Union Station Transit Center Will Open Sunday, Easing Train/Bus Transfers

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For starters, the new transit center has a sign with a very cool font. Photo: John Greenfield

This afternoon officials cut the ribbon on the Union Station Transit Center, a new facility across the street from the Amtrak and Metra hub that will make it easier to make transfers and will better organize West Loop traffic. The transit center opens to the public this Sunday. It’s the latest step in the development of the Loop Link bus rapid transit route, which debuted on Washington and Madison Streets last December.

The USTC is located just south of the train station, at Jackson Boulevard and Canal Street, on land formerly occupied by a surface parking lot, which the city acquired by eminent domain. The following bus routes will use the transit center:

The transit center itself consists of bus boarding areas with weather protection, seats, Ventra machines, and bus tracker displays. Like much of the transit infrastructure the city builds nowadays (see the Loop Link stations and the upcoming Washington-Wabash ‘L’ station), the skeletal forms of the USTC shelters seem inspired by the work of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

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There’s a large gap between the backglass of the shelters and the canopies, which will be aggravating during heavy rain or snow. Photo: John Greenfield

And, annoyingly, like the Loop Link shelters, the backs of the USTC shelters stop several feet before the canopies. That means, as with the Loop Link facilities, they will provide less weather protection than a standard CTA bus shelter and the seats will get wet in heavy rain. It would be great if the city could figure out way to deter long-term loitering in facilities like these while still allowing the shelters to serve their intended purpose – keeping commuters dry while they wait for buses.

On the plus side, the USTC will allow for relatively seamless transitions between CTA buses and Amtrak and Metra trains. Instead of having to cross a street to get to Union Station, riders can takes a new staircase or elevator to and from the bus station. Unfortunately, unlike many CTA stations, there’s no escalator option.

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The new stairway and elevator to the Union Station concourse. Photo: John Greenfield

Meanwhile, the Chicago Department of Transportation is reconfiguring Canal Street between Jackson and Adams Street to make it function better as part of Loop Link. The east side of Canal between Jackson and Adams, on the east side of Union Station, is now reserved for bus and wheelchair vehicle pick-up and drop-off only, while the west side is for all other through traffic including taxi and passenger car pick-up-and drop-off. CDOT has also added a pedestrian island and mid-block crossing on Canal. There will also be a dedicated traffic light for buses exiting the USTC.

The old northbound conventional bike lane on Canal was removed as part of the project and replaced by a two-way protected bike lane one block west on Clinton Street. While the PBL currently goes no further south than Jackson, it will soon be extended three more blocks to meet up with protected bike lanes on Harrison Street.

At this afternoon’s event, CDOT commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld argued that the transit center will benefit all travelers, not just transit users. “By creating this off-street space for CTA buses to load and unload passengers, and layovers between runs, the USTC will also improve traffic flow around Union Station by removing buses [from surrounding streets].”

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The “invigorating” artwork by James Jankowiak. Photo: John Greenfield

CTA president Dorval Carter, Jr. praised the artwork created for the shelters by local artist and educator James Jankowiak – waves of rainbow-colored dots on the glass back panels – which Carter called “vibrant and invigorating.” Carter said the design is supposed to symbolize the movements of Chicago’s color-coded transit lines.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the USTC is part of efforts to optimize the potential of Union Station, which he said currently “fights below its weight class,” although it handles some 120,000 passengers a day, significantly more than Midway Airport. “This investment is part of our effort to make Union Station a real economic engine,” he said.

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, who helped secure the $30 million in federal funds used for the $41 million project, took a moment to thank President Obama, who has only a few months left in office, for supporting funding for initiatives like this. “It’s been a blessing for us as a state and the city of Chicago to have someone in the White House who understands this city, this region, and this state.”

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Dick Durbin speaks at today’s ribbon cutting. Photo: John Greenfield

Durbin joked that he preferred not to refer to the USTC as an “intermodal” facility, a word he said lacks romance. “I don’t know who made up that word, but it had to be someone sitting at a desk who never rode on a train like the California Zephyr,” he said. “I don’t use that word in polite company. What we have here is a transit center across the street from a 2oth Century palace of transportation.”

