On a busy day it can sometimes be faster to walk across the Loop, Chicago’s downtown transit hub, than to take a bus. That could change next year once construction on the $33 million transportation infrastructure project dubbed “Loop Link” is complete. City officials say that the project to bring Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to the Loop will eventually increase bus travel times by 25 percent on six separate routes. Construction began in earnest on March 16, with the city’s Department of Transportation (CDOT) closing lanes on westbound Madison Street and southbound Clinton Street.
In total, the city will be installing two miles of express lanes, marked by red pavement and the words “bus only,” on Washington, Madison, Clinton, and Canal streets, which cut through the city’s busiest commercial district and bypass the Ogilvie Transportation Center and Union Station. The street redesign will also include the addition of pedestrian islands separating car traffic from the bus lane, and a new protected bike lane on Randolph Street to replace the westbound lane currently on Madison. Washington and Clinton streets are also slated for new protected bike lanes.
While the Loop Link requires eliminating a lane of traffic on some of the city’s busiest streets, advocates say the results will be more than worth it. “We’re taking away a lane of traffic, yes, but these buses are carrying half of the people [on the roads],” said Peter Skosey, executive vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, which has been a proponent of BRT in recent years. “If you can do a single improvement and affect 30,000 people a day, that’s huge.”
City officials are touting the scope of the project, which could improve the commutes of thousands of regular bus commuters and reduce confusion among motorists, cyclists, and bus drivers, who currently must navigate shared lanes on some sections of those streets. Michael Claffey, a CDOT spokesman, points to the Jeffrey Jump—an express bus that runs from downtown Chicago to the South Side neighborhood of South Shore—as a prime benefactor. “During the evening rush-hour, it currently takes the Jeffrey Jump about as long (16 minutes) to get across one mile of the Loop as it takes to make the seven mile journey from downtown to 67th Street,” explained Claffey in a statement.
Funded through a combination of federal grants and local Tax Increment Financing, Loop Link is one in a series of ongoing projects to modernize the Loop’s transit systems and accommodate its continued residential and commercial growth. The Chicago Transit Authority is currently building a new “superstation” to replace the now-defunct Madison and Wabash train stop, as well as the stop at Randolph and Washington. The local community group the Loop Alliance is spearheading an effort to increase business development on Wabash Avenue and increase tourism. The Loop is also one of the few Chicago neighborhoods to see a significant population increase over the past decade, with more residential high-rises being constructed or redeveloped.
“This is the economic hub of the region,” said Skosey. “We cannot grow that employment base if we’re allowing everybody to hop in their single-occupancy vehicle and go to work. The economic future of our region depends on having efficient mass transit downtown.”