Running express buses on the shoulders of the chronically jammed Stevenson Expressway — a congestion-fighting strategy introduced 15 months ago — has proved so successful that Pace plans to add more than a dozen daily trips.
Starting May 6, the number of inbound and outbound trips will increase to 32 a day on two routes between the far southwest suburbs, the Near West Side and downtown Chicago, Pace officials said.
Running buses on expressways is one of the cheapest and most flexible modes of mass transit because it requires little capital investment compared with rail alternatives, experts say.
The strategy is so viable that the suburban bus agency and the Illinois Tollway are partnering to expand express bus routes on the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway (Interstate 90) when the road is rebuilt and widened over the next several years.
"Like anything that's good, you begin to have some growing pains, and one of the ones we're having is capacity problems," said Michael Bolton, Pace's deputy executive director. "We have too many people who want to get on these buses at key boarding locations."
The buses are allowed to maneuver around traffic jams on about 15 miles of left shoulder, roughly between Lemont Road and Kedzie Avenue, from 5 to 9 a.m. for inbound trips and from 3 to 7 p.m. for outbound trips.
Buses can use the shoulder only when traffic is traveling less than 35 mph. When traffic is flowing, the buses use the regular lanes of the Stevenson (I-55).
Pace estimated that the new service will cost an additional $600,000 per year.
The bus-on-shoulder program was initiated with a $1.5 million federal grant to improve air quality and is a cooperative effort by Pace and the Illinois Department of Transportation.
IDOT upgraded the expressway shoulders to accommodate the buses.
Pace Route 755 now runs three inbound and three outbound buses each weekday from Plainfield and Bolingbrook to the Illinois Medical District and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Pace will add three trips in each direction to that route.
At the same time, the agency is eliminating two reverse-commute trips on Route 755.
Route 855 has seven inbound and outbound runs each weekday from Plainfield, Romeoville, Bolingbrook and Burr Ridge to North Michigan Avenue.
On Route 855, Pace is adding three morning and one midday inbound trips, and one midday and three evening outbound trips.
Pace also plans to adopt a limited-stop schedule for Route 855 to speed up the travel times.
More than 550 riders a day use the two routes, Pace said.
Officials say the buses are reducing travel times through the busy corridor and more commuters are leaving cars at home.
Several riders on Thursday said they were thrilled with news of the additional service.
"That will be nice. We'll have more flexibility," said Elva Lopez, 42, of Plainfield, as she waited at the Old Chicago park-and-ride lot in Bolingbrook.
Jill Gabbert, 38, of Bolingbrook, said more buses might mean more time to spend with her daughter Jackie, 6, before leaving for work.
"It's awesome," Gabbert said. "I just get to see my daughter for five minutes in the morning."
In announcing the added service, Pace also said it will begin a novel experiment with Metra to provide another option to Heritage Corridor Line customers.
A new route, 756, will start at Union Station and be available to Heritage Corridor riders who may get out of work too late for the last train.
The Heritage Corridor only runs six trains a day, and the last outbound train leaves at 6:12 p.m.
Route 756 will take customers to Metra stations in Lemont, Romeoville and Lockport.
Running buses on expressway shoulders or in dedicated lanes has been shown to be successful in other places, including Minneapolis-St. Paul, Miami-Dade County in Florida and Toronto.
Freelance reporter Stewart Warren contributed.
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