Bus Rapid Transit vs. Commuter Rail

July 3, 2006 4 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

ALL ABOUT JACKSONVILLE’S PLANNED BRT SYSTEMBus Rapid Transit vs. Commuter Rail – Part I of a 5 part seriesI-95 I-10 congestion in June 2006. Imagine this scene in 2025

Reasons for Mass Transit

Without a doubt, our region is rapidly growing up right before our eyes, from a large Florida city into a regional metropolis. This can be seen by the towers rising downtown and at the beaches, condos and houses sprouting up in neighboring counties, and by our roads becoming more congested on a daily basis. For years, despite our rapid growth, Jacksonville and Florida, for the most part, has favored expanding highways as temporary solutions for our transit woes. With rising construction material costs, land costs and limited funds this is becoming more difficult to do. The time is quickly approaching when leaders and transportation planners finally realize that we can’t pave ourselves out of congestion. Instead we need to invest our time and effort into strengthening and building up alternative modes of transit, which would then give residents multiple options to access different areas of the region.

The I-95/I-10 interchange, when completed in 6 years, will cost taxpayers $206 million

BRT planned to deal with future congestion

With this in mind, JTA has embarked on an ambitious plan for a 29 mile Bus Rapid Transit system that, if successful, can be up and running by 2025. So what is Bus Rapid Transit or (BRT)? A BRT system consists of a combination of dedicated transitways, bus lanes (known as HOV lanes), and traffic signal improvements allowing buses to bypass congestion at busy intersections.

After 20 years construction and $611 million spent (likely to cost much more), it won’t even reach the fastest growing areas of the region, meaning our transportation system will continue to deteriorate.

JTA believes that by setting aside lanes exclusively for buses, riding them will become popular because they will travel free of rush hour congestion. While Metro Jacksonville thanks JTA for its hard work in looking towards the future, we don’t agree with this idea. BRT has been around for years and no other major American city has solved the negative stigma associated with buses, so there’s no logical reason to expect JTA to re-invent the wheel. You can put lipstick on a pig, but its still a pig.

Because of this, over the next couple of weeks a series of articles will be released showing why we believe it may be time to reevaluate this plan and make establishing a local/regional commuter rail system a higher priority over buses.

BRT is great, when placed in its place. It is good bus service, not rapid transit.


What’s Wrong with BRT?

Express bus lanes aren’t a new concept and are great when implemented within the right context. Unfortunately, that isn’t Jacksonville. As of 2005, our estimated city population stood at 782,623, while the five county metro area has ballooned to over 1.3 million. By the time our 29-mile inner city system becomes operational in 2025, the city’s estimated population will be over 1 million. Major arteries like Blanding, Southside, I-95 and JTB are already suffering from congestion right now in 2006. Imagine what those drives will be like in 20 years and the negative affect that will have on economic development and the quality of life of our region?

A plethora of reasons to reconsider the BRT plan

Before we pull out the blade and start slicing bus tires, lets list a few positives (over commuter rail) BRT brings to the table:

1. Much easier for JTA to plan and implement
2. Will not require the cooperation of private businesses (railroads)
3. JTA won't have to do anything for 20 years

Here are several negative factors, concerning BRT, to consider:

Very costly

According to a November 2004 Times-Union article, this 29-mile bus system was estimated to cost $611 million dollars! That comes out to over $21 million per mile. Considering the rapid rise in construction costs (remember the courthouse budget?) and that this estimate was conducted two years ago, this plan will easily surpass $700 million and possibly $800 million. By contrast, commuter rail systems are ranging anywhere from $2 to $10 million per mile.

20 years too long to build

Keep in mind that the 20 year goal is simply when the VERY FIRST TICKETED PASSENGER can step aboard a BRT Bus and go from one station to another. It will be MUCH longer until the entire plan is implemented. This is from the words of Mike Miller (the conversation was recorded). Some claim that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. That may be true, but at this rate, we’re still in the stands.

