Friday, December 20, 2013

Twisted route to Ashland BRT

Only in Chicago can it be surprising when a municipal hearing involves not only questions from the public, but answers too.

There have been nothing but questions about the CTA's plan to devote two lanes of Ashland Avenue to express buses. Bus-only lanes were on the drawing boards five years ago along Jeffrey Boulevard, Halsted Street and several east-west streets. A Jeffrey route saw daylight last year with a downscaled 2-mile bus lane. But the others seem to have been abandoned – until this summer, when the Halsted plan resurfaced on Ashland to the surprise of long-time community activists. There were public hearings along the way, but with few signs that the public was invited.

We've come to expect town halls to be stage-managed. When the city closed neighborhood schools this summer, asking questions required signing up before entering the hall for 2 minutes of microphone time. The format included a court reporter dutifully recording the testimony, plus steady cross-talk of Spanish translation for parents, but no response. School administrators and the police commander referred the audience to planning documents collated in binders. Shades of Mitt Romney.

I was hoping for more back-and-forth from the stage at the CTA's Dec. 20 Ashland BRT "open house" at the Pulaski Park fieldhouse. This time, no one was on the stage. Instead, two rows of easels displayed slide-show pages summarizing the plan, and CTA staffers and consultants nearby to field questions.

While I had a lot of questions, mostly I got the same answer: Great question! Write it down on this comment form, or the court reporter will take it down. Or, you can look for details in those binders over there.

At least it was an answer. Despite the cue-card format and house-hunters billing, the open house was indeed a public hearing under the project's federally mandated environmental assessment. However the CTA came to consider Ashland Avenue for bus lanes, the agency can't be faulted for rejecting the status quo.

The quickest way to get from one end of Ashland to the other on the CTA is first to take the L downtown. A drive along the route between Cortland and 31st streets raises questions about how the how vehicle traffic would move with two fewer lanes, especially when traffic idles for a delivery truck, a parallel parker, a narrow underpass or a queue of turning cars.

Other options seem to have faced little serious consideration. Logic would dictate that continuation of the status quo would have some effect, good or bad; in fact, the CTA assessment asserts "the inadequacy of the No-Build Alternative to address persistent growth and mobility needs outside of downtown." Yet the study assigns no impact to this alternative.

The CTA "Build Alternative" takes out left-turn lanes to make room for new bus stops at the median. It was chosen from from a half-dozen scenarios identified in 2012. There's little evidence that round of open houses was publicized or open to members of the press, much less the community. Yet any feedback was considered definitive. Even now it is difficult to evaluate what options were considered or why they were rejected.

The final scheme in fact bundles several approaches, from articulated buses to left-turn restrictions to greeen-light signal priority. It's likely that each does not contribute equally to the success of the project, yet there is no opportunity to evaluate each on its own. If funding is limited (and when is it not?) there is no guidance on what priority to assign each element. For instance, signal priority alone might provide the greatest on-time benefits at little cost or disruption.

Impact on side streets is suggested – for instance, although parking is restricted to residents along much of the study area, enough open parking is assumed to absorb a 12% loss of parking along Ashland. There is no traffic study for Noble and Wood streets, the closest local arteries parallel to Ashland, although they are very likely to take on additional traffic. When bike lakes were added a few years ago on Damen Avenue, this relatively simple diverted traffic to Wood and other north-south streets as well as Ashland and Western.

Left-turn wait times at rush hour already are judged as unacceptable at 13 intersections, yet there is no examination of the options available to reconfigure these intersections, or their effect on traffic patterns. Right-turn lanes presumably would face backups comparable what left-turn lanes now encounter, yet parking remains in place in the far lanes, forcing traffic backups in the single forward lane. Backups or increased exhaust emissions are not considered.

Mayor Emanuel launched the plan as building a "world-class transit system" but as concerns spread he appeared to hedge. There's still no money allocated for operation, which the CTA assumes will cost no more than current service, for the $10 million-per-mile construction cost, or even for the next engineering round. If the route has any chance of getting built, the current plan will have to survive further federal review.

So objections like these (ultimately submitted via email, not comment card) have a reasonable chance of making an impact. Chicago is full of surprises.