Ex-CDOT engineer opposes Ashland BRT, calls it "ill-conceived"

A retired CDOT engineer has called the CTA’s plan for a dedicated bus lane in the center of a 16-mile stretch of Ashland Avenue “ill-conceived,” according to a Sun-Times story.

One of the options presented for BRT on Ashland, Western. (CTA rendering)

One of the options presented for BRT on Ashland, Western. (CTA rendering)

Tom Kaeser, a former 30-year traffic expert with the Chicago Department of Transportation, is speaking out now  because “my life’s work was trying to make things work on the city’s street system, and here’s something I think is not going to help at all. It’s just going to be counterproductive.”

Kaeser also said the Ashland bus rapid transit (BRT) project is quite different from BRT projects in other cities that Ashland has been compared to. The streets with the other successful BRT projects have much greater lane capacity. Under the current BRT proposal – which the CTA says is still open to refinement – regular vehicular traffic would be relegated to one lane, with very limited left turns allowed.

Instead of making a left turn on Ashland, Kaeser estimates that as many as 1,000 vehicles per hour could divert from Ashland.

‘‘They use their modeling process and say the traffic will all spread out; no one will see the difference. I challenge that,’’ Kaeser told the Sun-Times. “Their analysis left something to be desired.’’

I have personally supported the Ashland BRT proposal, but this analysis from the CDOT expert does give me pause. We’ll have to see what the final proposal looks like. Certainly many businesses on Ashland are opposing the current plan.
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  • I saw this a couple of weeks ago (dated Jan. 18). My reaction then was that if this is a competition for a $160 million grant, these comments should definitely kill any chance for getting the grant, notwithstanding Streetsblog calling every one else a NIMBY. I think that the only thing the CTA or CDOT consultant was trying to do was justify the $4 million in AA grants, rather than propose a feasible project.

    One also has to take into account the definition of BRT in 49 USC 5302 and 5309, calling for something similar to LRT, with separation from traffic. Unless the new transportation bill contains that, goodbye trying to get this under the New Start program.

    BTW, I'm still waiting for the Monroe downtown distributor project (or even the Carroll Street one) to be built. This one is even less likely.

  • In reply to jack:

    "doesn't" contain that....

  • There have been some wonderful projects involving altering Chicago streets that have been disasters & then returned to their original configurations.
    The State Street Mall.
    The 63rd & Halsted Mall.
    The Berny Stone Memorial Wall down the middle of Howard St.

    Removing traffic lights on Clark at Balmoral & Bryn Mawr. That planned four month project to see if it could work was ended after three weeks of mile long rush hour backups in rush hours.
    As I was stuck in them a few times, I can guarantee you they really were a mile long. Northbound traffic was a mess all the way to Wilson!

    BRT on Ashland will take all of those mistakes & quintuple the traffic nightmare it will create on Ashland, Damen, Western, Southport, Racine & Halsted.

    All that's necessary is to return the X9 bus, move the stops to the far corners & give the buses signal priority at all traffic lights!

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    But, as I indicated, some consultant can't justify a $4 million waste in planning grants just to come up with that, even though that is the only logical solution.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    Ashland BRT will not quintuple these problems. Ashland is already a traffic nightmare and there is no alternative for any of the people who need to travel along it every day. If you get in a bus (even a reinstated X9) you will be stuck in traffic, if you get in your car you will be stuck in traffic. The only alternative currently is to move yourself or your business away from Ashland. That is why many businesses and residents along Ashland are opposing the status quo and supporting a responsible BRT proposal. We haven't gotten there yet, but a half hearted reinstating of the X9 won't get us there either.

  • The opinion of one former traffic engineer does not invalidate BRT. Kaeser invokes his studying of other BRT projects around the world using Google Earth...that is the kind of lazy research that gives me pause.

    Anyone who travels on Ashland knows that the street is running out of capacity. Reinstating the X9 does not solve this problem. The only way you can move more people along the corridor is to get more people to ride the bus. The only way to get more people to ride the bus is if its travel times are competitive with driving. The X9 will never be time competitive with driving if it is stuck in the same traffic as all the cars.

    Settling for the simplest response to a complex problem is not logic, especially when it doesn't provide an adequate solution to the inherent issue at hand. Ashland is being strangled by a lack of passenger capacity, personal vehicles are not the most efficient way to move these mass amounts of people along a capacity constrained corridor. Neither is a BRT proposal with no left hand turns.

