How To Love BRT

October 31, 2008 8 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

If Jacksonville fails to get Bus Rapid Transit, it would be a tragic failure. As it is, currently with long headways, the JTA system is ineffective in all but rush hour service. However, because Metro Jacksonville and Jacksonville Transit Blog have expressed support for commuter rail, streetcars and light rail doesn't mean we stand against all BRT.

Getting any more bus service in whatever form would be an improvement. Buses can be very inviting to the stressed out white or blue collar workers. Often stopping near their homes and dropping them at the door of their offices or factories. For the bus to accomplish this it might make several dozen stops along the way, slowly filling or discharging capacity as it moves along the street. Rail in any form just can't do that as well, and we should not force it to be something it is not.


Boston's Silver Line

The argument that buses in the BRT form are cheaper than rail, or "just like rail only cheaper" is misleading.  The fact is cities never seem to get the cheap BRT promised without compromising the components of various systems, which then become just another bus.

Buses are well suited for local and community based transit, rail is better suited to higher speeds, capacity and stage lengths. The most common anti-rail argument is that with BRT, buses to do the same thing as rail for less money. At the heart of that argument is that no one has ever seen BRT do what rail does. In reality, we have seen that it has failed to do what rail does in Los Angeles' Orange Line and Boston's Silver Line. 

Pittsburgh, with some of the earliest and most extensive BRT in the United States, has watched the ridership free fall on the West Line for a number of years.  JTA’s own cost estimates also suggest that the proposed BRT system will cost more than commuter rail and streetcars and will be at least equal to new light rail.  The capital costs of recently completed BRT systems in Boston and Cleveland prove they cost as much as rail, yet do not achieve the same benefits that rail brings to the table. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we want to see BRT fail locally.

 The Los Angeles Orange Line is a two-lane, 14 mile dedicated busway that was completed in 2005 at the cost of $350 million or $25 million per mile.


A Federal Trap


 Salt Lake City's 44 mile Front Runner commuter rail system was constructed for 1/2 the price ($13.9 million per mile) of recent dedicated busway systems.  Considering JTA's rapid transit corridors parallel rail lines, is it possible to substitute portions of the BRT plan for more affordable and attractive rail options?

JTA is stuck with a BRT plan that is already in the Federal New Starts pipeline. The Billion dollar question shouldn't be do we want or need BRT; rather would the Federal Transit Administration allow us to alter the routes or type of mass transit technology after the corridors have already been identified?

Could we simply reroute or curtail some of the plans? This might be possible in cases where we have BRT and commuter rail, Skyway or streetcar identified for the same spot.
For example, rather then building BRT along the railroad from Union Terminal to Park Street, and hence via Blanding to Orange Park. Would it not be better to serve Park Street with a multi-modal station where BRT and rail exchange passengers?  Or would it make financial sense to eliminate the entire proposed BRT line paralleling the CSX “A” to Clay County?



A New BRT Line For Cleveland


Cleveland's 7.1 mile Euclid Corridor BRT was completed in 2008 at the cost of $188.4 million or $26.5 million per mile.

Cleveland's new Euclid Corridor BRT has just opened. Like Jacksonville, they used numbers from US Light Rail in subways and compared those numbers to places like Curitiba, Brazil or Bogota, Colombia. True to form, with echoes of our Skyway, Cleveland claimed close to 50,000 daily riders, then 39,000, then 15,000. In reality, they might reach the 15,000 figure due to rebuilding a busy downtown street. However, it has opened 10 years after the studies were done, and while projected at $21 Million per mile it ended up being $26.5 Million per mile (which is what our total Skyway expense would be if we added just 8.5 miles to the system). Isn't BRT supposed to be quicker and cheaper?

The Federal Trap is that if the Euclid Line was to enter study today, under Ma Peters - it only scored a "medium" and would not be funded at all today. So is JTA running headlong toward an uncertain future because the Federal Government won't allow the flexibility to fix the BRT if the various rail studies come in as more cost effective. It's already in the pipeline; pull the plug now, try to restart and the FTA would just slam the door. We thought the reason for BRT projects was because they are more flexible and cost effective. Basically, what this proves is that the FTA doesn't want to spend money on projects that give transit its own Right-Of-Way. No, not painting lanes on the street, but a true separation from other traffic that makes it more effective. Today, it’s required to get a medium in Cost Effectiveness. 

There are currently 85 projects in some phase of the FTA process from 2005 when the medium cost effectiveness was enforced. Today, not including small starts, that number dropped to 31 projects. Lest you think that projects are rightly being cut, it should be noted that Denver's Southeast Corridor, Charlotte's South Corridor, the Los Angeles Orange Line, and the Minneapolis Hiawatha Line all had a Medium Low ratings. Those projects have all passed their projections yet would not have been funded under the current process. We can only wish Cleveland the best with their new BRT system, but it's an improvement in the corridor, one that the FTA would not approve of these days.

The BRT subject in Cleveland during the planning and building of the Euclid Corridor (EC) BRT line, rightly or wrongly, has been fairly controversial with locals. According to Plain Dealer newspaper articles, some of the criticism comes from a misunderstanding of who funded the project and where the money came from. Other criticism comes from the idea that building the EC meant Cleveland squandered resources that could have been used for a better transit project.

