While Pawar Leads on BRT, Waguespack and Cardenas Hem and Haw

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Scott Waguespack and George Cardenas.

Tribune transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch was on the wrong side of history when he more-or-less predicted Divvy would flop. He eventually acknowledged the bike-share program’s success, but he’s made the same mistake with this morning’s Getting Around column, an unflattering portrayal of the CTA’s plan for fast, reliable bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue.

Hilkevitch seems to live in an alternate reality where all Chicago aldermen and almost all business people and residents think BRT is a bad idea. He didn’t bother to talk with 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar, who has shown strong support for the plan, tweeting “I can’t wait for Ashland BRT.” He didn’t contact anyone from the thirty-plus organizations and businesses listed as official supporters on the BRT Chicago website. And he apparently didn’t speak with any of the 1,700 citizens who have endorsed the plan by signing an Active Transportation Alliance petition or contacting their alderman. It also wouldn’t have hurt to consult an actual transit planner who has experience with this type of project and its effects.

Instead, while the Trib piece does a decent job of outlining how BRT will work, the commentary mostly consists of aldermen, business leaders and an ex-taxi driver expressing misgivings about the plan, plus a few potshots from the reporter himself. Following the template almost all local journalists have used so far, Hilkevitch gave almost no airtime to BRT supporters, save for city officials.

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Alderman Pawar previously supported efforts to save the Lincoln Avenue bus. Photo: DNA Chicago

“Push-back on the estimated $160 million project, which lacks a clear source of funding, is as far-reaching as its ambition,” Hilkevitch writes. Actually, the city plans to apply for grants from the Federal Transportation Administration’s Small Starts program, which provides funding for capital costs associated with new rail systems and line extensions, as well as bus corridor improvements. The Emanuel administration has an impressive track record of securing federal funds for innovative transportation projects, so a Small Starts grant is a likely scenario.

32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack, generally a progressive on transportation issues, but one who seems to have an odd blind spot when it comes to innovative uses of the public way, is quoted as a BRT skeptic. “The mayor wants to see this project done at any cost, so I think it is going to move forward no matter what,” he said.

Bike-friendly 12th Ward Alderman George Cardenas is another doubting Thomas. “The proponents are just like salesmen. They are set on selling you that car,” he told Hilkevitch. “But you start digging and you hit rock, you find out it is not as good as you are being told it is.” The alderman argued that BRT would be more appropriate on Western Avenue because it runs through more working-class communities, even though Ashland has the highest bus ridership of all CTA routes, with more than 31,000 boardings per weekday.

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CTA rendering of bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue.

If Cardenas really wants BRT on Western, the best thing he can do is to support building it on Ashland, which will prove that repurposing car lanes for bus lanes will work in Chicago, like it has in many other cities. It seems more likely that he’s looking for excuses not to support the plan. Waguespack and Cardenas should take leadership lessons from Pawar, who has the guts to speak up for a proposal he knows is good for Chicago, even if it doesn’t have unanimous support from his constituents.

Former cabbie Martin Swift, who also showed up for a Sun-Times interview session the anti-BRT group the Ashland-Western Coalition helped organize, argued the redesign will cause carmageddon. Interestingly, the article has no mention of the coalition.

“If a motorist just tries to remember the last time a busy four-lane thoroughfare was under construction and narrowed to one lane in each direction, it becomes quite simple to see why there is resistance,” Swift said. He obviously doesn’t recall when Congress Parkway was reduced to two lanes in each direction for a recent rehab project, or when the north-south portion of Wacker Drive shut down for reconstruction. People simply chose different routes or opted not to drive downtown, and the traffic nightmare was averted. While an ex-taxi driver has a unique perspective on traffic, it’s interesting Hilkevitch thought his opinion was more valid than that of an actual transit/transportation engineer.

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Sun-times reporter Rosalind Rossi interviews BRT opponents. Photo: John Greenfield

Hilkevitch assets that “Cars, trucks and the non-BRT No. 9 Ashland all-stop local bus would all be crowded into the single right lane in each direction, likely resulting in most drivers being stuck behind the No. 9.” Cars getting stuck behind local buses wouldn’t be any more of a problem than it currently is on two-lane bus routes like Hasted Street and Damen Avenue. And since the Ashland locals would run infrequently, perhaps once or twice an hour, chiefly to serve people whose mobility challenges make it difficult to travel an extra block or two to BRT stations, this issue would be minimized.

The only civilian endorsement of the plan in the article comes from Burt Klein, president of Portion Pac cleaning products, 400 North Ashland. “Everybody has their work cut out for them to make this work,” he said. “But I think it’s worth the time and effort to keep the jobs here in the city.” When I spoke to Klein at a community meeting in January, he said he was interested in creating a better way for his employees to get to work car-free.

Hilkevitch says “civic and environmental groups” back the plan because reducing car traffic and increasing transit use is “a way to promote a world-class image for Chicago,” which makes fighting congestion sound like a rather elitist goal. He doesn’t mention that organizations ranging from the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to the AARP to the Illinois Medical District are official supporters of the plan because converting car trips to bus trips is a commonsense way to move people more efficiently, improve traffic safety, and boost the local economy.

