A busload of money for city transit

$153 million in federal funds pledged to alleviate gridlock

Published: 4/30/2008 12:11 AM

Faster than an idling SUV. More powerful than a taxi. Able to leap congested intersections in a single surge.

It's a bus! It's a train! It's bus rapid transit and it's coming to Chicago.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters Tuesday pledged $153 million to create a bus-rapid-transit program in the city on four designated corridors.

The aim of the program is to reduce congestion and gridlock in Chicago. The city will use the funding to build 10 miles of what is anticipated to be 100 miles of bus rapid transit.

"Growing traffic congestion is keeping families apart, hurting business and polluting the air," Peters said at a press conference with Mayor Richard M. Daley and Chicago Transit Authority leaders.

The buses will travel on designated lanes at higher speeds than the norm and with fewer stops. They'll possess the technology to prolong green lights at traffic signals.

Other features will be transportation hubs where riders can pay before boarding to speed up their trip.

"You can walk on, walk off and move on," CTA President Ron Huberman said.

The strategy also involves raising meter fees for street parking in the city during peak hours.

Pace, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Regional Transportation Authority all have plans for bus rapid transit and are seeking funding.

The three agencies said the city's windfall shouldn't scuttle their chances and could benefit the region overall.

"We're looking at this as a positive thing," Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot said. "There are a lot of people who don't have familiarity with the (bus rapid transit) concept. Having a high-profile program will bring this to the forefront."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said a successful bus rapid transit system in Chicago could open up opportunities for more funding in the area.

In the meantime, "this is found money," the Springfield Democrat said. New York City was in line to receive $354 million for congestion relief but lost its chance due to political roadblocks, sending some of the money to Chicago, Durbin said.

Leaders gave few specifics during the news conference.

But Durbin said tentative corridors for the express buses include sections of Halsted Street, 79th Street, Chicago Avenue and Jeffrey Avenue.

Information about bus speeds and how much the parking fees will increase will be released later.

What's definite is that the CTA will use hybrid vehicles that combine electric power and diesel fuel, creating less pollution. The buses will be equipped with security cameras and computers to measure speeds and on-time performance.

The new system could be running in about a year.

"A modern public transportation system is vital to our economic security. A million people a day ride the CTA and too many are stuck in traffic," Daley said.

"We don't have to live in gridlock forever."

Eventually the bus rapid transit program will encompass about 100 miles -- and could include suburbs surrounding Chicago where CTA buses travel, officials say.

Riders used to conventional buses that crawl along, belching fumes and stopping at every corner are in for a surprise, promised Metropolitan Planning Council Michael McLaughlin.

"It won't be stopping every two blocks," said McLaughlin, transportation director for the nonprofit civic group.

"Once people see it, there will be an 'ah ha' moment."

Hiking rates for meters so they're comparable to parking lots at rush hour should hopefully reduce the number of people circling city blocks.

Instead, they may opt for public transit, McLaughlin added saying, "even if only 5 percent to 10 percent take transit -- that will do wonders for congestion."