It is true that EC replaced an existing bus line on Euclid Ave. It is also true that the old bus line was horribly crowded, slow, and inefficient. A primary selling point of the EC was that it connects the city's two biggest employment centers: downtown and University Circle. Of course, they already have the Red Line (heavy rail) that connects those two neighborhoods (although the stations could be relocated to better serve that end; and one of them is currently planned to be rebuilt).

The Euclid Corridor BRT parallels the Red Line, which is a heavy rail system.  With this duplicate route, Cleveland missed an opportunity to complement the Red Line by improving mass transit connectivity into suburbs like Cleveland Heights.

The alignment of the BRT line is one of the biggest disappointments. The alignment that was built continues down Euclid Ave. into East Cleveland, which few locals will argue is the city's roughest, most rundown and unsalvageable parts of the area. It is also an area that is already served by the Red Line. Not unlike Jacksonville's BRT routes that run under the Skyway or alongside railroad tracks. It would have been exciting to see an alignment that turned south and east at University Circle and provided transit service to neighborhoods like Cleveland Heights and University Heights.

It would have also certainly been more exciting to have a new electric rail line (whether light or heavy) down Euclid Ave. and into neighborhoods that currently lack good transit service to University Circle and downtown. Ridership expectations may not necessarily be high, as the Plain Dealer claims, but the stakes certainly are high. Critics are ready to pounce on the project and officially label it as a failure and waste of valuable resources.



Is BRT a Stepping Stone to Rail?


Ottawa's Transitway was originally billed as a BRT system that could be converted into light rail, at some distant point in the future.  However a February 2003 Rapid Transit Expansion Study suggests this would be difficult because it would result in service disruption and an additional billion dollars in capital costs. Why repeat Ottawa's mistake when we already know better?

Cleveland’s Mr. Calabrese is the push behind the Euclid BRT, he parrots the standard line on BRT just being a stepping stone to rail. "Bus rapid transit lines can be designated and more buses can be tacked on if the service starts to grow. If the volume grows to a point, then some of these vehicles can be linked together. And then tracks can be laid".

Suddenly a bus system has become a full fledged light rail system. If the volume grows some of "THESE VEHICLES" can be linked together? Buses? Really? Where has this happened? Where have they just slipped rails under the bus and got instant light rail? Can you image this happening on the Arlington Expressway or I-95 North BRT alignments?  The fact is BRT proponents are being dishonest with the public. They know the only thing even close to this is a highly experimental "Bus Train" following a virtual test track or when the City of Curitiba, Brazil, BRT system failed to meet demand (after being the model for both Cleveland and Jacksonville) forcing the City of Curitiba to build a new Metro Rail System.

Vintage Streetcars, Commuter Rail, Modern Streetcars, Light Rail and Skyways are not cheap, but they are cheaper than the BRT alternative as proposed and typical highway construction.  For example, the Outer Beltway is expected to cost $1.8 billion with the Federal contribution being $69.2 Million. The new interchange at I-10 and I-95 is another $148 Million. Furthermore, a 2-mile I-275 project in Tampa is estimated to cost another $500 million.


 Tampa's Airport Interchanges (SR 60) project:  This 3 mile/$212 million ($70.67 million per mile) project is a prime example of our expensive investments in road construction. 

Each of these projects cost considerably more money per mile than rail and none can move as many people as rail could at capacity.  Rail is cheaper to operate per passenger miles than buses, which is why you want riders going long distances to do so on rail. Exclusive lane BRT in Jacksonville is not going to work if the current routes pass review. Even if BRT bus lanes succeed in moving the buses to a ramp, congestion and fuel will continue to eat into bus funding, making buses ever more expensive to operate per passenger mile. This is why buses are better suited for local access and rail is better suited for longer distances. 

Investment in streetcars and commuter rail will pay off spectacularly because we’ll be able to put buses that are used for long-haul service back to where they are effective, into shorter local service. Once riders get on rail, they become much cheaper per over the distance, thus we save money and can improve service elsewhere.  Rail isn’t cheap if you have no buses, and buses aren’t cheap if they are asked to do what rail should be doing.


The ability to attract transit oriented development and raise adjacent property values are two areas where rail consistently beats Bus Rapid Transit.  As we plan for our future, mass transit planning should be a visionary element in those efforts, as opposed to being a reactionary solution to congestion.

The only people that would be happy that commuter rail, streetcar and Skyway expansion projects won’t happen are the anti-everything set, who claim to be in support of our current BRT plans, but, are in truth anti-change. They can continue to compare high dollar subways to BRT systems in far away places like Lima, Peru and Bogotá, Colombia. They know full well that BRT can’t do what rail can, and in watching our own JTA BRT project crash and burn, they remain against any form of transit mix that actually works. Meanwhile, unable to maneuver, JTA becomes a more visible failure and contrary to popular belief, no one at Metro Jacksonville or Jacksonville Transit Blog will be cheering.


Guest article by Bob Mann; Photo text by Ennis Davis

Special Thanks:

Jacksonville Transit Blog
The Overhead Wire
City of Cleveland
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Mr. Michael Blaylock
Mr. Mike Miller
Mr. Rob Pitingolo
The Toledo Blade
Seattle Transit Blog
Light Rail Now