Waiting for the Bus

Maggie Sivit

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Many South Side residents are used to long waits for buses. But for members of five Southwest Side neighborhoods, the wait is going on its 14th year.  In April 2008, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, as part of their 30-year plan for the city, held a series of meetings in Little Village, where residents vocalized their need for better transit. Soon afterwards, the community decided it was time to restore east-west bus service along a main commercial corridor in their neighborhood that was cut by the Chicago Transit Authority in 1997. Organizers from Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) met with community members who both remembered a historic 31st Street bus and expressed interest in bringing back the service. They worked with the CTA to locate a source of funding. That summer, the CTA received a federal grant earmarked for the 31st Street bus totaling $1,067,659.

But today, there is no bus along 31st Street. In the neighborhoods the street cuts through–Bronzeville, Armour Square, Bridgeport, McKinley Park, and Little Village–east-west bus service is lacking. Between Cermak Road and 47th Street, Chicago’s grid system of bus service breaks down, leaving large areas of white space on the CTA system map and roughly 200,000 people without a direct route. The #35, #39, and #60 buses provide service along 35th, 39th, and parts of 26th Streets, but the #35 and #39 terminate near Kedzie Avenue, and the #60 diverts north to the loop at Western Avenue. No bus provides a straight route from the lake to Chicago’s western boundary. “You have to hopscotch–go past where you need to go to get where you’re going,” says Bridgeport resident and community activist Maureen Sullivan.

The grant the CTA received in 2008 as part of the Job Access Reverse Commute (JARC) program of the U.S. Department of Transportation was a victory, but it came with a catch. The program requires that 50 percent of the transportation project’s operational budget be provided by state and local funds.

This has proven to be a major roadblock for the 31st Street bus campaign. The implementation and operations costs for the proposed route are estimated by the CTA to be approximately $2 million, not including the portion of the expense to be covered by fares. The CTA must match the $1 million grant in order for the bus to become a reality, at least for the trial period. In an e-mailed statement, the agency stated, “Currently, there are no local match funds identified to implement the project.”  Residents have waited for this to change for the past three years.

The CTA has drafted a route to connect to the Red and Orange ‘L’ Lines as well as the new Rock Island district Metra stop at 35th Street, though the proposal has not been finalized. It would provide transportation for working, transit-dependent residents of the West and near South Side to major workplaces such as Domino Sugar, Prima Plastics, and Dearborn Produce. Teens and families could access parks and the 31st Street beach. The route would end at Cicero Avenue, traveling north a few blocks through a commercial center to Target. LVEJO has also proposed that the route extend north on its eastern end, running express on Lakeshore Drive to McCormick Place and the Museum Campus. Mike Pitula, a community organizer and LVEJO’s director of public transit, claims that currently, “this area has no direct bus access from the West or South Side.”

Although the grant specifies that the 31st Street route provide access to jobs, Pitula argues that this service is important for two more reasons: to contribute to environmental efforts and to create safe routes to local schools.

The proposed bus route would service De La Salle Institute and Illinois Institute of Technology in Bronzeville, as well as Holden Elementary School in Bridgeport. And, more urgently, the 31st Street bus would provide safe transportation to a school in dire need of it. According to a survey conducted by LVEJO, Little Village-Lawndale High School is the only high school in Chicago that does not have CTA service within 2.5 blocks. According to Pitula, approximately one-quarter of the students who attend LVLHS must cross a gang boundary while walking to school. Violence has spiked along 31st Street since 2009. One of two closest CTA stops to the high school is on Cicero Avenue, but Pitula says there have been reports of young women being sexually harassed after school on a nearby bridge. “While it wouldn’t be a magic bullet, having a bus route would be one way to prevent these interactions from happening,” he says.

Schoolchildren aren’t the only population the bus would impact. Older residents have struggled with the lack of bus service for a long time. Senior citizens with limited mobility, who can’t get to checkups at Mercy Hospital or to the senior club at Piotrowski Park, have been particularly vocal in the 31st Street bus debate. Tom Gaulke, a pastor at the First Trinity Church in Bridgeport has heard his parishioners complain and summarized their dissatisfaction: “all these little old ladies at the senior home can never make it out anywhere.”

