The CTA plans for bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue
When the Chicago Transit Authority announced the closure of nine Red Line stations—stretching from the Cermak-Chinatown stop all the way down to 95th Street for reconstruction—the response was appropriately tepid and, in some cases, resentful. The CTA’s decision to shut down the ten-mile portion of the track angered many South Siders, especially given the less painful, albeit more expensive alternative: prolonging the reconstruction over four years by carrying out the work on weekends, leaving service undisturbed during peak hours. Alongside concerns over the new Ventra fare card system, the usual question looms large: are the South Side’s transportation needs being met? Cue the recent announcement of the bus rapid transit line project planned for the Ashland Avenue corridor. Though nothing on the scale of the Red Line, the plan just might prove to be the kind of transit project the city needs, functioning as an effective conduit between the North and South Sides.
Bus rapid transit (BRT) is something of a rising trend in transportation. Basically, BRT is meant to replicate the efficiency and speed of a rail system while still using buses, which travel in designated bus-only lanes. In the case of Ashland, this will involve the delegation of inner bus-only lanes—a single lane for each bus, with landscaped medians and boarding platforms every half-mile at intersections. The project will require new types of buses, with doors on both sides in order to accommodate quick boarding. The buses will also synchronize with intersection lights to ensure even faster travel time. Existing services should remain untouched—while the #9 Ashland bus is intended to continue service even once the project is complete, the CTA estimates that Ashland BRT will cut those travel times by eight minutes for every two and a half miles travelled.
BRT has been administered fairly well elsewhere, from the Bronx to Bogotá, and notably in Cleveland with the HealthLine, a fifty-eight station line that was cited as something of a model for the Ashland project. Though the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), a regional planning and policy organization, has been pushing for a BRT-type system in Chicago for some time now, it wasn’t until Rahm Emanuel assumed office and prioritized BRT that the project became imminent, according to MPC urban development director Peter Skosey.
While the MPC is not fiscally part of the project, they maintain involvement in the issue of local economic development. In the summer of 2011, the MPC, working closely with the CTA, the Chicago Department of Transportation, and the Department of Housing and Economic Development, released a report surveying all the major streets in the city to determine which ones might best handle BRT. They came up with a final list of ten streets. Ashland was chosen because it has the highest bus traffic of anywhere in the city and according to its projected potential for substantial economic growth. The study not only looked to identify the busiest streets capable of handling the street width necessary for BRT, but also scoped out the prospects for economic revitalization. At the moment, the MPC is working to assess opportunities for retail redevelopment along Ashland. Skosey insists that, by contrast, a highway just doesn’t offer the same opportunity for positive spillover effects, adding definitively, “This is why Lake Shore Drive was not considered as an option.” Once finished, the BRT on Ashland will provide faster connections to the Orange Line on 31st Street and the Blue and Pink Lines farther north.
Take the Illinois Medical District. The complex is the largest urban medical district in the country, a gargantuan conglomerate of four major hospitals, two medical research universities, and assorted other companies spread out over some 560 acres. Heather Tarczan of IMD explains their position: “With our expansion and the continued growth and development within the District, a service like bus rapid transit will enable patients, employees, and visitors to quickly get to and from the District and Ashland Avenue.” The IMD currently has fifty-five acres of raw land of which Tarczan says the IMD is “aggressively seeking development.” With the expectation of increased development, the Ashland corridor already experiences high levels of traffic: daily, IMD draws nearly 75,000 visitors, in addition to its many employees. Couple this with the fact that a quarter of households near Ashland do not own a car, and it’s not hard to see why public transportation is a priority for the area.
Yet while BRT might very well foster economic development, such development may not necessarily offset its cost. At $10 million a mile, with a complete price tag hovering around a hefty $160 million, BRT won’t come cheap. Still, much of those costs won’t necessarily come out of the city’s budget. If plans come to fruition and funding comes through, the Ashland project will be constructed in phases, with the first phase running from 35th Street to Cortland Street, on the North Side. After that, public reaction will be gauged to determine whether or not the project will expand north and south along Ashland. At least for the initial phase, Skosey suspects the city will choose more “traditional financing.” He mentions the Small Starts Program, a federal initiative designed for transit projects of this nature. Other avenues include financing via the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which offers low-interest federal loans for transit projects.
While no municipal project that involves considerable infrastructural modifications lends itself to unanimous praise, backlash has been slow to materialize. Nevertheless, concerns persist about the project’s more immediate impact. Lying perpendicular to the Kinzie Industrial Corridor and thus necessitating the elimination of some left-hand turn lanes, it’s not quite clear how this might affect freight accessibility. Yet the CTA insists that it will preserve much of the existing parking, as well as loading zones for delivery trucks. In the end, these issues remain legitimate concerns, and it’s worth acknowledging the level of speculation that is always involved. But Skosey, along with many others, is confident. Let’s hope that confidence is matched in prescience.
This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 9, 2013
An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that the CTA’s new Ventra fare card system would be accompanied by a fare increase. All fares will remain the same for customers who use the Ventra card; those who opt to purchase a single-ride rail ticket, however, will pay $3. That fare includes two transfers. The current cost of a single-ride ticket is $2.25.
According to CTA spokesman Brian Steele, “The extra cost covers the production cost of the card, which is embedded with a chip.”