CDOT Is Finally Moving Forward With the Loop BRT Project

Bus Rapid Transit -Washington
Rendering of BRT on Washington at LaSalle.

Last July, City Hall broke the news that the start of construction on the $32.5 million Central Loop BRT project was being delayed from this fall until at least next year, if not later. That spurred concern that the project might be in jeopardy, or that it might be a low priority for Mayor Emanuel. However, the Chicago Department of Transportation today announced it has launched the bidding process for BRT system, as well as the $43 million Union Station Transit Center, and the $75 million Washington/Wabash CTA station.

All three projects will break ground by March 31, according to CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld. The transit center and BRT route will be in operation by the end of 2015, and the station will open in 2016, she said. “Any one of these would be a big deal,” she said. “But it’s exciting for downtown, the neighborhoods, and the region that we’re working on all three – there are synergies between these projects.”

Walter Hook, CEO of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which is consulting on Chicago’s Loop and Ashland BRT projects, previously speculated that Mayor Emanuel had pushed back these initiatives for political reasons. It seems likely that the Loop BRT construction work, and ensuing traffic headaches, won’t begin until after the February 24 election.

The Loop BRT system will feature dedicated bus lanes on Canal, Clinton, Washington and Madison, running between Union Station and Michigan Avenue, plus several other time-saving features. CDOT predicts these will make a westbound trip across the Loop 15 percent shorter, and an eastbound trip 25 percent shorter.

Eight extra-long stations, averaging 90 feet in length, will be built on Washington (at Franklin, LaSalle, Clark, and State) and on Madison (at Franklin, LaSalle, Dearborn, and State). The stations will be long enough to accommodate two articulated buses at a time.

Seven existing stops will be eliminated on Madison (Clark, Wells, and Wacker), Canal (Washington, Monroe, and Van Buren), and Clinton (Van Buren). Having stops roughly every other block, instead of every block, will definitely speed things up.

The buses will get a type of traffic signal prioritization at seven intersections, most of which already give pedestrians a head start on motor vehicle traffic. When pedestrians get the early walk signal, a special signal will also give buses a head start over cars. Since buses won’t be turning right at these intersections, there shouldn’t be conflicts with pedestrians.

All stations will feature level boarding, which will eliminate the time needed to make buses “kneel” for seniors and people with disabilities. However, for starters, only the Madison/Dearborn station will feature prepaid boarding.

Wash_Street
Rendering of BRT station on Washington.

“We’re piloting prepaid boarding at this one high-volume station, where the benefits of reduced dwell time will be most evident,” Scheinfeld said. “We want to make sure the costs and benefits are clear before we go full scale.” CDOT and the CTA are currently considering a few different methods for the prepayment system, including Latin American-style fare gates and New York-style onboard ticket checks.

For the time being, the dedicated bus lanes will not have camera enforcement, since this would require state legislation, according to CDOT spokesman Pete Scales. However, the lanes will be paved with red-tinted concrete, and abundant signage should make it clear that they are intended for buses only, he said.

“We’re going to work with other agencies and stakeholders along the route to make sure that the lanes are enforced and that people know how to use the street,” Scales said. Loading zones along Washington and Madison will be eliminated and deliveries will be made via north-south alleys, Scales said.

Washington will feature island bus stations, with a protected bike lane located between the station and the curb. An existing non-buffered bike lane on Madison will be replaced with a protected lane on Randolph. Scales said the bike lanes will also be tinted green and will have delineators — likely flexible posts — in locations where there are no bus stations, which should discourage motorists from driving and parking in them.

At least two mixed traffic lanes will be maintained on all sections of the route. Right turns for motorists will be banned at four locations: Washington onto LaSalle, Madison onto Dearborn, Madison onto Wacker and Jackson onto Canal. At other intersections, drivers will be permitted to merge across the bus lane and into right turn bays. To avoid conflicts between right-turning motorists and cyclists in the Washington PBL, each mode will get a dedicated signal phase, similar to how things currently work on the Dearborn protected lanes.

Scheinfeld said she’s excited about the final station shelter design. “They have a very open feel, with a lot of space for seating, information panels and bus tracker displays,” she said. Merchants had expressed concerns that the stations would obscure their storefronts. To address this, the shelters are mostly transparent, and advertising panels will be perpendicular to the street.

Notably, the shelters shown in the current renderings look nothing like that shown in previous renderings, which were based on the winner of a station design contest. Instead of enclosed structures, the new shelters are essentially 14-foot-tall canopies with a glass rear wall that stops several feet before the roof. It appears that, in the interest of making the stations unattractive to loiterers, the city ended up with a design that won’t offer much protection from blowing rain and snow.

But that’s a fairly minor criticism. After years of planning, a reasonably robust BRT system finally appears to be moving forward in Chicago.

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke summed up the situation nicely in a statement. “With increasing demand to move around the Loop and limited space, the only way to reduce gridlock and make it easier to get around is by making riding transit, biking and walking more safe and convenient.”

  • JKM13

    Its a good start. The next step is to extend BRT up to Rob Johnson’s large, circular driveway.

  • Busboy

    This should be embraced enthusiastically by everyone commuting by Metra.

  • brian

    This project is a complete boondoggle.

    It’s doubtful legislation will pass to photo enforce the bus lanes, (given that legislatures seem to finally be waking up to the fact that it has nothing to do with safety) so that will likely turn into an additional travel lane. Good news for those who are worried about it slowing down car traffic!

