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BRT Opponents at North Side Hearing Frustrated by Open-House Format

6:21 PM CST on December 12, 2013

An aerial view of the hearing at Pulaski Park. Photo: John Greenfield

Tuesday’s South Side hearing for the city’s bus rapid transit plan had light attendance, with about 50 people, most of whom seemed to be proponents, showing up to check out materials, talk with CTA staffers and leave comments. Wednesday’s open house, held at Pulaski Park, 1419 West Blackhawk in Noble Square, had a bigger turnout, with about 130 people and, according to attendees, there was a more even split between supporters and opponents. The latter included members of Roger Romanelli’s anti-BRT group, the Ashland-Western Coalition.

When I arrived near the end of the event, Romanelli seemed upset, and he angrily confronted me after I snapped his picture, insisting that I couldn’t photograph him without his permission. I later learned that another member of the coalition was aggressively approaching attendees inside the open house, asking them to sign a petition against the plan. When a BRT staffer told him to stop, the AWC member cursed him out. One person I spoke to about Romanelli’s agitated state theorized that he was frustrated because the open-house format did not allow the coalition members to state their case against the project in front of the crowd with a microphone.

Roger Romanelli, center, talks with Ted Orosz from New York's MTA about the Select Bus Service. Photo: John Greenfield

Suzi Wahl, a BRT opponent who calls herself an ally of the coalition, said she was also unhappy with the format. “It’s not really a hearing,” she said. “A hearing to me is public commentary in front of each other so we can hear and reflect on what each other says… I mean, this is interesting, but it’s more a dog-and-pony show. It’s presented as a done deal, with all these display boards.”

Wahl added that, despite the opportunities to talk to CTA staff, fill out a comment sheet, add Post-it notes to a giant “roll plot” map of Ashland, and provide testimony to a court reporter, she felt there wasn’t enough opportunity for public input. “The most important form of input is what we hear and say from each other as a community, and there’s no opportunity for that, other than, of course, speaking to each other one-on-one.”

However, CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis responded that the event was, in fact, a hearing. “We’ve used an open house-style format in the past,” she said. “We did it with 95th Street when we were talking about the new terminal. That was the format that we used for that, and the [Federal Transportation Administration] accepts it. They like it in a lot of instances, especially like this one because… when you have a huge document, like an environmental assessment, we have to break it down for people. We can’t expect that everybody’s going to get online and read a 300-page document and appendices.”

An attendee ads a comment on a Post-it to the giant map of Ashland. Photo: John Greenfield

She argued that having the opportunity to speak individually with a CTA staffer can actually be more useful than asking your question in front of an audience. “If you’re waiting to speak with the microphone you might be listening to 15, 20 people comment and never get your question answered,” she said. “And that’s the goal of this, we want people to get their questions answered so they can form an opinion and give us that opinion in writing on the record so it can be part of the formal environmental assessment.”

Lukidis noted that the BRT plan, which includes converting two of the four travel lanes on Ashland to bus-only lanes and prohibiting most left turns, is far from finalized. “This isn’t the final, detailed plan,” she said. “We move into that much later and we want feedback on just a broad vision. Talking about left-hand turns and which ones will come back and which ones will go away permanently, that’s something that we’ll decide on much later. But we want these comments to determine where we would use certain mitigations, so that sort of detail will come, and people will have another opportunity to comment as well.”

Attendee Josh Rosenbluh said he was happy with the way the event was set up. "This is an incredibly informative experience, because there are posters all around here, there are these giant maps going across tables, so you can see the intersections, there’s videos," he said. "There’s at least a dozen people, maybe more than that, from CTA who are answering questions about everything, so I’m just incredibly impressed with the presentation."

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