CTA efforts to reverse declining bus ridership are not being helped by the Regional Transportation Authority, which is holding back money related to the installation of special traffic signals that give buses green-light priority over other vehicles, CTA president Forrest Claypool said Wednesday.
In 2012, the RTA received a $36 million federal grant and $4 million in local money to implement traffic signal prioritization in Chicago and the suburbs to increase CTA and Pace bus speeds and help bus routes operate more efficiently.
So far, the CTA has received only about $2 million from the RTA, even though the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning released all the federal money to the RTA for distribution two years ago, Claypool said.
“That money has been sitting there for a while’’ at the RTA, Claypool told reporters at Wednesday’s CTA board meeting.
A RTA spokeswoman responded that the agency has provided the CTA with all the money it is eligible to receive to date.
Traffic signal prioritization technology basically extends green lights for buses that are running at least two minutes behind schedule to help them get through intersections without further delay. It also gives buses standing at red lights a head start, with a buses-only green signal that precedes the green light for other traffic.
Claypool said the funds under RTA control are needed to expand the traffic signal priority program, which exists only on a very limited basis in Chicago. It was launched this year at seven intersections along Jeffery Boulevard, between 73rd and 84th streets, to serve the No. 14 Jeffery Express route in the CTA’s first experiment to introduce bus rapid transit in the city.
The faster service, called the Jeffery Jump, debuted in late 2012 without the traffic signal prioritization component. That key element was delayed because the existing traffic signals were outmoded and therefore incompatible with the new bus-prioritization technology, officials said.
Claypool, who frequently has been at odds with RTA officials over what he considers RTA attempts to meddle in CTA affairs, complained Wednesday that the RTA has been “slow to parcel out (the grant money), although we are making some progress and beginning to get some of that released.’’
Pace has received about $1.1 million and it has no quarrel with the RTA on the distribution, a Pace spokesman said.
Since December 2012, CTA bus ridership has declined every month year over year, according to CTA data. Possible factors include weather and traffic congestion, officials said. Rail ridership is growing, but producing healthy long-term ridership gains overall will require attracting more riders back to buses, officials said.
The roughly $2 million that the CTA has received from the RTA so far includes about $565,000 for preliminary engineering for the traffic signal project on portions of Ashland and Western avenues.
On those two corridors the CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation are planning bus rapid transit projects that, among other time-saving amenities, feature bus-only lanes, pre-payment of fares at bus stations and traffic signal prioritization — all intended to provide riders with travel similar to the speed of rail trips, but at a fraction of the construction cost.
This year, the CTA received $1.6 million for final engineering on South Ashland, from 95th Street to Cermak Road; and on Western, from Howard to 79th streets, the CTA said. Those areas already have modern traffic signals that are able to communicate with the controller boxes for traffic signal prioritization as well as with modems on buses.
But the majority of traffic signals on Chicago’s street grid operate using older technology that is not compatible with traffic signal prioritization.
CTA officials have asked the RTA to allow some of the $40 million to be used to update traffic signals in order to speed up the rollout of traffic signal prioritization and free buses from the congestion knot that frequently occurs at busy intersections, CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said.
RTA officials said the federal grant can be used only for equipment directly involving traffic signal prioritization, not the replacement of old traffic signals.
“What the CTA is talking about is beyond the scope of the grant,’’ RTA spokeswoman Susan Massel said. “This is very specific money for a regional program that is larger than just the CTA.’’
Massel said RTA officials were surprised to hear about Claypool’s beef Wednesday, saying, “This has been a collaborative process’’ involving CDOT, the Illinois Department of Transportation, the highway departments in Cook and Lake counties as well as the CTA and Pace.