Steven and Forrest Claypool.
Yesterday the Chicago Transit Authority gave a handful of transportation bloggers the opportunity to meet with CTA President Forrest Claypool at the agency’s headquarters and ask him about the state of the agency and its future projects. Steven and I were joined by our colleagues Patrick Barry, filling in for Kevin O’Neil from CTA Tattler, and Kevin Zolkiewicz from Chicago Bus, who also contributes to Grid Chicago.
During the freewheeling 45-minute discussion Mr. Claypool patiently answered any and all of our queries about the transit authority’s sometimes controversial decisions. He was particularly candid about the upcoming Jeffery Corridor Bus Rapid Transit initiative, volunteering his opinion that this pilot project isn’t really bus rapid transit, but rather a step in the right direction. Here are a few of Steven’s and my questions and Mr. Claypool’s responses.
Patrick Barry, Steven, Forrest Claypool, CTA spokesman Brian Steele, CTA technology manager Tony Coppoletta, CTA spokeswoman Molly Sullivan, Kevin Zolkiewicz.
Steven: Have you read the Chicago Forward Action Agenda from CDOT [the Chicago Department of Transportation]?
Steven: You’ve met [CDOT Commissioner] Gabe Klein though, I’m sure.
Oh, many, many times. We work closely together.
Steven: I interviewed him for a couple stories I wrote on the action agenda. One of the things I asked him about was the involvement of the CTA, because it’s mentioned many times in the plan and he says CDOT works closely with CTA. My question is, how is CDOT going to help out with CTA’s bus frequency or bus congestion or bus bunching? Because that seems to be one of the best ways to improve service to CTA passengers. So that would also improve reliability, decrease your cost due to fuel usage and so on. So why are buses still crawling?
Yeah, that’s always a good question. We’re clearly depending on CDOT, for example on bus rapid transit, which is obviously only in the embryonic stages right now. But that partnership does have the potential to finally liberate buses from the very slow, congested traffic, because you’re right, buses can only move as fast as the cars. And oftentimes less so because they can get trapped when they pull over and not be able to get back into traffic.
So I have had quite a few conversations with Commissioner Klein about not just bus rapid transit but other ways of doing experiments with dedicated bus lanes, even if it’s just on a portion of a busy street, like Western Avenue for example. But I think ultimately some version or versions of bus rapid transit at key pinch points, key arteries I think will go a long way to making bus service a faster and more convenient mode of transportation for folks, integrated within traditional bus service and traditional rail service.
Steven: What about modifying Lake Shore Drive to enhance all those routes?
We’re looking at that. CTA and CDOT both have early-stage studies underway on Lake Shore Drive.
Steven: Is that just for the south corridor?
Forrest Claypool: We’re looking at the south and we’re looking at the north. And of course this fall we’re beginning the Jeffrey … It’s called bus rapid transit [BRT] although I’m very reluctant to call it BRT because it’s really not BRT.
Bus rapid transit in Bogotá, Colombia, which Claypool referred to as the “gold standard” for BRT. Photo by Bvora
It’s kind of a first stage, faster, hopefully more convenient service for riders in that area of the city that will incorporate some of the elements of BRT when it’s fully implemented, like the jumping of queues on the lights for example, or a dedicated bus lane, or fewer stops and elaborate street furniture and shelters at those locations that are clearly marked and available to people. So we’ll learn a lot from that and those lessons will hopefully be incorporated into our planning for Western Avenue and downtown and, perhaps depending on the outcomes of these studies, Lake Shore Drive.
John: How have things been working out with trying to sell naming rights to stations? Have you had much interests from companies who want to sponsor stations? Has their been any backlash from people who feel like stations shouldn’t be commercialized that way.
We’ll know soon. We have an RFP [Request for Proposals] on the street right now for naming rights, so we’ll find out. I don’t recall exactly when the bid’s coming back, maybe in a couple months, but we’re testing the market right now. I have not heard or received a lot of concerns or questions. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who feel strongly about it both ways. But I would hope and I believe that if it’s done tastefully and in a limited way and if the revenues are significant enough it’s a much better alternative than fare hikes and service cuts.
As you know, when I got here I inherited a $277 million budget deficit, which is twenty percent of our operating budget. We whacked that down to $160 and then we essentially punted for a year through one-time fixes and borrowing so that we could negotiate a new labor agreement. But even as we are negotiating that new labor agreement this year we are doing everything we can to meet labor halfway, to continue driving down the costs the way we did that first six months I was in office, the first budget.
We’ve been getting more efficient each month but also we have to find to ways bring in new non-farebox revenue. For example we modified our advertising policy to allow alcohol for the first time, only on rail. That’s brought in millions more in more revenue. And we are putting out these station-naming options to see if that can become an annual contributing revenue stream. So hopefully all those things plus a new labor agreement that bends the cost curve will allow us to avoid the deep service cuts and fare hikes we had the last couple of years. That’s really hurt the system.
Alcohol ad on a Chicago bus shelter, owned by J.C. Decaux, not the CTA. Photo by Artistmac.
John: What kind of responses have you been getting to the Red Line South Track Renewal plan? I’ve heard some people saying that the way this is being done wouldn’t fly on the North Side. They say you’re experimenting with the South Side first because the thought is there won’t be as much resistance as there would have been on the North Side. What are your thoughts about that issue?
What I’ve sometime heard is, “They didn’t shut the Brown Line down because it’s on the North Side.” Well the Brown Line was station work, this is track work and you can’t run trains without a railroad. So that’s the difference. It’s not south or north, it’s just engineering reality. Our decision, which has been supported by the elected officials in the area, was to do a very short-term five-month project, rip the Band-Aid off, so to speak. We’re going to deliver a modern railroad with trains going 55 miles an hour, brand new trains, and a facelift for all those South Line stations, which were last rehabbed in the Nineties, three years early.
