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New transportation boss: City may alter Ashland bus rapid transit

Newly-confirmed Chicago TransportatiCommissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld talks Peter Scales Chicago Department Transportatispokesman after Monday's confirmatihearing. | Fran Spielman~Sun-Times

Newly-confirmed Chicago Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld talks to Peter Scales, a Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman, after Monday's confirmation hearing. | Fran Spielman~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 5, 2014 6:21AM



Rebekah Scheinfeld says she’s “not up to speed on speed cameras,” but she knows plenty about the furor surrounding the CTA’s $160 million plan to install bus rapid transit lanes along a 16-mile stretch of Ashland Avenue.

On Monday, the veteran CTA planner chosen by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to become Chicago’s $169,500-a-year transportation commissioner made it clear that she’s listening to those concerns.

“We’re specifically contemplating the possibility of adding more left-turns back into the concept design for the corridor,” Scheinfeld said after the City Council’s Transportation Committee confirmed her appointment.

“That’s exactly why we’re doing so much outreach to get the feedback from residents, from businesses, from people who are using the corridor to access home, work and play. What are the left turns that are most important to you? What are other issues besides left turns?”

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that  former city traffic expert Tom Kaeser had written a ten-page letter to the CTA condemning the Ashland BRT as “ill-conceived” and nothing like eight other bus rapid transit systems touted as models of success.

Most other systems have at least twice as much lane capacity for regular traffic on their BRT street, or within one block of it, Kaeser said.

The closest street with at least four lanes running parallel to Ashland is a half-mile to 1 mile away, leading some residents to fear a “carmaggedon” of vehicles pouring through adjacent side streets to make three right turns because they cannot turn left off Ashland. Retailers worry that customers frustrated by traffic will go elsewhere and delivery trucks will be delayed.

Southwest Side Ald. George Cardenas (12th) was not impressed with the new commissioner’s willingness to alter the Ashland BRT plan.

“Issue is not just left turns. This whole thing is out of left-field,” Cardenas tweeted along with a link to the Sun-Times story about Scheinfeld’s remarks.

The Ashland plan is not the only BRT project to land in the new commissioner’s lap.

Emanuel also wants to bring bus rapid transit to the Loop — a plan that will require Water Management crews to dig up portions of Washington and Madison Streets to relocate water mains before installing eight raised passenger boarding islands in the street.

On Monday, Scheinfeld was asked whether it was worth all of that trouble to shave just 7.5 minutes off round-trip bus travel across the Loop.

“It’s a significant improvement, if you’re thinking about how long it takes for that round-trip. And that’s peoples’ life every day. So, every minute counts for people trying to get to work and trying to get home to their families,” she said.

“We can’t build more roads in the Loop. So, what is our option? To move more people through the same corridors more efficiently. Central Loop BRT is an opportunity to do that . . . so people can actually move in buses more quickly than walking.”

Scheinfeld replaces Gabe Klein, who resigned last fall, confident that the bike lanes, bike-sharing, bus rapid transit and speed cameras he championed have made a “permanent directional change” in how Chicagoans view transportation.

At Emanuel’s direction, Klein dramatically increased the number of bike lanes in Chicago and installed the city’s first protected bike lanes by shrinking the number of lanes available to motorists.

He launched a Divvy bike-sharing program that, the mayor hopes, will someday be the largest in the nation, even though its supplier is now bankrupt.

Klein was also the point-man on Emanuel’s controversial plan to install speed cameras now churning out $100 tickets around schools and parks.

On Monday, Scheinfeld begged off when asked how she feels about speed cameras. But, she said she’s every bit as committed as Klein was to level the playing field between motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.

“It’s proven that cars traveling at slower speeds reduce pedestrian fatalities,” she said.

Email: fspielman@suntimes.com

Twitter: @fspielman



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