Durbin noted that the job of the Union Station Master Plan is to bring the facility into the 21st Century. As part of the plan, earlier this summer the engineering firm Arup began the next phase of planning, historic review and preliminary engineering for the restoration and renovation of the station. The design work includes expanded concourses and entrances, widening of platforms, ADA compliance, pedestrian passageways and issues related to ventilation.

Recently the upscale Legacy Club and Metropolitan Lounge opened at the station, air conditioning was added to the Great Hall, and the hall’s staircases, made famous in the movie “The Untouchables,” were refurbished. Amtrak is currently conducting a request for proposal process to select a “master developer” to lead the full implementation of the master plan, including redeveloping the Amtrak-owned station and surrounding land parcels, as well as making improvements to passenger and employee facilities.

While the Union Station Transit Center, as well as the Loop Link corridors on Washington and Madison, represent progress in terms of transit infrastructure, Loop Link still isn’t living up to its full potential in terms of improved bus speeds. One major issue is the frequent use of the red bus-only lanes by unauthorized vehicles such as shuttle buses, delivery vehicles, taxis, and private cars, as highlighted by the #NotaCTABus Twitter campaign.

Following the ribbon cutting, CDOT’s Scheinfeld acknowledged the problem but said she believes the situation is improving as all road users get used to the street layout. She suggested that citizens intervene if they see a violation. “If you see someone that’s not following the rules of the road there, gently remind them and help make people aware… ‘Hey, this is a bus lane.’”

“When I’m walking down the corridor and I see people who are not aware, like a truck driver idling in the wrong place, I have a conversation with that person and make sure they’re aware of their options, especially if it’s someone making a regular delivery,” Scheinfeld said.

Shuttle bus lines, whose vehicles frequently appear in #NotaCTA Bus tweets, are some of the worst Loop Link offenders. Scheinfeld said these companies have been notified that it’s illegal for their buses to use the red lanes and police do sometimes ticket their drivers. “Certainly [shuttle bus violations] happen, but I wouldn’t call it a standard practice,” she said.

The commissioner didn’t say whether the city is considering introducing camera enforcement of the bus lanes, which has been effective in cities like New York. “Certainly some folks have suggested that,” she acknowledged. “But that’s something that would require state legislation.”

If Loop Link scofflaws continue to be a frequent problem, hopefully the city will take a serious look at camera enforcement of the lanes.

  • ardecila

    The partial-height walls on the shelters also allow for ventilation, so there is air movement through the shelter on hot days. I don’t think the protection will be any worse than the standard CTA bus shelter. I’ve waited at a Loop Link station in a heavy storm – the shelter helped, but there was still tons of wind-driven rain coming from the street side, which is obviously wide open. A fully enclosed shelter would solve that problem, but it would have issues with cooling/ventilation and odors.

    I think the bigger shortcoming at the new bus terminal is the lack of heat lamps ala CTA platforms. I fear that you could end up with a situation where riders wait in the narrow pedway during cold or inclement weather and cause an unsafe situation.

  • JKM13

    Ugh those Scheinfeld quote.

    So basically CDOT won’t be doing anything about it. I’m guessing in a few years, all loop link will be is the shelters.

  • RW

    No kidding. I’m sure all the charter busses will happily move if we just tap on the window and ask nicely

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    I’m just impressed that the CTA was able to program one of the signs on their busses properly.

  • simple

    I question the effectiveness of needling the CDOT Commissioner, who has no authority to make camera enforcement laws for bus lanes. How about communicating these concerns with your State Legislature? They’re the ones that actually make laws.

  • Jeff Carlson

    While I think the new transit center is a plus, the traffic situation on Canal in front of Union Station will remain a mess unless the city enforces the new lane configuration. Like the rest of LoopLink, there is no enforcement. Passenger drop-offs and waiting vehicles are blocking bus lanes, so commuter buses blast their horns, taxis are stacked up on Jackson and using the new mid-street cross-walk, if it’s not being blocked by an Uber, is risky business. Why can’t Union Station have the same ticket-writing enforcement that we see at O’Hare’s drop-off lanes?

