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With Limited Resources, Pace Considers Reshuffling Express Service Along I-55

A route 855 express bus leaves the Magnificent Mile. Photo: Igor Studenkov

Pace suburban bus employees didn’t try to sugarcoat it -- until the state gets a capital budget, the agency has only has so much money to work with. So any time they want to beef up service anywhere, something else has to be cut.

Late last year, Pace approved cuts and service reductions to a number of routes in order to put more resources into other existing services. Now, Pace is looking at the express bus service along I-55, aka the Stevenson Expressway. In order to beef up service on overcrowded Route 855, the agency is considering cutting Route 856, which provides express services between the Loop and the stadium in south-suburban Bridgeview where the Chicago Fire soccer team plays. Although 856 ridership has been growing, it is much lower than other express buses.

However, the new 855 route will still stop at the stadium with the same schedule as before. Route 850, which serves Bollingbrook, and Route 755, which serves Plainfield, will get extra morning trips. And most express buses will no longer stop at Bollingbrook’s Old Chicago Drive Park-n-Ride facility.

The Pace board is scheduled to vote on the changes at its March 13 meeting. If approved, the changes will take effect in April 8.

The I-55 express buses trace their roots to Route 855, which launched in 1987 to provide services to southwestern suburbs that had no Metra service, including Romeoville, Bollingbrook and Burr Ridge. The route was later expanded to Plainfield. As ridership grew, three more routes were added to relieve some of the overcrowding. Route 755 connects Plainfield and Bollingbrook to the Illinois Medical District and southern portions of the Loop. Route 850 connects northern Bollingbrook to the Loop and the Magnificent Mile, while Route 851 provides service from the Old Chicago Park-n-Ride and Romeoville’s White Fence Farm Park-n-Ride.

Current Pace I-55 express routes.
Current Pace I-55 express routes.

In 2011, new state legislation allowed Pace buses to use I-55’s shoulder if the traffic drops below 30 miles mph. According to the Pace, this improved on-time performance from 70 percent to 90 percent, and the combined ridership quadrupled.

From the get-go, 855 and other I-55 routes offered more amenities than regular routes. The routes have used coach-style buses, and they were the first routes to get Wi-Fi. The fares reflect those extras. The premium fare routes cost $4.50 – twice Pace’s cash fares for regular routes, and premium monthly passes cost $140 a month – more than twice as much as $60 regular Pace monthly passes and 33 percent more than $105 CTA/Pace passes.

On Oct. 24, 2016, Pace launched Route 856 to provide express service between the soccer stadium, downtown Chicago and the Magnificent Mile, with a stop at the intersection of Harlem and Archer avenues on the border of Chicago and Summit. Unlike other express buses, it provided a mid-day inbound trip and outbound trip, and a late-evening inbound trip that left the Magnificent Mile at 9 p.m. and arrived at the stadium at 10:02 p.m.


Pace spokeswoman Maggie Daly Skogsbakken said that the transit agency’s market research indicated that there was “a potential commuter market” for residents who travel downtown for work. Since Pace was already building a transit center at the south end of the stadium’s east parking lot, it made sense to put a stop there.

It should be noted that the area already had transit service. Route 386 stops within walking distance of the stadium, at the intersection of Harlem Avenue and 71st Street, connecting Bridgeview to Midway Airport. Riders can transfer to the Orange line, which provides a slower, but cheaper and more frequent alternative for Loop-bound commuters.

However, a little more than two years later, Pace announced that it was considering cancelling the 856 route, which the agency said wasn’t getting much ridership. Pace planner Jason Wald told me that it was a matter of reshuffling resources to where they would do most good. “[We have] low ridership on 856, and overcrowding on 855,” he said. “It’s killing two birds with one stone.”

Ridership statistics compiled by the Regional Transportation Authority shows that overall, Route 856 use has been going up. It averaged between 12-28 riders a day in 2017 and 26-41 riders a day in 2018. But it still had the lowest ridership of the five I-55 premium routes. Route 855 in particular had 481-55 riders a day in 2017 and 464-606 riders a day in 2018.

It should be noted that Route 386 has significantly higher ridership than routes 855 and 856 – though it isn’t clear how much of that ridership came from the 71st Street-Midway Airport segment and how much of it came from the portion further south.

A Pace stop at the soccer stadium. Photo: Igor Studenkov
A Pace stop at the soccer stadium. Photo: Igor Studenkov
A Pace stop at the soccer stadium. Photo: Igor Studenkov

Under the proposed changes, Pace would shift inbound and unbound Route 856 rush hour trips to Route 855. The buses would start at Burr Ridge and travel to the stadium , leaving the transit center at the same time as Route 856 rush-hour buses currently do and making the same Harlem/Archer stop.

Daly Skogsbakken confirmed that mid-day and late evening trips would not be carried over to Route 855. The transit agency would use the funds from those trips to beef up other I-55 routes. Route 755 would get an additional inbound trip that would leave Plainfield at 7:40 a.m. and travel straight to the Illinois Medical District without stopping in Bollingbrook. This would fill in the gap between the 7:15 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. trip

Route 850 would get an additional inbound trip of its own that would leave Bollingbrook at 5:00 a.m., Under the current schedule, the earliest bus leaves the Park-n-Ride at 5:35 a.m.

Finally, service to Old Chicago Park-n-Ride would be cut back. Under the current schedule, routes 755 and 851 stop there, and so do certain “combination trips” – early morning, early afternoon and evening trips that function as more than one route – stop there. The proposed change would have all but Route 755 skip it. Daly Skogsbakken said that it was a simple matter of encouraging commuters to use a larger parking lot.

“The Old Chicago Park-n-Ride has space constraints and is often over capacity,” she explained. “The service is just rerouting to White Fence Farms where capacity is not an issue. “

Before voting on the changes, Pace arranged two community forums to get public input – the Feb. 11 forum at Bollingbrook Village Hall and the Feb. 12 forum at the soccer stadium. At the later forum, which Pace estimated was attended by 17 people, several participants argued that the transit agency didn’t do enough to advertise Route 856. Pace community relations rep Jessica Rybarczyk responded with surprise, saying that they did extensive outreach not just in Bridgeview, but in other nearby municipalities.

Loraine Snorden, Pace’s deputy executive director for strategic services, said that, should the the agency's board approve the changes, Pace will ramp up advertising “to make sure more people know about it.”

And, when asked about crowding not just on Route 855, but other express buses, she readily admitted that there is only so much Pace can do. “Unfortunately, it goes back to not having enough resources to provide equipment,” Snorgen said.

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