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Parking increase to fund new Cermak L station, downtown express bus service

CTA buses going eastbound WashingtWacker. Thursday October 13 2011 I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

CTA buses going eastbound on Washington at Wacker. Thursday, October 13, 2011 I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:48AM

Chicago would get a new CTA Green Line station near McCormick Place and express bus lanes linking commuter rail stations to Michigan Avenue and Navy Pier, if the City Council approves Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan for a $2-a-day “congestion fee” on downtown parkers.

City Hall is fleshing out details of its priority transportation projects to build support for the $28 million parking tax that’s one of the most controversial elements of the mayor’s first budget.

The new $50 million Green Line station would stretch from 23rd to Cermak between existing stations at Roosevelt and 35th.

It would serve McCormick Place, the newly-designated Motor Row entertainment district and a residential population almost certain to grow with more “transit-oriented” development.

The station would have direct transfer connections to westbound buses and three entrance points to serve different sets of riders: neighborhood residents; Motor Row patrons and conventioneers walking two blocks over from McCormick Place.

Construction is expected to begin in 2013 and be completed in late 2014, using congestion fee funding and money from the surrounding tax-increment-financing (TIF) district.

The proposed downtown circulator system has been talked about, but never built for decades. Most of the discussion has centered around a light-rail system.

Emanuel’s $30 million version would rely on CTA buses using dedicated lanes, traffic lights that turn green automatically for approaching buses and front and rear boarding by passengers who pay in advance at kiosks or portable fare boxes.

On-board cameras would photograph the license plates of intruding motorists, triggering tickets and hefty fines. The route would also feature enhanced bus shelters.

The proposed route calls for the buses to go west on Madison Street, loop around Union Station, the Ogilvie Transportation Center and a “new transportation center” in between, then go east on Washington, north on Michigan Avenue past Millennium Park before continuing on to Illinois Center and Navy Pier.

It was not known how many downtown parking meters would have to be removed to make way for the new system and how much money the city would have to pay to compensate the private contractor that controls Chicago parking meters.

Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein said both projects are missing links in the downtown transportation system.

“Cermak has three interesting aspects. The existing population needs a stop. There’s open land for transit-oriented development. And it can also serve McCormick Place,” the commissioner said.

“The bus rapid transit system will provide a faster connection through the Central Business District that’s absolutely needed and change the way the bus feels to people in Chicago. People don’t dislike the bus. They just want the fastest trip possible. They get frustrated behind massive amounts of auto traffic. It’s amazing how much faster they can move with dedicated lanes and traffic signal prioritization.”

The city has already lined up $25 million for the new bus circulator, but needs $5 million in matching funds that the congestion fee would provide, Klein said.

Twenty years ago, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley unveiled plans to build a $775 million light rail system he called the “salvation of downtown development.”

The City Council approved a tax increase on downtown commercial property to finance one-third of the trolley-style system.

Four years and $70 million later, Daley pronounced the project dead after U.S. House Republicans followed the Illinois General Assembly’s lead by cutting off funding for the trolley system.

In 2008, Daley lowered his sights to bus rapid transit — and got $153 million in federal funding to launch a 10.2-mile experiment in four pilot corridors.

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

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