In its own quiet way, Pace is becoming the little (diesel/compressed natural gas) engine that could.
Traditionally, the suburban bus agency takes a back seat to its big brothers -- Metra and the CTA, which scoop up most of the transit revenues and carry the lion's share of the passengers.
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Constant vigilancePilfering persistently plagues CTA passengers, particularly when it comes to easily snatched items like smartphones and electronic devices, the agency reported last week. But violent crime is down -- robberies decreased 21 percent and aggravated batteries dipped nearly 12 percent in 2012, the Chicago Transit Authority said. Thefts, however, spiked by almost 16 percent while fare evasion skyrocketed 41 percent.
But despite the low profile, Pace is expanding service in original ways -- all this during a time of status quo elsewhere.
I recently caught up with Pace Executive Director T.J. Ross, a civil engineer, to talk about what's new at the agency.
This year "is where everything changes," he said.
Among those milestones are express buses surfing the Jane Addams (I-90) that eventually will link Palatine to Schaumburg, Rosemont to Elgin, Elgin to Schaumburg and Addison to Schaumburg.
Transit along I-90 isn't a new vision as fans of the STAR Line will remember. The cost-prohibitive STAR Line -- a much ballyhooed commuter rail service that would have connected the North, West and South suburbs -- flatlined during the recession and shows no signs of life.
But Pace intends to launch its I-90 express buses over the next few years in partnership with the Illinois tollway, which is widening the road. The agency is building on the success of express buses on the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) that hop on the shoulder when traffic is congested.
"The key to all this is that it's doable," Ross said, pointing out that discussions on the STAR Line started 15 years ago.
"We don't have to sit and think about finding billions and billions of dollars to build a rail system. The funding is available for this now; we have (federal congestion-relief) money to fund the buses and the service."
The I-90 corridor is home to 485,170 jobs -- 13 percent of the region's daily trips to work. But only 2 percent of those trips are by transit and Pace wants to buck that trend.
This year, the goal is to expand service on two existing buses -- Routes 600 between Schaumburg and Rosemont and 610 between Rosemont and Prairie Stone in Hoffman Estates.
In 2016, Pace expects to roll out four new express bus routes plus Park & Ride lots at I-90 interchanges including Randall Road, Route 25 and Barrington Road.
The expectation is there will be a dedicated lane for the buses once the tollway widening is complete.
"The idea is to have reliable service at a speed that competes with the automobile," Ross said. "That's what we found on I-55 -- once we were able to operate reliably -- then ridership just took off."
Pace will take the lessons they learn from express buses on I-55 and I-90 and apply that to the extended Elgin-O'Hare Expressway and eventually to the I-88 corridor.
Another innovation involves rapid-transit buses on some major suburban roads. Rapid-transit buses are a step up from conventional buses -- they'll possess the super power of lengthening green lights via transponders -- but not as fast as expresses. Pace is aiming for service on Milwaukee Avenue, Dempster Avenue and Cermak Road in the short-term, but Ross acknowledges there's demand for fast buses on Route 59 and Randall Road in Kane County.
And in late spring, Pace intends to expand its I-55 Bus on Shoulder service. "We've had requests for additional midday and later evening buses," Ross said. "We're also looking at how to distribute loads more efficiently ... we have some pickups that are pretty close."
CTA and Pace transit card
This year, Pace and the CTA will offer a much-awaited new transit card -- dubbed Ventra -- that allows riders to seamlessly travel between both systems.
"Historically, transit coined their own money ... tokens were a lot easier to count than change when fares were 15 cents or 25 cents," Ross said. "We're beyond that now, we have technology to go into electronic fare payment and do it as banks do it."
The contactless card will be tested this spring. Ventra consists of a transit card or a credit/transit card that riders can use with new touch pads on buses. Bank cards are eligible too and eventually mobile phones.
"It flat-out makes sense," Ross said. "And it opens up almost 500 locations in the suburbs that you'll be able to buy a Ventra card, whereas right now there's very few places you can buy a Pace card ... it will allow people to access transit fare cards throughout the suburbs."
Those locations will include Jewel, Walgreens and CVS stores as well as independent shops, Ross said.
"We'll start seeing it used in June and July, and a year from now, we'll be fully transitioned."
Ross wants more employers and workers to take advantage of pretax transit benefits. This allows commuters to make pretax payroll deductions to pay for transit, similar to health-savings accounts. The monthly set-aside is a maximum of $245. (To learn more, check out this Regional Transit Authority link at www.lesstaxingcommute.com.)
"It could save you anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent," Ross said, adding that not enough people are taking advantage of the discount. "We're sending a couple hundred million dollars (in taxes) to Washington D.C. and that money could stay in the region."
So what do you think of Pace's plans or any other transportation issues? Drop me an email at email@example.com.
Ken Juranek of Des Plaines has attended 43 Chicago Auto Shows including this year's version. His thoughts: "I'd like to see more concepts. The Hyundai Veloster C3 with the bike was fun ... if impractical," Juranek said.
"It seemed that the spokesmen gave fewer talks this year. I was at the show for six hours and hardly heard any. I tried the Honda demonstration of its right-hand rearview mirror camera, but by the afternoon it didn't work. It was great seeing the classic cars. Love the Chrysler Town & Country -- even if maintaining the wood is as impractical as the Veloster.
"Despite these criticisms, I plan to be back in 2014."
Ken wins a coveted Auto Show bag for his comments, but I still have a few choice chotchkies in the wings for future letter writers.
Could it be the first construction notice of the season? I think it is! And Kane County is the winner. Drivers should expect traffic shifts on Route 20/Lake Street in Elgin as reconstruction of the McLean Boulevard bridge creeps onward. Westbound traffic will be moved into the eastbound lanes and speeds will be 45 mph.
You should know
If you're interested in signing up for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Global Entry program, there's a new enrollment center in the Loop, just a few blocks from Union Station. Global Entry lets travelers who meet government security thresholds whisk through airport lineups at the speed of light (nearly) using automated kiosks. The new enrollment center opened last week at 610 S. Canal St. and hours are 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. For more info, call (312) 542-5700 or go to www.globalentry.gov.