    I hope once the lanes are painted it will help.
    There’s a link here to what Canal was supposed to look like, but the plan in front of Union Station has been scaled back. http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/cdot/supp_info/central_loop_busrapidtransit.html

  • Anne A

    That’s a very pretty stairway. However, for as often as CTA station elevators malfunction, the lack of escalators seems like a shortsighted omission that may be a problem for people with mobility issues who are not in wheelchairs.

  • GA

    The city needs to switch to automated enforcement of bus and bike facilities with stiff fines and a crapload more concrete/steel to keep different modes where they should be. No more flexible plastic posts or paint alone to demarcate the difference between a traffic lane and a bus/bike lane.

  • Pat

    I understand state law might have to be changed for camera enforcement for moving violations.

    But, doesn’t the city already use cameras to ticket parking violations though? Why can’t bus drivers be trained for parking enforcement and start ticketing vehicles in bus lanes that are stopped/parked as parking violations? This could be especially useful in the bus lane that is supposed to be free on Clark b/t Diversey and Armitage during the rush and enforcement at ALL bus stops.

  • JKM13

    If CDOT or the city showed a successful, functioning loop link was something they prioritized, i’d be glad to make calls / write letters in support.

    But, if the response is basically ‘eh, what can you do, out of our hands’, I’m not going to waste my time shouting into the wind.

    And for the record, I have written the CDOT and the CTA about Loop Link, and haven’t received the benefit of a response.

  • planetshwoop

    Giiven how truly awful Union Station was this is a good and needed first step.

    Also, since Adams has been closed for bridge work, it’s amazing how nice it is to cross the street to get onto the train. It would be nice to consider closing that road sometimes so it can be a ped bridge. It’s crazy that with the thousands and thousands of passengers each day are squeezed onto the sidewalk instead of allowing some of the roads to be closed to just let people walk to where they need to go. Seems like an ideal little parklet…

  • Anne A

    On a hot day, that ventilation is worth a lot.

  • simple

    So, contrary to what you say about wasting your time, you are indeed willing to “shout into the wind” — but apparently only in forums where it won’t be effective (CDOT management, CTA management, this blog), but not where it will (elected officials). That’s why I questioned the effectiveness if your strategy. Neither CDOT nor CTA has any statutory authority to enforce the lane. You can complain to them and the readers of this blog about inadequate laws until you’re blue in the face and it won’t accomplish anything. If laws need changing only legislators can do that. CDOT and CTA administrators don’t control Springfield’s legislative agenda. However, citizens and advocates can influence their legislators.

  • JKM13

    Thanks for the schoolhouse rock lesson.

    In reality, no one in the state legislature is going to take a political risk on a contentious issue, when the city who would benefit from it can’t even bother to consistently enforce with tools *already* available.

    CDOT and CTA do have leverage within the city to enforce these lanes now (or to pilot pre-boarding payment, or to run busses at reasonable speeds) and have chosen not to.

    Note the rate of change of new infrastructure when Gabe Klein was in charge of CDOT. Nearly all of these required coordinating with other agencies/departments, and all presented opportunities to kill/severely diminish the projects. Without that voice pushing for change, we get lackluster BRT, ruined bike lanes, 4 year closures/detours to implement the LSD bypass, etc etc

  • neroden

    They actually opened the mid-block pedestrian island on Canal? I’ve been wondering for months when they’d do that!

  • neroden

    It’s a rather cramped location underground, and I think this is all they could fit in. If the elevator is out of service, cross the street.

  • neroden

    Actually, y’know what? Anyone is allowed to take cellphone photographs of lawbreaking cars and charter buses in the bus lanes, and send them to the police. The police are fully authorized to issue tickets based on such evidence. Why aren’t they bothering?

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