    The only logical solution is to find a way to create truly express BRT service along Ashland while preserving the most important left hand turns. It must include reorganizing the locations of our bus stops, parking and loading zones in order to eliminate situations where vehicles block a lane of traffic while conducting everyday business. If we sit back and do nothing travel times will get worse for everyone, and there will be no alternative other than moving yourself or your business away from Ashland. That is why many businesses are opposing the status quo and advocating for a responsible BRT proposal.

  • In reply to ArchiJake:


    I live on Ashland at the northern edge of the planned route. The plan, if implemented as it stands with no/limited left turns (how could the current lane configuration accommodate "limited" left hand turns?) would just end up being one more reason I would move out of a perfect decent area. I couldn't begin to imagine what spillover traffic on Damen and Southport would be like, nevermind the residential roads.

    Though at the rate fees and fines are being raised, pretty soon no one will WANT to drive a car. /sarc

  • In reply to BrianC.:

    I thought that between Gabe Klein, the parking meter deal, and red light and speed cameras, your last sentence was the whole point. At least with the congestion mitigation grant that was lost in 2009 (various things such as increasing parking taxes in return for about $180 million for BRT on routes 8, 14, 66, 79) that was made explicit.

    The drawings show that even running the 9 local bus is impeded, even though that bus is shown.

  • testing.....

  • Since my last response to Archijake apparently went into robot purgatory, I'll try again.

    1. The Sun-Times has the new CDOT Commissioner again stating the Emanuel company line that the plan is still under review, including more left turns. However, that makes it even less likely that it meets the definition of BRT in sec. 5309, and hence won't get funded.

    2. Archi's point is itself logically inconsistent. If business is leaving now, how is it going to be any better if automotive access is impaired? Besides that, the main issue is truck service for the industrial areas and businesses along the route. I suppose that there is sufficient land in Elk Grove Twp. where those industries could relocate.

    3. The main point is whatever backward logic Archijake and Streetsblog posit, the issue is whether this can get $160 million of federal money in a competition, when there is not only community opposition recorded in the proceeding, but da Mare is backing away.

  • In reply to jack:

    Better Elk Grove Village than Wisconsin or even that far northern sliver of Kankakee County thats within one mile of the Illiana - not only sales tax evasion but cheap rents!!!

    And Archijake...you sound like your proposing a version of Willow-Palatine Road....really? Although I like the design myself, it will undoubtedly be portrayed as a "car scramble" by the streetsblog crowd.

  • In reply to urbanleftbehind:

    Now that you mention Wisconsin, or maybe Indiana, no difference, in that the industries won't be paying taxes or employing people in Chicago. I'm sure that's what Rahm wants. ;-)

    But the Illinois Supreme Court ended the retailers' occupation tax dodge (Hartney Fuel Oil Co. case).

    Palatine Road is a mess, and the problem is that Ashland doesn't even have the land for the frontage roads between the CN/NCS underpass and Rand Road.

  • Hi Jack...I stated that without a redesign congestion will only get worse, and commuters will have no alternatives. Automotive access impairs itself through increased congestion and makes it increasingly difficult to locate future businesses along a choked artery. You are advocating standing pat against increasing congestion which is strangling mobility along the corridor. We need a design which can move more of the commuters who use this street swiftly too and from job opportunities, while maintaining truck access to industry and highways.

    This can be done while meeting the standards of fixed guideway based bus rapid transit in sec. 5309. If parking is removed in areas where left hand turns will be incorporated then a left hand turn lane and signal could be added at select intersections. If there is not adequate streetwidth for this, then a combined right-turn/left-turn lane can be designated on the right hand side of the road with a dedicated turn signal phase.

    In select locations the BRT right of way could switch from the center to the curbside in order to facilitate direct transfers between CTA stations. In these locations the BRT lane could be a shared BRT/left hand turn lane, with a left hand turn/BRT only signal phase allowing vehicles to turn left while the bus got a priority signal to cross to the curbside lane.

    There is no backwards logic, there is simply looking for solutions to problems rather than kicking the can down the road. We must design our roads for industriousness in all its forms. That is how we will remain competitive with the Elk Groves, Joliets, and Bolingbrooks of our region.

