After firsthand ‘ghost’ bus experience, Chicago mayoral challenger Kam Buckner unveils transportation plan

State Rep. Kam Buckner, shown on May 18, 2022 where he announced his candidacy for Chicago mayor.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidate Kam Buckner has released a plan for rehabilitating public transportation in Chicago that puts a focus on safety, reliability, affordability and making transit more sustainable for the future.

Buckner has made it a point in his campaign in recent months to focus on the troubled public transportation system in Chicago that has been riddled with crime and unreliable service in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is one of the more comprehensive transportation plans released by a mayoral candidate in the crowded field that is looking to unseat Mayor Lori Lightfoot next year. While it rehashes many ideas previously shared with city officials or transit advocates, it also looks toward other cities for inspiration.

Buckner said he often takes the Green Line downtown from Bronzeville when he’s not riding his bike.

But he never rode the CTA “from one end of the city to the other” until Saturday. That’s when he experienced first-hand the security and service problems that everyday riders have been complaining about for some time.

The CTA Green Line station at Cermak Road.

Sun-Times photo

While walking along Chicago Avenue he was “ghosted” by the CTA’s bus tracker — that’s when buses that appear on digital schedules don’t actually show up at a stop — and a second bus was delayed for nearly 30 minutes. When he tried to take a bus from West Lawndale to Little Village, delays were so bad, he gave up and called a ride-hailing service.

The passengers he met along the way shared similar troubling stories with him about poor service.

One rider — who was on the corner of Chicago and Homan avenues in Humboldt Park —told him how she relied on the bus to get back and forth from her three jobs to support her two kids.

“Literally as we were standing there, the tracker said the bus had came and passed us,” Buckner said. “The bus never showed up.”

CTA officials, who have been dealing with a bus operator shortage, have vowed to fix the problem of ghost buses with updated routes, but issues have persisted.

Under Buckner’s plan he said he would improve services and frequency throughout the city by establishing dedicated bus lanes in areas with more riders. Buckner also said there is a need for an integrated fare system that would allow riders to easily transfer between buses and trains.

Passengers board a CTA bus on Western Avenue. Not all buses that appear on the transit agency’s online tracker actually show up when riders expect them.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

He would start by hiring so-called “transit ambassadors” trained in “de-escalation techniques” and by establishing a system that allows riders to text the crime, intimidation, and sanitation problems they see so security personnel can “respond in real-time.”

He would also “restore CTA rides as part of police beats” and dramatically upgrade the CTA’s vast network of 32,000 security cameras that, he claims, are more like expensive window-dressing than a deterrent to crime.

On the service front, Buckner wants to improve bus service and frequency by establishing bus rapid transit lanes in “high-ridership corridors.”

Looking to Boston

He even talked about following the trail blazed by the “Chicago-born” mayor of Boston Michelle Wu.

“She took the analysis and the data and said, ‘These are the routes with the highest ridership numbers. These are the routes that get people into the center of the city. These are the routes that make it seem like we’re coming back from this pandemic,’” Buckner said. “For some of those routes, she actually made ’em free for two years just to kind of increase ridership.”

Buckner is also looking to build public transit in the future which won’t necessarily have immediate returns but sow the seeds for success in the decades to come.

Some of these bold ideas have been getting lip service from city officials for years, including the Red Line extension, which Buckner’s campaign said would cost $2.3 billion, and would help “fill in what many of us have for years known as a ‘transit desert’ on the South Side.”

A Red Line train travels south toward the 95th Street station, currently the end of the line for that route. But plans are in the works to extend the Red Line to 130th Street.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

It should be noted that the city has recently made strides to beginning the work to extend the rails that would stretch to 130th Street. It now estimates it will cost $3.6 billion and use almost $1 billion in property taxes to complete — along with federal funding.

The plan also discusses the need to completely electrify CTA’s bus fleet, which the agency announced earlier this year it is already working toward. CTA said it plans to have a completely electric fleet by 2040.

More ambitious plans include creating a new Metra line that connects McCormick Place, Union Station, the West Loop and O’Hare.

“That’s not a tomorrow thing, obviously. It’s about the future,” Buckner said. “And it’s not necessarily even about this next [mayoral] administration. It may be about the administration after that.”

One of the CTA’s new electric buses, being used on the No. 66 Chicago Avenue route from Austin to Navy Pier, charges up at the pier earlier this year.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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September 14, 2022 at 05:39PM

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