So that means that instead of four more years of South Side commuters spending twenty minutes more a day getting to work in inferior cars in a frustrating experience (and these are crowded cars because we can’t add the cars necessary to de-crowd them because of the slow zones), we’re going to provide a modern experience and a comfortable experience to them in five months. That’s really the choice.
And even if the choice was to delay bringing the improvements to South Side residents who deserve much better than what they’re receiving, it would still be four years of station closures on the weekends. And that line has the highest weekend ridership of any line on our system. It’s two-thirds the level of weekday ridership on the weekends. So it’s a very weekend-dependent population. They would be in the same boat on weekends for four years, taking shuttle buses, skipping over multiple stations and the like.
So when we present this plan as well as all the service alternatives during this period, once we’re able to explain it and really go into detail on it, we’ve received overwhelming support. [In addition to shuttle buses, during construction the CTA will be providing more frequent, 24-hour service on the Green Line, which parallels the south branch of the Red Line for much of its length.]
Red Line tracks inside the Dan Ryan. Photo by Steven.
But a lot of people don’t know the details, and a lot of people are concerned. That’s why we’re going regularly to the community. We had our first community meeting Monday night, and we’re going at it tomorrow night to Kennedy-King College, [CTA] Chairman [Terry] Peterson and myself. And we’re going to continue doing this throughout the summer, and our staff is going out to churches and community meetings and block clubs. By the time the plan actually begins next year we will have customized alternative travel plans neighborhood by neighborhood during this period of time. I think if people just bear with us they’ll be very happy with the result.
Steven wrote about Red Line South opinions earlier.
John: While we’re on the subject of the South Red Line, what’s going on with the Red Line extension?
That’s still in the normal plodding federal processes, you know, alternatives analysis, environmental analysis, all those things are still ongoing. We have the funding for them. Senator Durbin has been very helpful in that regard. It’s just one step at a time.
That project as much as anything is dependent obviously on a robust new federal transportation bill, so it’s something that we’ll be really pursuing. I’ll be shocked if there’s going to be any action on that before the [presidential] election but I think after the election we’re going to have a lot of work to do.
John: Has there been a decision about what the route would be?
That’s a good question. There’s more than one route being looked at right now. One of them’s an old freight pathway, as well as the more direct route. So there’s more than one option. In the planning there’s one option that’s been focused on but there’s an ongoing analysis of the alternative, which actually CDOT is conducting.
Steven: Have you heard of the Chicago Streetcar Renaissance? You should look into it.
Claypool: Is it like the Green Hornets [the last batch of streetcars in postwar Chicago]?
The last surviving Green Hornet streetcar at the Illinois Railroad Museum. Photo by Kedziers.
Steven: Like a modern version of it. This architect in Lincoln Park, John Krause, he has a pretty nicely designed proposal for restoring streetcars, first to Clark Street and possibly to other parts of the city, using modern European streetcar designs, like low floor boarding and a single car, where there’s no doors between the cars. That would replace bus service on Clark Street.
And it would also eliminate private vehicle traffic, making it more like European plaza-style corridor. On Clark Street, at least from Clark/LaSalle to Andersonville, a lot of the traffic is carried on buses. He’s also thinking of this as an economic development tool, by making more street available to uses like street cafes, and creating a more pleasant environment for walking.
He’s talking about removing cars entirely? Good luck.
[According to Krause’s proposal, drivers would still have local access to Clark for tasks like deliveries and dropping off and picking up passengers.]
Steven: Well, since you haven’t heard of it I’d invite you to look it up.
John: What are your commuting habits – how do you usually get around town?
Claypool: A mixture. I’m on the rails every week but not every day. It’s partly car, partly train and once in a while bus. I’m not a big bus user, maybe on weekends.
John: What train line do you use?
Brown Line and the Red. Either one. I live near both and I also work out at a gym that’s near both
Steven: Do you ride a bike?
I don’t ride a bike. I admire the people who are willing to take their lives into their hands, but I’m not.
A bus bike rack outside the CTA headquarters, which you can use to practice loading your cycle.
John: Get around on foot much?
I try to walk, yeah, to improve my cholesterol. I finally realized that if you just walk everywhere you can then that’s like, how many calories? So I try to incorporate walking every day.
Steven: What’s your biggest challenge? And what’s your biggest goal?
Claypool: Well, the goal is the mayor’s goal to create a new, modern CTA that provides a high quality, reliable, comfortable, safe experience for our customers. As the mayor has emphasized, and as we saw with his leadership in Congress on the Brown Line, a great transit system can mean a lot to the quality of life in a great city and it can mean a lot for commerce and jobs and economic opportunity.
So it’s an important asset. It’s been neglected and it’s been mismanaged, but we’re going to put the doomsday scenarios behind us, we’re going to right the financial ship and we’re going to build and invest in the future. And we’re going to bring modern management techniques so that our customers get what they deserve. So we have a lot of work to do. I think we made a lot of progress in a year but obviously we have much more to do.
The biggest challenge as part of that I think is to work with our labor partners to bend the cost curve on a labor cost structure that’s just out of whack with modern economic realities after the greatest economic downturn after our lifetimes, and to try to gain more flexibility in some of these archaic work rules which really prevent the types of efficiencies we need to build a modern system. And if we can do that and maintain service, that also means we’re maintaining jobs, good jobs that pay good benefits for the union workers. That’s an ongoing process, which we’ll hopefully have concluded by the end of the year but it’s important as we go forward.