  • TryAgain

    Except in this case, photo enforcement would have little to do with safety and would simply be a tool to keep buses moving efficiently.

  • There will at least be bike lanes on Washington under Ogilvie and over the river *as a part of this project*, right?

  • duppie

    See here for where bike lanes will be installed.
    http://www.chicagotribune.com/ct-downtown-transit-improvements-map-gfc-20140929-htmlstory.html

    And the short answer to your question is: No.

  • Cameras or no cameras enforcement will most likely be an issue going forward. One look at how the existing bus lanes are treated is enough to make me concerned. Yup Jackson, Adams and even Madison have sections of what should be dedicated bus lanes. However, they are constantly treated like a free parking spot or delivery point.

    Hopping onto Google Maps’ Street View at any of these streets gives a good idea of how bad the problem is. Private vehicles, commercial trucks, and the US Postal Service abuse the lanes as they please while occasionally leaving the blinkers on as if that makes it ok.

    The red paint and bigger stations should do a better job than the current white lines and “No Parking” signs in deterring some but I have a feeling only tickets will persuade the rest.

    All that aside I have high hopes for Central Loop BRT and its use as a boost/template for other similar projects in the city. *cough* Ashland *cough*

  • It seems pretty important to reiterate that the number of people going through West Loop Metra Stations daily is equal to the entire population of Naperville (~150,000).

    We’re not all walking that last mile… so anything that moves that mass along faster, especially as cheap as BRT is, represents a good investment. Without looking at any web graphics, I think even Divvy only accounts for about a thousand of this chunk daily.

  • rohmen

    Agreed that success will depend on enforcement going forward.

    Not sure how often it happens, but I did see traffic enforcement officers out yesterday in the loop giving tickets to commercial delivery trucks that were illegally parked on Wells and on Franklin. The problem, though, is to what degree ticketing (when it does occur, which isn’t daily) is just sucked-up by the offending companies as part of the cost of doing business.

    Making things even worse, I thought I had read an article on here (or maybe somewhere else recently) that said the City has a history of allowing delivery companies to cut a deal and settle parking tickets at the end of the year for what amounts to pennies on the dollar. that’ll have to change of loop BRT is going to work.

  • Scott Sanderson

    Outside the Willis Tower, there is supposed to be a dedicated bus lane, but it is always, and I mean always, filled with tourist trolleys visiting the Skydeck.

  • Scott Sanderson

    Divvy does work for this purpose, but every metra commuter to whom I have suggested it said he/she does not feel comfortable biking in the Loop. Who can blame them? There is hardly any bike infrastructure in this area.

  • LupeLoop

    Exactly. And good luck getting the USPS to refrain from parking wherever they please. They don’t even have to pay tickets.

  • High_n_Dry

    Even when you offer to ride with them AND let them use your membership! :)

  • FG

    I’m old enough to remember the brilliant failure of bus lanes in the loop in the 80’s – enforcement was weak (and they ran against traffic in some locations too) and caused confusion. Now on the other hand, signal priority will be huge help – probably even more than a dedicated lane.

  • Anton Cermak

    “a complete boondoggle.” Why?

  • cjlane

    Which makes it more or less likely to be passed in Springfield, in your opinion? Please to explain *why*, too.

  • Fred

    Because brian has a vendetta against traffic cameras. Just ignore him.

  • BlueFairlane

    Well, at least it’s not an incomplete boondoggle. I hate it when they start something they don’t finish.

  • cjlane

    “Eight extra-long stations, averaging 90 feet in length, will be built … on Madison (at … Dearborn, and State)”

    Huh, wha?? They’re planning two stations that are (perhaps) under 400 feet apart (west end of one to east end of the other)? And moving the eastern stop *away* from the consolidated brown line station?

    I know that’s what the Trib graphic shows, but that doesn’t make any sense. The “Dearborn” station will be basically where the existing one is, next to the ex-Sears, and the “State” station should be on the Wabash side of that block, or even east of Wabash. (ETA: Which, I just saw, is how it is depicted in the August 2014 presentation materials).

    ETA: Also, I find it interesting that there are several renderings of Washington, but only one of Madison, and it is exactly the same as one of Washington, less the bike lane.

  • Roland Solinski

    Safety is not the only valid reason to support camera enforcement. Moving buses effectively is absolutely in the public interest.

  • R.A. Stewart

    Less likely to be passed, then. :-/

  • cjlane

    Do you think that plays in Springfield? Simple question.

    More complicated question: Who’s the sponsor? Who co-sponsors? What has to get traded to get downstate support? Illiana? Peotone? What else? Still worth it?

    This isn’t a homerule matter; it *will* require state legislation.

  • cjlane

    He’s still correct that it is doubtful that Springfield would pass legislation that allows for camera enforcement of a bus lane. They have *only* ever allowed camera enforcement of traffic/parking violations based on a safety justification.

    We have to live with the legislature we’ve got, not one that we hope to have. And the one we’ve got is *highly* unlikely to allow camera enforcement of bus lanes,

  • FG

    Would the camera’s be monitored to dispatch cops or just to issue a ticket by mail? If it’s ticket by mail that might still cause blocked lanes for a long time before people get the message.

  • The included bikeway improvements with the project should be good in that regard of getting more people comfortable with biking the Loop.

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