Ashland BRT: Make your voice heard

Catherine Garypie is a resident of the East Village, a member of EVA and an environmental attorney. She will give a short presentation at the 7pm Sept. 9 EVA meeting in the Happy Village, 1059 N. Wolcott Ave.

By Catherine Garypie

Express bus lanes along Ashland Avenue will not be built without an environmental analysis: It’s a requirement for federal funding. Here’s how the Bus Rapid Transit project will proceed and how you can participate.

The Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration defines a BRT as “an enhanced bus system that operates on bus lanes or other transitways in order to combine the flexibility of buses with the efficiency of rail.” BRTs are up and running both in the United States and elsewhere.

Chicago has one BRT currently operating: the Jeffrey Jump. Launched on Nov. 12, 2012, the Jeffery Jump J14 service runs from 103rd Street to Metra’s Ogilvie and Union Stations. Chicago is also developing a “Central Loop” BRT: bus-only lanes along Washington and Madison streets.

In July 2010, the CTA applied to the FTA for a Livability Alternatives Analysis grant to plan for BRT investments in the Western and Ashland Avenue corridors, and CTA was awarded $1.6 million in grant money in December 2010. The project has been separated into three phases: planning, design and construction.

Planning phase
The Ashland BRT project appears to have completed the planning phase, which consists of Phase I & II Alternatives Analysis activities.

Phase I: Several alternatives were evaluated that fit within the existing street and sidewalks. Public meetings were held June 12-14, 2012. Meeting display boards from June 2012 can be found here. Six options were recommended for further analysis in Phase II.

Phase II: Sidewalk width reduction options were removed from consideration. In October 2012, CTA held three open houses to provide more information about the BRT concepts. Open house display boards can be found here.

After the Phase II public comments were considered, on April 19, 2013, CTA announced its preferred alternative: Center Running BRT, Travel Lane Removal on Ashland Avenue.

Design phase
The Ashland BRT project is now in the design phase. In this phase, the CTA is conducting preliminary engineering and environmental/National Environmental Policy Act review. The focus of this article is on the environmental/NEPA review.

NEPA was signed into law in 1970. NEPA was passed to ensure that federal agencies (or entities granted federal funds) would consider environmental concerns when making decisions, because statutes that created the agencies did not include an environmental mandate.

It is important to note that NEPA mandates a process, not an outcome. Under Section 102(C) of NEPA “[a]ll Federal Agencies are required to include in every recommendation or report on proposals for legislation and other major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment, a detailed statement by the responsible official on ... the environmental impact of the proposed action … [including] alternatives to the proposed action”.

The NEPA process consists of an evaluation of the environmental effects of a federal undertaking, including its alternatives. There are 3 level of analysis:

(1) Categorical Exclusion: [Not applicable to Ashland BRT]

(2) Environmental Assessment: An analysis is prepared to determine if the project would significantly affect the environment. The elements of an EA can be found here: . If the answer is no, a Finding of No Significant Impact is issued. The FONSI may address measures which will be taken to mitigate potentially significant impacts.

(3) Environmental Impact Statement: if an EA determines that the project would significantly affect the environment, an EIS is prepared. An EIS is a more detailed evaluation of the proposed action and alternatives. The required elements of an EIS can be found here. The public, other federal agencies, and outside parties may provide input into the preparation of an EIS and then comment on the draft EIS when it is completed. At the conclusion of the EIS process a Record of Decision is issued.

If a federal agency anticipates that an undertaking may significantly impact the environment, or if a project is environmentally controversial, a federal agency may choose to prepare an EIS without having to first prepare an EA. After a final EIS is prepared and at the time of its decision, a federal agency will prepare a public record of its decision addressing how the findings of the EIS, including consideration of alternatives, were incorporated into the agency's decision-making process.

Public comment

How you can participate in the Ashland BRT environmental analysis:

• The CTA is preparing an EA for the Ashland BRT. It will be released to the public. Often EAs are made available electronically online, or in hard copy at a local public library. Sign up for the Ashland BRT mailing list here to learn more about when and where the EA will be made available: Read the EA. Also read “Citizen’s Guide to the NEPA."

Consider these questions:

(1) Did the CTA take a “hard look” at the problem?

(2) Did the CTA identify the relevant areas of environmental concern?

• Topics which may be addressed in an EA include: noise, vibration, air quality, water quality, light emissions, solid waste and hazardous materials, environmental justice (effects on minority and low-income persons), social (community disruption), and surface transportation (comparing alternative with the long-range Regional Transportation Plan of a particular location).

• The CTA informed EVA at its Aug. 5 meeting that there will be a 30-day public comment period for the EA, including public hearings. Submit written comments or verbal comments regarding the EA during the public comment period either in writing or verbally at a public hearing. (Note: Agencies will not ordinarily respond to comments in the public hearing – rather they will record your comments and respond to them in writing when the decision to issue a FONSI or move to an EIS is made.)

• If a FONSI is ultimately issued, consider these questions:

(1) Did the CTA make a convincing case that the impact was insignificant?

(2) If there was a significant impact found by the agency, did the CTA convincingly establish that changes in the project sufficiently reduced it to a minimum?

Construction phase
Once the preliminary engineering and environmental/NEPA review has concluded, a final design will be produced and the Ashland BRT will enter the construction phase, including both construction and operation.
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