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Emanuel earmarks $5M in city funding to speed CTA bus service on busiest routes

Chicago Transit Authority bus

Sun-Times file photo

CTA bus ridership has declined by 21 percent since 2012 as riders frustrated by the snail’s pace of bus service switch to ride-hailing.

That’s why mass transit advocates were so disappointed when the CTA chose to improve its rail system with revenue generated by a new ride-hailing fee: 15-cents-a-ride this year and another nickel in 2019.

Now, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is finally making a $5 million downpayment –– with city funding instead of ride-hailing fees –– on a broader plan to make bus service “faster and more reliable on high-volume routes.”

The plan to eliminate “slow zones at bottle-neck intersections” will be rolled out next spring on two of the city’s busiest bus routes: the No. 79 79th Street that serves 7.8 million annual rides and the No. 66 Chicago Avenue with 6.9 million-rides-a-year.

Bus routes on Western and Ashland could be in line for similar help.

Those routes also happen to be the four high-capacity bus corridors included in Emanuel’s innovative plan to expand the city’s transit-oriented development policy to include “high-ridership, high-frequency” bus routes.

The $5 million is tucked away in the city’s all-purpose “Finance General” account in Emanuel’s proposed 2019 budget.

It will be used to install designated bus lanes “on approaches to certain intersections” and new signs and pavement markings.

The money will also be used to “optimize” the location of bus stops and bankroll curb extensions and “other operational and safety improvements,” the city said.

Those short-term improvements will be implemented “in advance of future longer-term improvements that will require additional engineering and community engagement,” the city said, without revealing specifics or future funding sources.

The Active Transportation Alliance has proposed a “Back on the Bus” plan that includes, what spokesman Kyle Whitehead called “three relatively low-cost and efficient” ways to make bus service faster and more reliable.

They are: dedicated bus lanes, either in full or portions of major routes; giving buses “transit signal priority” in the form of an early or longer green light at busy intersections and faster boarding at the busiest stops by allowing people to board through the rear and front doors and pay before getting on the bus.

That’s why Whitehead called the $5 million investment a “downpayment.”

“For the most part, the bus is being treated just like every other vehicle on the street. That just doesn’t make sense given the fact that the bus is carrying tens more people while taking up a fraction of the space,” Whitehead said Friday.

Whitehead wants to double the ride-hailing fee to 40-cents-a-ride and “use more of that revenue” to improve bus service.

“We were disappointed that the first batch of revenue from that fee went to rail when we know ride-hailing is having a greater impact on bus ridership and that bus service is in greater need of investment because so little has been done in recent years to make bus service faster and more reliable,” he said.

The CTA has been hemorrhaging bus riders –– with a decline of ten million rides last year and a 21 percent drop over the last six years.

“It’s been pretty consistent and pretty steep each year. Ride hailing is definitely a factor. ..” Whitehead said.

“CDOT and CTA need to be doing more to give buses priority on the street. The [$5 million]…is a step toward that, [but] it’s not enough to reverse a 21 percent ridership decline.”

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) also favors a higher ride-hailing fee to reverse the precipitous decline in bus ridership.

But he has also argued that smaller, less costly improvements could make a big difference on the No. 66 Chicago Ave. route, where travel times have increased dramatically with much of that congestion is caused by ride-share drivers illegally parking and blocking the curb lane.

“We need better enforcement, better signage, better pavement markings – things that will let people know it’s not OK to block traffic with your four-way flashers on. That has a major impact on all traffic, but particularly buses that rely on the curb lane and can’t get to the next bus stop,” Hopkins said then.

“We see travel times going up. That frustrates people. So they give up on the CTA.”

In a press release announcing the $5 million investment, Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld was quoted as saying that the goal is not only speedier, more reliable bus service that attracts more riders. It’s lower CTA costs, improved pedestrian safety and reduced traffic congestion.

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

Whitehead has argued that the concept of dedicated bus lanes on Ashland should be revisited – particularly now that Emanuel has earmarked the corridor for transit-oriented development.