  • In reply to ArchiJake:

    As Scooter pointed out, an obvious way to improve the situation, without destroying the 9 local bus, is to implement something like the Jump, at a cost of maybe $20-$30 million as opposed to the $160 million the city is not going to get.

    The more you or Rebekah Scheinfeld talk about allowing more left turns, the more it violates the portions of 49 USC 5302 and 5309 that it be separated from traffic and otherwise be like light rail. Have you looked those up? And then you suggest stuff like crossing over traffic to dump off at the curb?

    I see that urbanleftbehind figured out your Palatine Road solution, and there isn't land for that. How much would that add to the cost? Give us a number, and how it would be funded.

    Emanuel is not going to give up parking, one, because of merchant's complaints, but most importantly, because the city would then have to pay off the parking meter consortium for removing the spaces and meters.

    That is the bottom line--what you advocated is not a solution, just like the Monroe Downtown Circulator was never a solution, because it will never be funded. Utopianism isn't logic, nor is congesting the street by forcing all traffic into one lane each way.

  • In reply to jack:

    Your claim about section 5302 & 5309 is untrue.

    "5302 (2)Bus rapid transit system.— The term “bus rapid transit system” means a bus transit system—
    (A) in which the majority of each line operates in a separated right-of-way dedicated for public transportation use during peak periods;"

    Incorporating left hand turns at a half dozen locations would not violate this definition.

    The all turn phase I proffered is not based on Palatine, that is a highway engineering solution version of what I suggested. I suggested a signal phase for one direction of left and right turning vehicles. During this signal there would be a walk phase for pedestrians on the opposite side of the intersection. This would allow left hand turns without requiring another lane of width be squeezed into the roadway, since the dedicated right hand turn lane would function for both turning movements.

    Ashland doesn't even work for drivers right now during rush hour. Leaving Ashland as is isn't a solution, it's a problem that is getting worse every day for all road users. And the only way to speed up trips is to introduce an option that will not remain bogged down in peak demand traffic.

  • In reply to ArchiJake:

    Who are you, some crooked lawyer?

    First, there are 3 subsections of the definition, and 4 subparts to subsection 3; you quoted one of them. How about "any other features the Secretary may determine are necessary to produce high-quality public transportation services that emulate the services provided by rail fixed guideway public transportation systems."

    Second, your proposal doesn't even conform to the subsection your quoted. It would not be separated from traffic if they allowed left turns more frequently, which is what the CDOT head said. Furthermore, how is the city going to keep traffic off the dedicated lane? Is the separation going to be cameras? Or is the bus going to be stuck behind a truck making an illegal left turn?

  • "Make no small plans".

    It's quite simple, you can't squeeze 10 pounds of sh*t into a 5 lbs bag. My 'ol grandmother knew that.

    The only alternative is a subway, or an elevated line, with the subway being the least disruptive. While numerous cities across the country and world have been expanding their public transportation, we're stuck with a layout straight out of the 1800's.

  • In reply to SpinyNorman:

    As I indicated the last time this came up, have you identified a source of the $2 billion it would take?

    And an elevated line is exactly straight of the the 1800s (1892 to be exact).

  • In reply to jack:

    Gee, let's see:

    a) increase fares
    b) create a TIF along the Ashland or Western corridor, given that the merchants along the route will benefit by not having the boondoggle BRT running down the street
    c) raise the gas tax
    d) all of the above

    Yes, a subway is expensive, and it will disrupt traffic during construction, but that is a one-time thing. Frankly, I'm sick to death of our so-called "world-class city" making half ass-ed plans on the cheap. I would compare it to a third-world city, but that would be unfair to the third world, as a large chunk of it is building up their infrastructure.

  • In reply to SpinyNorman:

    Since Archijake asked what I would do, a subway makes more sense that this BRT mess.

    In fact, if you go into the transit plans part of chicago-l.org the 1939 plan has a reference to an Ashland subway. I also seem to recall (but can't pinpoint) some sort of proposal to connect Ravenswood (at Paulina and Roscoe) with the Paulina connector at Lake. Anyway, 75 years later, nothing on that.

    Getting to more recent history, there was the 2003 proposal for the Circle Line, which would have involved a subway between Paulina and Lake to North and Clybourn. That would have provided subway service in the area that supposedly is most congested. However, those consultants punted on selecting a route in about 2009 or 2010 (only recommending constructing the bridge between 21st and Paulina and the Orange Line), and the Emanuel administration has not mentioned it.