  • Anonymous

    As a BRT skeptic, it’s reassuring to see alderman who are viewed as transportation progressives share my doubts. I genuinely don’t think this is a case of grumpy nimby-ism, it’s just a case of the cons outweighing the pros, nothing more. That these particular alderman don’t unconditionally follow progressive ideals and are willing to judge things on ALL of their merits is nice to see. Fwiw Pawar is my alderman and I still like the guy quite a bit.

  • Cynic the cynic

    Fwiw waguespack isn’t a progressive, just a contrarian. It’s less about the policy in front of him than whether he can position himself as anti-city hall. It’s not always a bad thing, but it is wearing thin. Just look at the last few times he’s come up in this very blog.

  • Chicagio

    Since when is supporting BRT a progressive ideal? Deep red Houston, Phoenix, and Nashville all have some form of BRT. I’m sure they would be surprised to be accused of following any sort of “progressive ideals.” When a structural engineer decides to use a particular beam to support a building, is he guilty of following “progressive ideals?” Isn’t designing the best solution to solve a problem a universal ideal?

    As far as those alderman judging things on their merits, I didn’t read any quote in that article from them that represented a critique on the project’s merits.

  • Anonymous

    So you say, Rahm lover. Joe Lake, Chicago

  • Anonymous

    Well, I have no idea what they said about the BRT beyond what was quoted. Maybe they made more specific criticisms, maybe not. Since they’re alderman I’ll assume they’re relative well-informed.

    As for this being a progressive ideal, come on, are you seriously going to argue that a BRT doesn’t qualify? It’s “alternative transportation”, and more specifically, something whose goal is displace auto traffic – how is this not a progressive ideal?? It’s fine that it is, but there’s no point in denying it and playing it off as something else. Just own it.

  • As I often say, you can say what you like about the major’s record on education, crime, privatization, etc., but when it comes to transportation, he has generally done the right stuff.

  • Chicagio

    I didn’t hear anything of substance but I’ll assume the aldermen have legitimate critiques and are not just trying to get their name in the paper because ….?

    Also, you didn’t respond to my point… if areas of clearly not-progressive political dominance have implemented BRT, how can it solely be a progressive concept?

  • Anonymous

    Because it’s their job and they have decent enough credibility. Pawar didn’t offer much detail on this either yet what a shock, you don’t have any problem with him or make any baseless accusatory comments towards him. I guess you only fabricate motivations for the politicians who see things differently than you.

  • Chicagio

    The CTA has argued why BRT would be a good thing. To say you support this proposal, as Ald. Pawar has, is to say that you accept their position. To disagree with it, you must offer an alternative or, at least, justification for disagreeing with credentialed transportation planners.

  • Anonymous

    I have offered both alternatives and justifications ad nauseum. For now, I’m avoiding arguments about the pros and cons of the BRT until CMAP decides to actually disclose more about their process and assumptions.

  • Chicagio

    That’s certainly a different tune than your original comment where you assert that “cons just outweigh the pros.”

    So what you’re saying is that you don’t support BRT, unless asked why and then there isn’t enough information to discuss the previously stated proposal you don’t support.

  • Anonymous

    No, what I’m saying is your antagonism bores me, so I’m opting not to get into it.

  • Hey guys, let’s try to keep the discussion civil. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Not often cited: the rapid transit stations on Western are handicap accessible; while the ones on Ashland are not. Was this ever taken into consideration?

  • Matt Nardella

    I might be missing something in Hilkevitch or Rossi articles, but the I am still waiting to read an article that cites an actual urban designer or architect that feels the BRT will negatively impact Ashland or the rest of the City. It seems like lazy journalism to throw out an opinion veiled under the citation of “some people say”. Sure, and ex-cabbie drives a lot, but Im not sure that makes him or her an expert on the impact of public transportation infrastructure.

  • Anonymous

    “since the Ashland locals would run infrequently, perhaps once or twice an hour”

    should be:

    “Since the Ashland locals will be discontinued for low ridership shortly after completion of the whole route”

  • You are correct that the eventual elimination of local service is a strong possibility, and that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

  • Anonymous

    All my kvetching about this relates to the partly disingenuous sales pitch, and the ‘hide the ball’ on various would-be-controversial bits of the probable end result, both of which are done consciously (by some) to avoid more opposition to the project. I think it’s an anti-democratic process to avoid objection from (yes) NIMBYs and others who (as is human nature) have some basis to fear change/the unknown.

    The damn project should include elimination of the local as soon as the BRT is running, considerably modified parking, and separated bike lanes. It should eliminate ped crossings at (most/all) non-signaled intersections, it should eliminate left turns *onto* Ashland except at signals. And all of that should be sell-able as *positives*, instead of the kludge we have with hidden future likely changes (which is VERY ‘Chciago way’–“we can’t tell you what’s really going on, because then you’d bitch and moan”). But if it *did* include all of that expressly, then the Anti-s would have a lot more ammo to fight with, and it would be harder to brand them all as ‘anti-transit, car-loving, nimbys”.

  • Alex Oconnor

    No. You are not missing anything. Entrenched habit, fear of change of the status quo, an alarming lying campaign by Roger Romanelli and his “Ashland-Western” and the reactionary politics of journalists like Hilkevitch simply inform their confirmation bias.

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