New Loop bus rapid transit to bring short-term mess

BY FRAN SPIELMAN Staff Reporter November 4, 2013 9:47PM
Updated: November 5, 2013 2:14AM

Source: Chicago Sun-Times

This artist's rendering shows a cost-effective bus rapid transit concept design for Madison and Washington streets. This rendering depicts Washington Street. | Provided by City of Chicago

This artist’s rendering shows a cost-effective bus rapid transit concept design for Madison and Washington streets. This rendering depicts Washington Street. | Provided by City of Chicago

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan bring to bus rapid transit to the Loop will require Water Management crews to dig up portions of Washington and Madison streets and relocate water mains before installing eight raised passenger boarding islands in the street.

Last spring, the Chicago Department of Transportation chose what it called a “balanced” approach over two other designs to shave 7 1/2 minutes off round-trip bus travel across the Loop.

Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein said the design was chosen because it “balanced the right-of-way in favor of all users” and created “less friction” by segregating cars, bikes, buses and pedestrians.

On eastbound Washington, it calls for two car lanes, a dedicated bus lane, a raised bus island and a bike lane. Westbound Madison would have a similar configuration but with a curb-level boarding area. The bike lane would be relocated to Randolph.

What Klein did not mention — and what City Hall sources now acknowledge — is that, before the eight raised passenger boarding islands can be installed, the water mains beneath must be relocated to guarantee access to city crews in the event of a water main break.

That will add six to 10 weeks of construction time and driver inconvenience to a $32 million project that, the city anticipates, will be bankrolled by federal funds.

“You don’t want to build all of this expensive new infrastructure in the street, only to destroy it in the event of a water main break,” said a source familiar with the project.

Sources said the need to relocate water mains — and possibly other underground utilities as well — was the subject of a recent City Hall meeting that included Klein, CTA President Forrest Claypool and officials from the city’s Department of Water Management.

Claypool refused to discuss the meeting. Klein, who announced his resignation last week, demanded to know which one of the two Water Management officials at the closed-door meeting had gone public with their frustrations.

“We have meetings before every project where we do utility coordination. It’s common that we have to move some utilities. As far as I know, the project will be done in December of 2014, just like it was supposed to be. You build in time for minor moves and changes. I’m not aware that there’s going to be a significant delay,” Klein said.

“Any time we open up a street, utilities want to go in there to do work they already had planned. Peoples [Gas] has their main upgrades. You’ve got Water with their big 20-year project. You’ve got ComEd with their Smart Grid. Sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t. But that doesn’t add any cost because they have to go in and do that anyway.”

CDOT spokesman Peter Scales noted that the city has a project coordination office that meets every week to coordinate work between city infrastructure departments and major utilities.

“Anything you do downtown is complex because there are so many utilities. We decided on this configuration eight months ago and we’ve been working with the utilities since then. We’ll continue that to minimize the impact and cost,” Scales said.

“This configuration separates the different modes of traffic: pedestrian, bike, bus, cars and truck,” he said. “By separating those modes, you have increased flow and increased safety. You’re not mixing the modes.”

Peter Skosey, of the Metropolitan Planning Council, said he was not aware of the “construction challenges” standing in the way of the mayor’s plan.

But he likes the design for the project, which has been desperately needed since the demise of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Central Area Circulator plan in the early 1990s.

“It’s very difficult to get across the Loop during rush period from Ogilvie and Union Station to Michigan Avenue and the Aon Center,” Skosey said.

“CDOT looked at different configuration. This was the one that provided the greatest travel benefit with the least disruption,” he said. “The center platform gets the buses away from curbside so they’re not stuck with taxicabs pulling over or trucks making deliveries. It keeps the buses moving quicker. Buses are like 4 percent of the vehicles but carry 50 percent of the people. It’s worth it if you’re moving people faster.”


TakeAways

Given all the “arm-twisting” that Chicago’s Urban Cyclist bicycle-friendly reporters have been doing in by trying to shape the discussion to suit their agenda, learning the reality behind the blather is a bit deflating. Sadly the bicycle infrastructure / mass transit changes are somewhat colossal wastes of time and money. That should not be surprising given the fact that we spend far more time salivating at the sight of “pretty green paint” and “PVC bollards” which we have begun to use as the measure of how far we have come, rather than the hard numbers of actual bicycle trips ridden in service of transportation.

It is as if we decided to pronounce the Chicago Cubs a championship team because its ball field got an architectural makeover. And of course there would be the management telling us that ball players play better and with greater effort when they have the proper on-field infrastructure. After all what other major league team has infield bags that light up as the runners touch them?

Notice now that there are special cameras that call balls and strikes and we have replaced umpires with robots to help increase the certainty that the games will never go beyond three hours. And finally notice that while no one white rides CTA much any more we have a new BRT system that costs several times what we were told it would that cuts several minutes off of the round trip to the Loop but there are no riders on it since all the people-of-color who ride mass transit are unable to afford the higher priced tickets and besides are generally White Sox fans.

This is Chicago and some things never change. The next time Active Transportation Alliance asks you to sign a petition to help bring about “change” keep this article in mind. As that commercial from the past used to ask, “Where’s the Beef?