Proponents of effective public transportation made a strong showing at last night’s South Side hearing on the city’s plan for bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue. Dozens of people showed up for an Active Transportation Alliance rally beforehand at the Punch House tavern, 1227 West 18th in Pilsen. Then they marched to the open house at Benito Juarez Community Academy, 1450 West Cermak, where supporters seemed to far outnumber opponents of the plan.
A few speakers addressed the crowd at the bar. Dennis ONeill, director of the Near West community organization Connecting4Communities said his group endorses BRT because plenty of development is already slated for the area. “The Illinois Medical District has a lot of plans to develop the vacant land around the medical district, one of the largest medical districts in the country, while we have 90 acres in Roosevelt Square, one of the largest Hope VI redevelopments of federal public housing in the country,” he said. “Ashland Avenue goes right through both of those, so it’s very important to our community that we have efficient, innovative transportation.”
Pilsen resident Michael Whalen told the audience BRT will help him move around the city more efficiently. “I’m looking forward to a bypass to get around downtown when I’m trying to go visit people on the Northwest Side,” he said. “Getting to the Blue Line will be a lot faster. I have friends around Midway Airport – getting out there is going to be a lot easier too.”
William Duncan, the bar’s manager, told me BRT will bring more customers. “Anything that makes it easier for folks to get to other parts makes sense to me,” he said. “I think it will be great for our business. Pilsen is a wonderful community of cultural significance. There’s a lot of things to do here. Folks from the North Side to the South Side ought to be able to access our neighborhood easily. Rapid transit along Ashland would certainly help with that.”
Attendee Toby Schwartz said fast buses will make it easier to explore new neighborhoods. “I feel like a lot of times we end up getting trapped in our own little neighborhoods, our own kind of tiny little spheres, mostly because it takes so long to get somewhere else, because transit can be such a hassle,” she said. “So to be able to get really quickly to a different part of the city is really exciting. You can go more places and see more things.”
Holding “Yes! BRT” signs aloft, the group walked a few blocks through the snowy streets to the high school. There, residents could peruse display boards about the project, page through weighty binders with graphs and charts, talk with CTA staffers, fill out comment sheets, leave notes about their concerns on a giant map of the entire corridor, and give testimony to a court reporter. Although the room was full of people, there seemed to be a relatively low turnout of civilians, probably due to the frigid temperatures rather than a lack of publicity, since the CTA did a good job of getting the word out. I didn’t notice any members of Roger Romanelli’s anti-BRT group the Ashland Western Coalition.