BRT not really “Rapid”

While its understandable why JTA chose BRT over light rail (light rail is too expensive), let’s face the facts. BRT is another road for express bus lanes and will still be subject to sit in traffic, like everyone else. It may have signal priority, but considering how traffic backs up at lights and turn lanes, it will have to reach the signal first. Furthermore, giving signal priority to buses will make traffic on all major associated roads worse, by interrupting the traffic flow. By contrast, commuter rail would travel on existing freight rail tracks that are already grade separated at most major crossings. Now that’s rapid transit, without giving the middle finger to other modes of transit.

Political pressure to open bus lanes to cars

A significant portion of the dedicated transitways will be constructed in the median of I-95. In many larger cities, these roadways are known as HOV lanes. Considering the low ridership the buses will carry (considering the $700 million to build) and the high level of congestion on the regular lanes, it is clear that there will be pressure to share these lanes with cars, reducing BRT’s effectiveness.

When built out, will not serve a majority of the city

After spending $700 million and over 20 years of construction, the system will only stretch to Gateway Mall (north), Regency Mall (east), Baymeadows Rd (South) and 103rd St (South). How will that relieve congestion coming from St. Johns County, the beaches, and Orange Park? Easy….it won’t!

It will not promote transit-oriented development

Recently, JTA has announced several transit-oriented developments (TOD) near its skyway stations. The most recent came this week with a massive infill project planned for Brooklyn. While it’s a well known fact that rail transit (yes, even the skyway) attracts development, BRT typically doesn’t. The reason it doesn’t is the same reason JTA touts as an advantage, its flexible, meaning the routes can change. What developer in his right mind would develop a permanent TOD near a line that could pick up and move tomorrow? The positives of roads and rail are that they are fixed. Commuters don’t have to worry about the Fuller Warren not being there tomorrow morning. By the same token, Mitsui can make a $100 million dollar investment at the port without worrying about CSX pulling up its rails and rebuilding them on Black Hammock Island.

Most of the system parallels existing rail

In downtown, the proposed system eliminates parallel parking on Forsyth & Bay, for bus HOV lanes (imagine standing on a sidewalk with a bus blowing by with signal priority). It also runs parallel to most of the skyway’s route. Considering how much it cost to construct the skyway and its low ridership, it’s probably a good idea to not spend more money creating something that will compete head-to-head with it.

Further out, BRT’s routes run parallel to rail tracks down Phillips Hwy and Roosevelt Blvd. Since the rail infrastructure is already there, it would be a disgrace to ignore perfectly positioned rail lines, serving many popular destinations throughout the region. Jacksonville is fairly unique logistically speaking. So much so, that our strategic rail lines and confluence of two major interstates have made our port a fearsome competitor on the east coast. To completely ignore the rail lines that already lie in place is asinine. JTA officials will counter with, "You don't know what it takes to negotiate usage of those lines with the railroads." Our response to that is, "Why do cities, such as Miami, Orlando and Dallas, have leaders who can negotiate these kind of deals, but we don't here in Jacksonville?"

City already owns rail right-of-way in the Northside

Years ago, the city took over ownership of the “S-Line”, former rail right of way running 4.5 miles from the yards just west of the Prime Osborn up to Gateway Mall. Although originally planned for a rails to trails project, this could be a major head start and segment for an urban commuter rail line through the city. It would also be a boon for Durkeeville, Springfield, and the Gateway area by connecting those residents with direct access to Shands and other major local destinations, such as the airport, River City Marketplace, Avenues Mall and possibly Historic St. Augustine. Stations could also be placed to allow strategic transit oriented developments, with an emphasis on affordable housing, helping to stimulate growth and redevelopment in these historic areas of town.

Buses still have a negative stigma associated with them

We keep hearing from local officials on how we need to change our current mode of thinking from a suburban mindset to an urban mindset, when it comes to solving our transportation problems. Souped up city buses do not do it. There is no buzz associated with buses with people who have the option of not using them. The stigma associated with buses is much larger and complex than anything we can solve. On the other hand, commuter rail brings the connotation of more upscale and sophisticated city living, improves the area’s quality of life, and puts the city in a much better position when it comes to competing for economic development.