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North Side residents question CTA plan for bus rapid transit on Ashland

Artist's rendering AshlBus Rapid Transit.  |  Courtesy CTA

Artist's rendering of the Ashland Bus Rapid Transit. | Courtesy of CTA

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Updated: October 18, 2013 6:27AM



“Carmegeddon?”

That’s the kind of nightmarish traffic congestion some residents and businesses on and along Ashland Avenue are worried about if the city goes through with plans for bus rapid transit down Ashland, initially from Cortland to 31st Street.

The prospect of dedicated center bus lanes — and other changes to accommodate that — has galvanized some North Side residents and small-business owners.

The project would include center-of-the-street boarding areas; one shared lane in each direction for cars, trucks and the regular No. 9 Ashland bus, and almost no left turns from Ashland.

“Whoever designed this, they had to have their heads in the clouds because it certainly wasn’t on their shoulders,’’ said Ernie Orlando, of Orlando Glass and Trim. The business at 641 N. Ashland is among several that fear the left-turn ban will kill off customers.

“It’s kind of crazy,’’ Orlando said.

Opponents are expected to turn out in force Tuesday night, when the Chicago Transit Authority explains its plan starting at 6:30 p.m. at Talcott Elementary, 1840 W. Ohio. The Chicago Grand Neighbors Association, which has not taken a formal position on the plan, is hosting the meeting.

Supporters say bus rapid transit will turn the bus into a trainlike experience with stops every quarter mile; priority signals for buses, and ground-level boarding. The average ride should take eight minutes less. The improved transit experience should reduce the volume of traffic on Ashland, CTA officials say, while shaving only 1 to 2 mph off the average remaining drivers’ speeds, initial CTA analysis indicates.

Lee Crandell of the Active Transportation Alliance pointed to one study that indicated that UPS increased its fuel efficiency and reduced truck idling time by minimizing it use of left turns.

“People say removing a traffic lane or prohibiting left turns will cause a traffic nightmare. A number of cities have done more transformation to their streets than this and none of the doomsday scenarios have come true,’’ Crandell said.

In 2011, critics were anticipating a “carmageddon” when West Los Angeles closed the 405 Freeway for a weekend. It didn’t happen.

But Suzi Wahl, 45, notes that West L.A. faced that threat for only a weekend. “This will be worse than carmegeddon,’’ Wahl said. “This is 24/7, 365 days a year.’’

Wahl, who lives a few blocks off Ashland in Ukranian Village, fears that frustrated car and truck drivers will be barrelling through her neighborhood, making three right turns to access businesses on Ashland because they can’t make one left turn into them.

She questions the CTA’s initial estimate that only about 35 percent of Ashland traffic will be diverted onto arterial streets and wants to see an independent study of the issue.

“It’s not worth the tradeoff in quality of life,’’ Wahl said.

Gridlock could occur when cars try to parallel park on Ashland, extending out into the sole car-truck lane, critics say.

“People say drivers will use other streets. They will find other businesses, too,’’ said Martin Swift, another Ukrainian Village resident. “If it proves to be a bad idea, who’s gonna pay to remove it?’’

Matt Nardella, 36, owner of moss, a sustainable architectural design studio at 1754 W. Byron, supports the bus rapid transit plan.

He said streets are shared by people on foot, bike and vehicles and by “making the street less car-oriented, you will make it a more hospitable place for pedestrians.”

And, “by making the street more hospitable, the more likely you are to improve the retail climate on the street,’’ he said.

The CTA is hoping to find federal funds to bankroll the $10 million-per-mile project, beginning with a 5.5 mile stretch from Cortland to 31st Street and eventually a 16-mile corridor from Irving Park to 95th Street.

The first phase will allow northbound left-hand turns onto expressway entrances at Armitage, Robinson and Van Buren, and southbound left-hand turns at Congress, CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis said.

The CTA is updating its traffic counts and preparing an environmental study to be released in about a month, followed by 30 days of public comment, Lukidis said.

“The final design could be something different, based on the comments,’’ Lukidis said. “It’s important for us to have community feedback and understand what people are saying.’’

A group called the Ashland-Western Coalition is pushing a different design. Member Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Randolph Fulton Market Association, said his group supports protected bus shelters on Ashland; 30 percent fewer stops; a ban on bus stops before intersections, and bus signal priority for Ashland buses.

The CTA’s plan “is a potential carmeggedon, but it’s also a huge opportunity for change in our city if we choose a different approach,’’ Romanelli said. “For such a major change, Chicago deserves a choice.’’

Email: rrossi@suntimes.com

Twitter: @rosalindrossi



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