Emanuel Promises Plenty of Opportunities for Public Input on Ashland BRT

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Emanuel discusses BRT at a press event at the Forest Park bus garage in July. Photo: John Greenfield

Today’s Sun-Times article on the city’s plans to implement fast, efficient bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue and in the Loop didn’t provide much new information on the projects, and it included a few errors. However, it did provide a bit of a window on the mayor’s thoughts on the subject.

“Chicago is ‘nowhere close to making decisions’ about bringing Bus Rapid Transit lanes to a 16-mile stretch of Ashland Avenue, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday, arguing that downtown may get express bus lanes first,” wrote City Hall reporter Fran Spielman. Actually, the city long ago made it clear that the Central Loop (East-West) BRT, running two miles from Union Station to Navy Pier, would be implemented first, with service expected to begin next year. Phase I of the Ashland project, a 5.4-mile stretch from 31st Street to Cortland Street, wouldn’t even start construction until 2015, with service launching by the end of the year or in early 2016.

“We’re looking at rapid transit as it relates to downtown, before we even get to Ashland,” Emanuel reportedly told Spielman at a small business roundtable Wednesday. “This is a discussion phase. But, we have to expand and continue to modernize our infrastructure so people can get from home to work efficiently … or to another neighborhood.” He said downtown BRT is his first priority because the Loop has the worst congestion in the city.

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Rendering of Central Loop BRT on Washington Street.

Emanuel promised that there would be plenty of opportunities for the public to provide input on the Ashland project. The CTA is holding a series of community meetings this fall. “Before we do it, we’re going to do exactly the right thing to do, which is talk to families and businesses there,” the mayor said. Asked about plans to prohibit most left turns on Ashland, he replied, “We’re nowhere close to making a decision. That’s where consultants come in.”

Later in the article, Spielman does a decent job of summarizing the Ashland project, although she states that the CTA estimates BRT buses would run 80 percent faster when the number is actually 83 percent, but perhaps I’m nitpicking here. She does seem a bit confused by the new layout of the street, which she says would include “a landscaped median that may include a CTA station.” Actually, it’s certain that the medians will contain the new BRT stops – that’s why they’re called “median stations.”

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CTA rendering of BRT on Ashland.

Annoyingly, Spielman repeats an error from a previous Sun-Times meeting writeup of a September BRT info session by transportation reporter Rosalind Ross. Spielman writes, “During a CTA briefing last month, even some supporters of the plan criticized the city’s decision to ban almost all left turns on an arterial street.”

Only one BRT supporter at that meeting, Streetsblog contributor Lindsay Bayley, brought up the idea of allowing more left turns, and Lindsay told me she herself isn’t opposed to the left-turn ban. She simply suggested that allowing more lefts might be considered as a way to alleviate residents’ and business owners’ concerns.

Today’s Sun-Times article also quotes Steve DeBretto, executive director of the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago, also featured in a recent BRT piece in the Tribune, voicing opposition to the left-turn ban. “The way the plan is written, semi-trucks would be making three right turns to go left. If you did that at either the north or south end of our industrial corridor, you’d be sending those tractor trailers through residential neighborhoods and past elementary schools.” Actually, it will be fairly simple for truckers to plan their routes avoid left turns. Delivery companies like UPS already do this to save time and gas.

As is the norm with mainstream articles about Chicago’s BRT plan, Spielman provides the city’s perspective plus quotes from the opposition. In future Sun-Times coverage, it would be great to see some input from one of the 30-plus business and community organizations that are official BRT backers. Checking in with one or two of the 1,800-plus residents who have signed an Active Transportation Alliance petition endorsing the plan, or contacted the alderman to endorse it, would be even better.