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CTA to begin bus rapid transit on South Side in November

The 7000 block S. Jeffery Blvd.  Wednesday August 8 2012 . |  John H. White~Sun-Times.

The 7000 block of S. Jeffery Blvd. Wednesday, August 8, 2012 . | John H. White~Sun-Times.

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Updated: September 10, 2012 1:34PM

After four years of fits and starts, Chicago is finally ready to dip its toe in the water of bus rapid transit in a way that should give South Side CTA bus passengers a faster ride to work this fall.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has awarded a $3.5 million contract to Sumit Construction Co. to install 16 miles of express bus lanes on Jeffery Boulevard.

Construction is expected to begin in about a month and to be completed in time for service to begin in November, with the same basic fares as regular CTA bus service.

Emanuel said Chicago’s long-awaited bus rapid transit experiment might be starting slowly, but the Jeffery Boulevard lanes are only the beginning.

“The way to look at it is, it’s the beginning,” Emanuel said at an appearance Wednesday in the West Loop. “Bus rapid transit will be part of the transportation network for the city. It’s first starting there, but don’t think that’s the end of the story. It’s starting there with clear plans to expand bus rapid transit throughout the city.”

CTA President Forrest Claypool also said the Jeffery bus lanes will be used as an incubator for a broader program.

“It’s important to understand Jeffery is testing various elements, but it is not what I think you would call BRT,”” he said.

“It will cut the commute times for customers. It will provide a more comfortable and faster ride on South Shore but those lessons we learn from that will then be applied to, I guess, a broader BRT.”

Bankrolled by an $11 million federal grant, the new lanes are a scaled-down version of the plan for four major corridors conceived in 2008 by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.

From 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m., one lane will be set aside for buses on Jeffery between 67th Street and 83rd Street.

Between 73rd Street and 84th Street, buses will also get priority treatment at stop lights — green lights will be extended and red lights shortened.

A bypass lane will be added on northbound Jeffery at Anthony Avenue to let buses get through the intersection ahead of other traffic. A dedicated traffic signal will be installed to move buses through more quickly.

The Jeffery buses run mostly on Lake Shore Drive, shifting onto the Drive at 67th Street heading downtown, on their way to Union Station and the Ogilvie Transportation Center.

Sumit has received 70 city contracts over the last 20 years, $40 million of them since 2010.

Four years ago, Chicago was awarded $153 million in federal funding to test bus rapid transit in four pilot corridors as part of a carrot-and-stick plan to reduce traffic congestion.

The carrot was the dedicated rush-hour bus lanes, complete with traffic lights that turn green automatically for hybrid, articulated CTA buses, fewer bus stops and front and rear boarding by passengers who paid in advance at kiosks or portable fare boxes.

The stick was higher prices for on-street parking and loading zones during peak periods in congested areas and higher parking taxes at private garages and lots around downtown.

But Chicago was forced to forfeit the money after the feds refused to grant a 13-day extension to approve one of the strings attached: so-called “congestion-reduction” fees for downtown parking and deliveries.

At the time, Daley was reluctant to approve the parking-meter hike because of the steep schedule of rate hikes tied to the deal that privatized Chicago’s 36,000 parking meters.

More recently, Emanuel has talked about using revenue from the $2-a-day “congestion fee” he imposed in his first budget on downtown parkers to finance express bus lanes linking commuter rail stations to Michigan Avenue and Navy Pier.

Last spring, Emanuel mentioned the Jeffery Boulevard bus lanes as he unveiled plans for an Infrastructure Trust that will allow five financing giants to bankroll $1.7 billion “transformative” projects the city couldn’t afford to build on its own. It was a broad hint that, if express bus lanes really take off in Chicago, CTA riders could someday be asked to pay higher fares for faster rides.

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles

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