Of the four potential designs for what's been described as Chicago's most advanced transportation project, none of the revised "bus rapid transit" plans completely eliminate parking or narrow sidewalks along Ashland and Western avenues, experts said.
The evolving grant-funded Chicago Transit Authority project would give "super express" buses exclusive lanes for a combined 21 miles on the two streets.
CTA and Chicago Department of Transportation representatives were on hand Tuesday night to answer questions in the first of three open houses intended to collect public feedback on the project.
The second forum was held Wednesday and a third—at Lane Tech College Prep High School in North Center—is slated for Thursday.
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The bus rapid transit or "BRT" pilot project will run between Howard and 95th streets, officials have said, and finalized routes will likely mirror the existing ones for the corridors—Ashland bus No. 9 and Western bus No. 49.
A proposed Ashland route would run directly through areas including Lincoln Park, Lake View, Bucktown and Wicker Park, and slightly southeast of Lincoln Square. The Western route would cruise directly through Lincoln Square, North Center and along the western Bucktown-Wicker Park border.
"This is all about the neighborhoods," CTA Spokeswoman Limbrini Lukidis told Patch at the Humboldt Park open house Tuesday night. "Chicago has such a strong network of neighborhoods and we fully recognize that. This is a way for us to enhance life in the communities that include some of our highest ridership."
The Ashland and Western routes make up the second-largest north-south corridors in the entire CTA network, Lukidis said, while explaining why it was chosen for BRT. Another reason is the width of the streets—70 feet from curb to curb—can accommodate bus-only lanes with a minimal effect on traffic or pedestrians, experts said.
"We've also found, through our studies, that 45,000 residents from Howard, all the way down south, don't have access to a car," Lukidis said.
CDOT Acting Deputy Commissioner Scott Kubly said the BRT goal is to create "as rail-like an experience on buses as we can" including fewer stops and more reliability. Though buses only make up 1 percent of traffic traveling Western and Ashland, they comprise nearly 50 percent of the travelers, he said.
The two routes were originally identified, Kubly stressed, because of their need for improvement—a fact CTA rider Jake Werner, 34, can vouch for.
"I use the Western and Ashland bus," the Ravenswood resident said at the open house. "Riding either of them is miserable. They are so slow. These plans will make it much better to ride these things and I think, much better to walk around these areas."
A Chicago route giving the method a test drive next month is the No. 14 Jeffery Express bus, referred to by CTA project planners as the "Jeffrey Jump."
BRT plans for that project include rush hour buses riding between 67th and 83rd streets in recently completed curb-running lanes, one on each side.
The lanes don't disrupt parking there, as it's already prohibited during that time frame. The project came with an $11 million price tag, while a similar, Central Loop corridor BRT plan is costing nearly $32 million, some of which will be financed through federal grants, the rest Tax Increment Financing dollars.
BRT creation for Western and Ashland is expected to start once federal grant funding becomes available. And CTA Strategic Planning & Policy Manager Joe Iacobucci says it's expected to cost anywhere from $107 to $175 million, depending on the design.
Among decisions still on the table is whether the Western and Ashland BRT lanes will run along the center of the avenues or the curbs, such as what's being implemented on Jeffery.
Project planners called center running lanes the "gold standard" for traffic and pedestrian safety, but they must decide what's best for the neighborhoods. Center BRT lanes would include highly developed island-style bus stations similar to those at L stops but may eliminate the left turn option for general traffic, experts said.
Outside BRT lanes would impact parking in some areas, as well as create the opportunity for accidents when drivers opt to make right turns in front of buses. The outside lanes would feature more modest stations, though they would still be equipped with LED screens detailing the next arriving buses and plenty of seating space.
Around 40 people attended Tuesday's open house and most expressed support for the project, some emphasizing that plans have significantly improved since CTA representatives initially began discussing them.
Avid rider Joe Zefran, 36, said he accesses the Western route often from his home at Taylor Street and Western Avenue in the Little Italy section of Near West Side. His wife rides the Western bus daily, he noted. He was among those surveying dozens of boards at the forum detailing BRT plans.
His concerns, though he admits he doesn't cycle on Western, were about the potential elimination of bike lanes if the curb-side BRT plans are chosen, as well as the length of the express routes.
"I definitely think it should extend to the Howard and 95th Red Line stops," he said. "And I'd like to see a complimentary bike corridor within a quarter mile in either direction. … Overall, this has a lot of potential, especially for someone like me."
A third open house this week is scheduled for tonight, Oct. 18, between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at Lane Tech College Preparatory High School, 2501 W. Addison St.
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