Sic Transit Gloria Mundi!

February 16, 2012 13 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Transportation consultant Robert Mann provides his opinion on recent news releases on flawed local transit planning and a huge transit funding award coming Jacksonville's way.

Bogota's TransMilenio is considered to be an ideal worldwide model of what BRT should be.

Bogota has what is with out a doubt, the leading Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT) in the entire world, but it has been overwhelmed, the system blows 4 lanes throughout the middle of the city today, they are having to move to 6 lanes on their exclusive busways. The incentive  to use the system is pretty strong, driving is illegal 2 days of each week depending on your tag number.  

A Valentines Day news release from the United States Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, announced that JTA has been awarded $38 million dollars for the creation of a bus rapid transit system directly alongside the Florida East Coast Railway's supposed "future commuter rail line." I think we can all see where that’s going.

Map of Jacksonville's proposed Southeast BRT corridor on Philips Highway.

Bus Rapid Transit by any other name is um?  A BUS. Spending $38 million dollars on buses won't make BRT a train. Just as this announcement of Washington's willingness to blow some cash for our transit system flies in the face of another announcement. Jacksonville, the 40th ranked metropolitan area in the United States, now ranks 213th in transit usage for work trips. Compare this to Miami, Miami: 92,112 commute by public transit (3.68 percent), ranking 41st in the nation and fifth in the state. How well does this bode for our faith in JTA'S selection of mode, or in their planning?

Dedicated BRT (which is the most effective) uses an exclusive segregated busway. A busway is more or less a highway for buses; unlike the painted bus lanes found in places like Blanding Boulevard, busway’s are freeways for buses. The only way BRT can achieve an economic impact close to that of rail requires it to make extensive use of exclusive busway’s. While BRT is gaining popularity in the United States, true busway’s are still a rarity — particularly in major metropolitan areas.  Most articles are very polarized, sensationalized opposition between two modes of transportation that should be thought of as complementary, but each actually has a place in the system and this certainly isn't it.

Jacksonville is apparently going with the ‘BRT-LITE’ model, in other words, JTA is going to spend $19.8 million on each of these lines and neither of them will be truly effective BRT. Most of this money will undoubtedly be spent on 8 new "BRT BRANDED BUSES', some improved bus stops and a lot of paint. Since JTA refuses to issue bus transfer tickets, it is hard to see how this is going to have any marked effect on our 213th place ridership.

Map of Jacksonville's proposed North BRT corridor.

The north route will run up Broadway, Boulevard, Golfair and Lem Turner roads to the Wal-Mart at Lem Turner and I-295. The south route will run directly under the Skyway hence down Philips to the Avenues Mall. Both of these routes will cover area's that would be better served by rail, especially the south side route and downtown - Gateway segments, but in all likelihood, this will "replace" their rail plans. In no case should the BRT lines supplant the Skyway, protecting what is by far our largest single transportation improvement.

While the north line from Gateway mall and beyond has some merit, the south line is a complete waste of time and money. Nowhere are the Wizard's of Myrtle Avenue chasing a BRT line to the beach, and they're ignoring the booming west side corridors, either of which might prove to be great feeders for a future rail system. Don't drink the Kool Aid, We most certainly DO NOT need any form of BRT on Philips Highway, but listen to the “logic.”

Mass transit projects that will receive funding if President Obama's 2013 budget is approved by Congress.

"We'll build BRT lanes and when the traffic reaches a certain point, we'll just slide rails under it and we'll have light rail." JTA Exec.

"The people LOVE buses, they hate rail." JTA Exec.

"Light-Rail would cost hundreds of millions of dollars." JTA Exec.

All of these statements were made at the various public Dog and pony shows where JTA attempted to use high-pressure sales techniques to sell BRT to the public. The FACT is NO BRT system in the America's has EVER been converted to rail, and JTA knows it. It is also highly unlikely that the Federal Transit Administration would come along with a checkbook saying, "You did so well with BRT, we want you to convert it to rail." But the war rages on as exemplified by this sentence in a recent Toledo Blade article;

"For many urban planners, busing systems also have become the figurative poor man’s light rail, a shot below the mark for cities focusing on asphalt instead of track and relying on tenuous data promising real estate development around buses."

