, fearing it will cause a “carmegeddon” that will kill business and send trucks and cars barreling through neighborhoods to make three right turns in lieu of one left-hand one.

However, the CTA recently has said it will consider “modifications,” including the possibility of additional left turns, based on feedback.

The Ashland BRT would travel at an estimated average speed of 15.9 mph. That’s closer to the Red Line’s average 21 mph than the 8.7 rush-hour mph of the Ashland No. 9 bus.

Proponents say an Ashland BRT will lure people out of cars and onto BRT buses, which is healthier for them and the environment. It will create a new, major north-south public transit passageway in an untapped area west of the Loop.

Pre-construction concerns were raised about Mexico City’s BRT but it is now “very popular,” said Ron Burke of the Active Transportation Alliance, a transit advocacy group.

“This is the best way we can make a dent in congestion,” Burke said.

Others say the expense isn’t worth it and express buses should be tried first.

“You’re setting up a separate system. You have [left-boarding] buses that can’t be used anywhere else,” said Charles Paidock of Citizens Taking Action, a transit rider group. “It’s just a mistake.”

The environmental assessment indicates that of the closest north-south streets, Western Avenue would see the biggest spillover increase in congestion from an Ashland BRT. Hours spent in congested traffic on Western would rise by 30 percent, going from 18 to 22 percent of all travel hours, according to the environmental assessment.

Damen — where drivers now face congestion 51 percent of their travel time — would see the worst overall congestion among north-south streets. There, congested hours traveled would rise to 53 percent, according to the environmental assessment.

Among east-west streets that intersect with Ashland, the Diversey Parkway-Ashland intersection would see the worst backlogs, the assessment found.

Seconds stuck at the Ashland and Diversey intersection would increase during the morning rush hour from 131.7 to 225.1 seconds. During the evening rush hour it would jump from 115.6 seconds to 225.6 — or to almost four minutes. To “mitigate” that congestion, the study suggested removing parking on Diversey so eastbound and westbound lanes could be added, as well as adding northbound and southbound lanes on Ashland.

Perhaps the most dramatic “mitigation” suggested involves Ashland’s intersection with Armitage, where drivers would face more than a one-minute wait during the evening rush if BRT were implemented. One suggested “mitigation” includes widening Armitage under the Metra bridge — even though railroad bridge support posts sit only a few inches from the street, near the edge of the sidewalk. The result would reduce the evening-rush wait time at Armitage by 5.8 seconds, to 43.7 seconds.

Lukidis noted that “it’s too soon in the process” to know what, if any, mitigation might be considered.

“What will be ultimately decided will be based on public feedback as well as additional technical analysis,” Lukidis said.