Pro-BRT Chicagoans Need to Become as Visible as the NIMBYs

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Ashland-Western Coalition leader Roger Romanelli at Orlando Glass. Photo: Mike Brockaway, DNA

The Ashland-Western Coalition, the anti-bus rapid transit group led by Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Fulton/Fulton Market Association, has gotten zero coverage so far in the daily papers, but it looks like that’s about to change. Today Romanelli sent out a bulletin to members that the Sun-Times will be running an article about the CTA’s Ashland Avenue BRT plan and taking a photo of AWC members this Monday, September 16, at 10 a.m. in front of Orlando Glass and Trim, 641 North Ashland.

“Now is the time to stand together,” Romanelli wrote. “We need at least ten people attending to support Orlando. If you don’t want to give your name to the photographer, you don’t have to. Just show up and bring someone with you.” As I’ve written, I don’t care for the fact that the coalition has an anonymous website, and the way Romanelli continues to deny being the group’s leader, although he has led every meeting and been the group’s main spokesman in almost every news article.

CTA Ashland BRT comparison
MEB would likely be slower than the old express bus. Click to enlarge. Chart by Steven Vance and John Greenfield.

More importantly, it’s wrong for the coalition to paint itself as a transit advocacy group and claim that its “Modern Express Bus” counter-proposal is a cheaper, more sensible alternative to BRT. They haven’t provided a cost estimate for the MEB plan, which would include numerous pricey infrastructure improvements as well as hiring onboard “bus marshals” to assist customers. The service would probably be even slower than the old #X9 Ashland Express buses, which averaged 10.3 mph at peak hours, including stops, since MEB would make almost three times as many stops. In contrast, BRT, which would feature dedicated, center-running bus lanes and prepaid, level boarding, would bring bus speeds up to 15.9 mph, almost twice as fast as the current 8.7 mph service.

However, Romanelli deserves some respect for running an effective NIMBY campaign. Although the AWC never put forward any sort of transit improvement plan until the city proposed the Ashland BRT, he was wise to create an alternative proposal, so that he can claim that the coalition is pro-transit, not just anti-BRT. The AWC has steering committee meetings every other Friday at 1 p.m. at First Baptist Congregational Church, 1613 West Washington, and they’ve held several larger forums. They group has garnered plenty of flattering press so far in publications like DNAInfo, The Gazette and Patch.

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CTA rendering of bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue.

Meanwhile, little media attention has been given to the dozens of businesses and organizations that are official supporters of the BRT plan, or the 1,700-plus residents who have signed a petition supporting the plan or contacted their aldermen to endorse it. Sun-Times transportation reporter Rosalind Rossi has a penchant for writing David-and-Goliath stories about conflicts between residents and City Hall. If Rossi follows the template used by almost all local reporters so far, the responses to the coalition members’ claims will come from CTA officials, rather than the many business and community leaders, as well as everyday Chicagoans, who support the BRT plan.

It would be great to see pro-BRT folks stage a rally of their own sometime soon. The status quo of grindingly slow bus service on Ashland hurts a lot of people by making it harder for them to access job and education opportunities.

Meanwhile, Jim Merrell from the Active Transportation Alliance’s Riders for Better Transit campaign tells me they’ll be doing an outreach push in the coming weeks to spread the good word about the benefits of fast, reliable bus service on Ashland. Merrell says they’ll also be doing a BRT campaign activity at the Open Streets car-free event on Milwaukee Avenue between Division Street and Logan Boulevard this Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Active Trans will have a table at Paulina Street until 2 p.m. “We’re putting together a photo stand-in for folks to take their picture with a pro-BRT message and share on social media,” Merrell said. “Hopefully we’ll have a nice visual display of support from lots and lots of folks.”

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