    However, the essential question is whether TIF money could come up with the billions needed, given that the south part of the route goes through pretty depressed property. Then you have to throw in that Emanuel's priorities are South Red to 130th, where he was talking about a private public partnership, but came up with nothing for the $1 billion needed, and the RPM, for which someone announced that there is a chance for about $120 million of the about $1 billion also needed. Throw in the perpetual $8 billion "needed to get to a state of good repair," and I don't think anyone has a means of funding the maybe $12 billion I identified. In any event, the Red Line would be the priority.

  • In reply to jack:

    I understand the frustration of south siders with the lack of the Red Line extension, but I don't see how it would have higher priority than an Ashland or Western subway. The #34 bus runs ~7 miles from the 95th St Red Line station. Michigan avenue is not horribly congested in this area.

    OTOH, Ashland/Western are practically unusable. More importantly, the lack of a "rim" in our spoke-and-hub layout makes traveling from the northwest side to/from the southwest side difficult. I believe if you asked the riders which project they would want, the A/W subway would win 10-to-1.

    I agree that Western would be a better choice. There are, what, a 100+ car dealerships on Western? A TIF on Western would probably generate a lot more revenue than one on Ashland.

    Also, why don't we cancel the O'Hare expansion boondoggle? They've spent, what, $8+ billion to add one runway? How much more are they going to spend? The problem is the airlines are flying more smaller regional jets at higher frequency, so any additional runway capacity will be quickly filled by even more smaller planes.

  • In reply to SpinyNorman:

    Last first, the money isn't fungible. O'Hare is paid for either by the airlines (who are griping) or the additional fee slapped onto each ticket.

    The 130th extension is da Mare's priority, and I only mentioned it as showing the lack of funds. I've also said that spending $240 million for essentially building a second bus terminal at 95th and a bridge over 95th to connect the two station houses is an admission by CTA that the extension will not be built.

    Since you want to mix priorities, how about the meaningless report by some committee of the Fitzgerald task force that there is a lack of planning, and in the headline 'Transit deserts' in Chicago region's mass transit system: report. Mentioned was:

    Even major suburban job centers, such as the bustling I-90 Corridor from O’Hare to Schaumburg; the crowded Oak Brook area and booming Naperville, “are not well-served by transit,” and most jobs in the region can’t be reached in a 90-minute commute, the analysis found.

    Nothing with regard to Ashland and Western.

    As Scooter and I suggested, the short term answer (and maybe the only feasible one) for Ashland and Western is to reinstate X9 and X49, and equip 74th Garage (which serves those two routes) with the capability to run articulated buses. That seems to be CTA's approach for 66 and 79.

    I found it very curious that Rodriguez cancelled the X routes (instead of cutting the locals and expresses proportionately) and then suddenly a grant appeared to plan something for something that just got axed. That's why I'm convinced that this is only a consultant welfare program, and as the linked article indicates, not a rational attempt at planning.

  • In reply to jack:

    I would add, that that if they reinstate the X9 & X49, the X9 should run at least to Devon & Clark & maybe continue north on Ashland to the Howard L & the X49 should go all the way north on Western to Howard & then east to the Howard L station.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    I think the former terminal at the Sheridan station was sufficient, if the issue is being "transit deprived." Certainly, between that and the 22 bus, there is sufficient service in the corridor.

  • In reply to SpinyNorman:

    While a subway under Ashland or even better, under Western is the ideal solution, subways do disrupt traffic. Due to the nature of Chicago's geology, tunnel boring machines [TBM or more commonly known as moles] can't be used here for subway construction due to the lack of bedrock near the surface & must be cut & cover, which means which ever street is chosen for a subway, there will be a two year long disruption of traffic on the street.
    The construction of the subway under Milwaukee & Kimball avenues back in the late 1960s put a lot of the small stores on Milwaukee out of business.

  • Jack & Scooter, what are your solutions to congestion in the city if autos are stuck in traffic, subways are too expensive, and elevated trains are from the 1800s?

  • In reply to ArchiJake:

    Apparently, you can't read. We both said what our answer was. You may reject that, but at least we don't put up specious arguments in rejecting your totally unfeasible one.

    And after lying about section 5309, what is your source of $160 million? You refuse to answer that.

  • In reply to ArchiJake:

    Divvy, I guess. ;-)

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