In May 2011, after three years, LVEJO decided to take action once again. “This spring, we realized there was a deadline coming up,” said Pitula, “you don’t just get a grant and sit on it forever.” The CTA claimed in an August community meeting and in an e-mail statement this past week that the $1 million will not expire. But according to the Federal Transit Authority’s website, JARC funding is available only for a total of three years after apportionment.

According to Pitula, the CTA has applied for a one-year extension of the grant. “It’s a fairly routine procedure,” he says, but the current phase in LVEJO’s campaign is to put pressure on the Federal Transit Administration to approve the extension. They expect to hear back before the end of the year.

This summer, working under pressure of an imminent deadline, the campaign expanded to encompass other communities along the route. In fact, some groups were already vocalizing their concerns about the bus route’s progress independently from LVEJO. According to Pitula, the campaign began in two places simultaneously three years ago: Little Village and Facebook. The Facebook page was created by lifelong resident of Bridgeport and video store owner Joe Trutin as part of his campaign for state representative in 2009. He and the Little Village activists have since joined forces, with Trutin rallying residents of Bridgeport and McKinley Park. He’s also taken on the task of gathering data to bolster their case–over the last few months, Trutin has been measuring the width of streets in attempt to refute one resident’s claim that 31st Street is not wide enough for bus service. He and Pitula have fought all opposition, however small, but Trutin says only two members of these communities have publicly voiced it.

Though much of the organizing has been centered in Little Village and Bridgeport, the issue crosses many neighborhood boundaries and has engaged many people. In late August, the CTA held a meeting with community members at the McKinley Park library. In addition to residents of Little Village, Bridgeport and Chinatown, senior citizens from Armour Square and McKinley Park came to emphasize their dependency on transit. “We showed them that we were a diverse group of people who had a common goal,” says Connie Ma, who works at the Chinese American Service League in Chinatown. Many community organizations have signed on to the campaign, from church groups and cultural clubs to the more extreme Citizens Against Terrible Transit. Pitula expressed that his goal this summer was to build “a cross-town coalition composed of residents along this route,” and it appears he has been successful.

At one point in this process, some residents–bus drivers and mechanics who could contribute their skills to the community–tossed around the idea of providing their own bus service. Pitula summarized this project as a “worker self-managed bus cooperative” that would be organized by the Chicago chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World. “It would be a demonstration for the CTA, but also an alternative model of transit to provide work and service for people in the community,” he said. The idea, added Ma, would be “to utilize the people the CTA has laid off.” While progress on this alternative has stagnated over the past few months, the idea of an independent bus service is not foreign to Little Village. Pitula remembers a free shuttle service along 26th Street that was disconnected a few years ago–a single school bus that residents could flag at street corners, funded by advertisements on its exterior.

The push for a 31st Street bus is a fight to provide South Side residents with easier mobility, a need that other Chicagoans recognize. Sullivan, who lives and works in Bridgeport, points out that the major expressways are easily accessible from the near South Side, but there are many people in these neighborhoods who do not own cars and their movement is, as a consequence, limited to their own neighborhoods. To some extent, a 31st Street bus would unite the neighborhoods it serves and reduce this isolation. “Once people travel, they start exploring,” Trutin explains.

The people behind the 31st Street bus campaign realize that theirs is an uphill battle–to add a route at a time when CTA trends have tended towards increased fares and cutting service–but pressure on the CTA is building. The project has received letters of support from one state senator, two state representatives, and three aldermen, according to its Facebook page. The $1 million needed to implement this route is less than one tenth of one percent of the  CTA’s annual budget, but Pitula nonetheless has taken them at their word that the agency does not have the identified funds.

Residents of these communities will not stop fighting for the 31st Street bus–some have already been fighting for 14 years. In the meantime, local organizations are simply asking for acknowledgement by transit officials. The CTA claims that service along 31st Street was originally cut in 1997 due to low ridership, but Ma argues that the people who the decision affected were the people who needed it most. “If one person needs the bus more than someone who has a car, shouldn’t it be more important that the first person receives this service?” she asks. While a bus would be a major victory on many levels, the immediate issue is a lack of communication between the CTA and the people it serves.

“We just want a confirmation that the CTA sympathizes with us on a human level,” Ma reflects, a sentiment she said many expressed at the August meeting. “But they kind of stared blankly at me.”