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Transportation boss wants screens with commuter info in bus shelters

Senior Citizens CTA bus shelters -   11-12-10 - 5400 block N. Sheridan Rd. Chicago -   A

Senior Citizens at CTA bus shelters - 11-12-10 - 5400 block N. Sheridan Rd., Chicago - A senior citizen reads a book while waiting for a bus at the 5400 block of N. Sheridan Rd. Friday in Chicago. - John J. Kim/Sun-Times

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Updated: September 21, 2011 12:34AM

Arguing that Chicago’s 2,200 lighted bus shelters are “under-utilized,” newly-appointed Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein wants to put them to work — by installing video screens that provide an array of commuter information.

The TV-like screens that Klein hopes to install would include everything from Bus Tracker information now available on the internet and cell phones to the current inventory for car- and bike-sharing and how long it would take to walk to popular destinations.

“Transportation is as much about information and technology as it is about infrastructure,” Klein said.

In 2001, a French company won the right to install and sell advertising on 2,200 bus shelters across the city. That’s despite a rival bidder’s offer to guarantee Chicago taxpayers $39 million more over the 20-year life of the contract.

Two years later, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that CTA bus riders across the city were still waiting for buses in the dark because scores of the new bus shelters had not yet been lighted.

At the time, bus shelter contractor JC Decaux blamed the problems on Commonwealth Edison.

ComEd countered that lights were installed roughly 30 days after shelters were “electricity-ready” with secondary lines hooked to city street lights.

The problem has long since been resolved.

Now, Klein wants to make the most of those lighted shelters — just as he did while serving as transportation commissioner in Washington D.C.

“In D.C., we piloted multi-modal screens in our bus shelters. They told riders when the next bus was coming. We designed an application that can run on any TV screen with real-time information about various businesses like car-sharing and bike-sharing,” said Klein, who launched the nation’s largest bike-sharing program in the nation’s capital.

“I want to do something [in Chicago that’s even] more robust that tells you in real time how many vehicles are available [for car-sharing], where the next-closest bus is and when it’s coming and how long it’ll take if I choose to walk there.”

CTA President Forrest Claypool could not be reached for comment.

Decaux won the coveted bus shelter contract with a guaranteed payment of $275 million over 20 years. Although the city was strapped for cash in 2001, officials agreed to defer $215 million of the Decaux money until the second half of the contract, 2011-2021. And $135 million of that deferred money would come in the final five years of the contract.

In 2005, City Hall borrowed against a $200 million line of credit to finance operations and maintenance at Millennium Park. The surprise arrangement will continue until next year, when the bus shelter contract is expected to start generating excess revenue to finance park operations.

Park loans won’t be paid off until 2018. By that time, Chicago taxpayers will have spent $8.5 million on interest at a rate of four percent.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this week that Klein wants to level the playing field for pedestrians by reducing the number of downtown corners where motorists can turn right on red, giving pedestrians a five-second jump before the light turns green and creating intersections that stop vehicular traffic for 14 seconds to give pedestrians a chance to cross in every direction, including diagonally.

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