So lets talk about Jacksonville’s dense corridors. Many BRT proponents point to Bogota's amazing TransMilenio BRT system as a model for the world. Sorry but in an apple-to-apple comparison, one has to ask if investment cost of a truly equal BRT system is really that much "cheaper" than LRT? The cost of the initial 38-km/24-mile TransMilenio system in 2001 was US $350 million (including both   infrastructure and rolling stock); if one adjusts for inflation to 2009 US dollars, and also adjusts for labor/living cost differentials, the equivalent investment cost of a system, in a similar US urban corridor could plausibly be estimated at about $1.8 billion – i.e., about $73 million per mile, or more than the typical cost of a basic LRT system. Moreover, the cost of diesel fuel at $4-$5 a gallon makes a clean electric rail system more desirable (think solar).

In terms of ridership, BRT proponents point to Ottawa Canada's gigantic BRT system, however, what they don't say speaks volumes. The City of Ottawa has a strictly enforced ban on (weekday) all-day parking and other car-curtailment policies and a northern civic ethos among the people targeted helped, too. In fair weather and foul, many will walk or bicycle to work! Try that in Jacksonville.

The Ottawa Transit General Manager was critical in getting Regional Council to adopt the plan. This civil engineer, formerly a highways specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Transport, assured the politicians that "Buses are cheaper than trains and they can get you where you where you want to go." As expenses soared and fortune's declined, the citizens of Ottawa stepped up to the plate. Cost concerns fueled their involvement; as did the elimination in two stages of the Provincial grant for busway’s, which had seemed attractive as long as someone else was paying. The charismatic BRT leader had left the system, which, with declining ridership, could no longer ride on the image of success; and the business community no longer believed what the bus lobby and bureaucrats had been saying.

Here's the deal on BRT. No city has seen explosive privately funded Transit Oriented Development, which sprouts along a fixed rail line. Cleveland claims to have achieved this, but almost all significant growth was public funded agencies (hospitals, social security, etc.) BRT buses still get retired at about 12 years, while many light-rail and streetcars are celebrating their 100th birthday. What Cleveland won't say, is that the greatest amount of new development are at 2 locations where an established rail line crosses the BRT.

JTA's BRT master plan for Jacksonville.  A corridor to Arlington and Jacksonville Beach or Riverside/Avondale and Orange Park could be next.

Could or should Jacksonville have BRT? Absolutely! But it shouldn't run under the Skyway, and it shouldn't follow any potential rail corridors. BRT by nature is a lighter form of transit, and it would make an excellent feeder on Blanding, Normandy, Beach, Atlantic, JTB, with tie-ins to rail or Skyway. BRT should be built in areas where rail is not currently feasible, light density corridors and arterial connectors. The arterial lines themselves should be a mix of commuter rail and streetcar, while the downtown distributor or Skyway system with the addition of streetcar should tie it all together.  
Given a choice of BRT or STREETCAR, with all things being equal, streetcar is the clear choice, for ride, cleanliness, capacity, labor cost and relative silence. Frankly we have been there before, Jacksonville once had a massive streetcar system, and many of its lines were off the street. It didn't die of natural causes and the day after it was sold to "Motor Transit Company," a division of "National City Lines," a division of GENERAL MOTORS, they announced Jacksonville as the "winning city" for a new GM parts warehouse. Actually our crooks got a bad deal, Tampa’s Commissioners all got new LaSalle automobiles. The same highway influence is being peddled today, which is all of the reasons why transit needs to be taken away from our highway building “Authority.”

Oh, and down in Bogota, they’re building rail. Don't pee on our leg and tell us it's raining. sic transit gloria mundi!

Editorial by Robert Mann