Well-attended CTA hearing

The crowd at a CTA public hearing about service cuts associated with the "de-crowding" plan. (Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune / September 4, 2012)

More than 100 CTA riders attended a public hearing Tuesday on a proposal billed as enhancing bus and train service. But most people who testified denounced the crowding-reduction strategy as a trick by transit officials to slash much-needed bus routes.

Senior citizens, disabled riders, people who work late-night shifts and 9-to-5 commuters said the CTA should be focused on increasing service, not cutting it back.

They criticized the CTA for basing its service-restructuring proposals on an analysis conducted by transportation experts at Northwestern University rather than going to riders via neighborhood surveys.

"The process smells of a sham. One meeting in an overcrowded room," Uptown resident Michael Dannhauser complained to CTA President Forrest Claypool and the six CTA board members in attendance.

The CTA board is expected to vote on the changes at its Sept. 12 meeting. If approved, the changes would go into effect Dec. 16.

Dannhauser said the CTA could make progress toward easing overcrowded buses and reducing bus-bunching on routes if transit officials paid closer attention to the information on CTA Bus Tracker, then made adjustments to reposition buses.

As the Tribune has reported, Claypool's "de-crowding'' plan would eliminate or scale back up to 26 bus routes while expanding service on six rail lines and 48 overcrowded bus routes.

The goals of the CTA's $16 million combination of service cuts and enhancements are to reduce wait times for buses and trains and lessen crowding by 10 to 15 percent during rush periods, officials said.

More runs would be added on 48 bus routes, while 12 bus routes with low ridership would be discontinued and nine privately contracted CTA routes would be eliminated if subsidies were not increased. Changes also are scheduled for five more bus routes.

Roberta Wilson, an 85-year-old West Side resident, said she and other senior citizens often must walk blocks to reach a bus stop in the wake of service cuts in 2010 and then wait up to a half-hour for a bus to arrive.

"When they took the free rides from us seniors, that made me have to walk three blocks to get the bus," Wilson said. She urged the CTA board to work with the community.

Most of the public testimony centered on specific bus routes that longtime riders stand to lose under the plan.

Allan Mellis, representing the Wrightwood Neighbors Association, urged CTA officials to scrap plans to eliminate the No. 11 Lincoln bus.

"The major problem with eliminating the No. 11 is the irreversible harm that it will do to the economic redevelopment of Lincoln Avenue from Lincoln Square to Lincoln Park," Mellis said.

Mellis asked whether Tuesday night's testimony would have any impact on the CTA board's decision to approve, amend or reject Claypool's plan.

"Yes, it will," CTA Chairman Terry Peterson responded.

Riders for Better Transit, an advocacy group that generally supports CTA initiatives, urged the CTA to reconsider its latest plan.

"Some riders will lose access to transit or face more complicated trips," warned Brenna Conway, a representative of Riders for Better Transit, which is an arm of the Active Transportation Alliance.

Conway told the audience at CTA headquarters, 567 W. Lake St., that inadequate funding lies at the root of the CTA's problems.

CTA officials said riders affected by the canceled bus routes and reduced service will be able to use alternative service on CTA trains and Pace buses.

In addition, 17 rail trips would be added during weekday peak travel times, mostly on the Red, Blue and Brown lines, which are the CTA's busiest train routes.

CTA officials say they are responding to customer complaints that buses and trains are uncomfortably — and often unsafely — packed during rush periods. On overcrowded buses that typically carry 70 passengers, the new target will be 45 to 55 passengers per bus, CTA officials said.

More equipment and train runs would be added as well. Rail cars jammed with 90 or more riders when the CTA is operating at maximum capacity are targeted to see maximum loading decreased to 70 to 75 passengers, officials said.

CTA ridership has risen for 16 consecutive months, adding 22 million new riders since June 2011, according to the transit agency.

Details about the CTA's proposal to reduce crowding, including a list of the affected routes, is posted at transitchicago.com under the link "Crowding Reduction Plan."

jhilkevitch@tribune.com

Twitter @jhilkevitch