Bus-only lanes raise questions at rapid transit forum

  • By Amy Lee
  • Transit reporter
  • September 26, 2008 @ 7:30 AM

Concerns about bus-only lanes dominated discussion during a public hearing held to discuss a plan to add rapid buses to Chicago’s city streets.

The Chicago Transit Authority and the Chicago Department of Transportation last night held the second of two public hearings to gauge reaction and gather input on a plan to implement four corridors of bus rapid transit within the next 19 months.

About 50 people – many of whom connected with the two transit agencies – attended the hearing, which outlined the bus rapid transit plan. Officials say bus rapid transit can ease congestion and speed travel time on major corridors throughout the city.

The plan calls for an infrastructural overhaul on portions of four routes: #8 Halsted, #66 Chicago, #79 79th, #14 Jeffery Express and #15 Jeffery Local. Bus rapid transit includes the creation of bus-only lanes, fewer stops and installation of transit technology that can alter the timing of traffic lights to keep buses moving.

“It sounds good. I’d like to see buses like that in use now,” said Lois Rhea, 67, a Bridgeport resident who attended Thursday’s heariing at the Near North branch of the Chicago Public Library to learn of changes proposed for her bus route, the #8 Halstead.

“It makes you wonder why it’s taken so long to get these here.”

A number of U.S. cities, including New York, Boston and Los Angeles run bus rapid transit routes. Chicago in April 2008 earned the right to apply for a $153 million federal grant designed to reduce congestion.

Chicago is the only applicant city for that cash; the U.S. Department of Transportation requires Chicago implement the four pilot routes by April 2010 in order to receive the money.

Part of that grant would be used to create dedicated bus-only lanes – particularly during the morning and afternoon rush – to allow buses to travel independent from other vehicle traffic. The longest bus-only lane would run about six miles, while the shortest would run for about two miles.

Planners are examining the routes to determine where a bus-only lane could be created, said Sheldon Fialkoff of DMJM + Harris, a global transportation infrastructure firm that is heading up the bus rapid transit design plans in Chicago.

“That’s something we’re taking a look at right now, and put simply, where they won’t fit, we won’t be able to do it,” Fialkoff said.

The CTA is on track to open one of the four routes by summer 2009, says Jeffrey Ahmadian, CTA deputy general counsel and bus rapid transit project manager. It is unclear which of the four will get underway first, he said.

The $153 million federal grant would pay for capital improvements needed to implement the four pilot routes, Ahmadian said. More federal assistance would be required to build more routes, he said.

“We want to walk before we run,” Ahmadian said. “If we build these four and show it’s a success, then we’ll go back and ask for more.”

Amy Lee is a Chicago-based journalist. She covers transit issues for the Daily News.