JTA: Why BRT is the Better Choice for Jacksonville

December 16, 2007 9 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The full text of JTA's article from their in house newsletter follows: If you ask people whether they would rather ride a bus or a train ? most would probably choose a train. There has long been a fascination and a certain romance in this country for trains. Trains are part of the fabric of America. As children, we grew up playing with trains. But when it comes to public transportation, however, trains may not always be the best choice. Case in point ? Jacksonville.

As the Jacksonville Transportation Authority embarks on its plan to implement bus rapid transit (or BRT) as part of its overall Regional Transportation System, many are wondering – why not rail? Plain and simple, they want their trains. It’s a fair question. But JTA has not abandoned the idea of trains. In fact, JTA is currently considering commuter rail, light rail, and even electric streetcars as part of its long-range, multi-modal transportation system.

The idea is to use rail as a complement to bus rapid transit. To better understand each system, how they work and why one may be better suited than another in particular situations,let’s examine what each system does.

Commuter rail is a predominantly diesel-powered system that typically transports commuters between suburban “bedroom” communities into the urban business district (think of a passenger-only train picking up people in Palatka, Green Cove Springs, Orange Park and the Westside and dropping them at a downtown locationwhere they would walk, trolley or Skyway to work or school). The stops are generally no closer than one mile apart to allow the train to get up-to-speed. Having stops any closer would significantly slow the train, defeating its purpose.

Light rail (commonly referred to as LRT), however, runs on overhead electric power and generally transports passengerswithin an urban environment. LRT runs at slower speeds and typically has more stops than does commuter rail.Bus rapid transit (BRT) often runs on exclusivelanes on major arteries, avoiding typical traffic congestion found on regular bus service or traveling in your own personal vehicle. It is flexible, however, not locked into one set of tracks. BRT can also utilize Intelligent Transportation Systems such as queue jumping and signal priority to gain ground ahead of regular congestion.

So which is better? Each system has its own merits and serves its own specific purpose. In Jacksonville, however, it is believed that BRT is the best system to mobilize more people. In short – BRT is the better way.

Proponents for light rail typically argue two main points in favor of LRT use here in Jacksonville – existing rail lines and cheaper cost. However, a closer examination shows neither to be accurate. (see graphs)First, let’s look at the existing rail lines.While it’s true there are three sets of active rail systems running through the Jacksonville area (FEC, CSX and Norfolk-Southern) in addition to the abandoned S-Line, each has its own challenges. Some see the old S-line as the perfect setup for light rail in Jacksonville. But after closer examination, the S-line is far from the perfect scenario.

What used to be the S-Line, weaves from downtown to the Gateway Shopping Center on the Northside (see map). What might seem like an excellent opportunity for LRT may actually work better as a neighborhood circulator.

“The S-Line is a circuitous route that is better suited to a slower neighborhood circulator-type transit service rather than a direct rapid type service,” said Scott Clem, JTA Director of Strategic Planning. “In addition, the S-Line has numerous cross streets that also makes it better suited to a neighborhood circulator service. JTA is currently re-evaluating the merits of the S-Line as part of its commuter rail study.”

Meanwhile, the City of Jacksonville currently plans to use the S-Line for its rails-to-trails program, giving area walkers, runners and cyclists new recreation space.

Many local proponents of rail here also point to the existing rail line along Philips Highway as one that could be used for LRT and the business growth along this corridor would seem to support that argument. So far, there has been one significant drawback to that plan—the railway’s private owner has said no.

Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) has made it clear to this point that it has no intentions of selling or leasing its tracks, but might consider selling right-of-way along its tracks. JTA will continue to explore its options with FEC as a way to keep LRT as part of the transportation discussion.“The CSX railroad, which parallels Roosevelt Boulevard (US 17), is a good opportunity for commuter rail,” says Ed Castellani, engineering consultant to JTA. “CSX is also a private railway. Agreements would have to be reached to either buy the tracks (as FDOT has done in the Orlando area) or lease the right to use tracks. Both of these arrangements would be viable, but expensive.”

“I can see a commuter train transporting passengers from Palatka, Green Cove, and Orange Park into town every 30-60 minutes and then home again at night,” Castellani said. “We would use BRT to supplement the commuter rail and feed into the system.”

But even this idea has potential long-range issues. With the recently announced expansion at JaxPort, freight container traffic heading from the First Coast to Central Florida on those very same CSX lines is expected to double over the coming years. That means less track time will be available for commuter rail traffic, severely limiting the commuter travel window.

Castellani says existing track usage would prevent running the commuter trains more frequently than every 30-60 minutes. Expanded freight traffic would put that time schedule in jeopardy. The frequency issue is an important factor in having a successful transit system. Castellani adds that the flexibility of BRT makes it more ideal, even with the existing rail lines. He cites the Skyway as the perfect example of what can happen to rail.

“The Skyway is basically an elevated LRT. It was designed to move downtown workers people from parking lots into the city’s core business district,” said Castellani. What happened though, was that the businesses and major employment centers moved to the suburbs. You can’t just pick up and move the Skyway or any other rail system.

When BRT is constructed, the foundation for LRT is put in place. If a route is extremely popular and gains enough ridership to support LRT, the cost for the foundation work is already completed. Rail lines and power are added to the existing right-of-way and a light rail train system is born.

Comparisons between BRT and LRT are often made, including by some urbanites here on the First Coast. They are rarely made, however, using an apples-to-apples test as most systems differ so greatly. But one city, Los Angeles, may offer the perfect look at how BRT and LRT match up head-to-head.

Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest city, has both BRT (called the Orange Line) and LRT (light rail transit called the Gold Line). LA’s Gold Line (LRT) opened in 2003, while the Orange Line (BRT) opened in 2005. Each is about 14 miles long and each has 13 stations, approximately one mile apart. Both were built at-grade, have signal-priority granting the transit vehicles green lights at intersections and both serve primarily a suburban, middle-class area. These nearly identical routes, length and number of stops makes for a perfect comparison of LRT versus BRT.

The BRT line was expected to start out averaging between 5-7,000 weekday boardings and then grow to 22,000 within 15 years. Remarkably, the BRT had 2020 projection by its seventh month. By comparison,the LRT line was expected to start with around 30,000weekday boardings, increasing to 60,000 within 20years. However, the actual LRT ridership has been lower than that of the BRT – obviously far below projections.

The capital cost of the BRT was $349 million (or$25 million per mile). The LRT cost more thantwice that amount – $859 million ($61 millionper mile). The operating cost also favors the BRT,costing about 54 cents per passenger comparedto the $1.08 for each LRT passenger.

In Jacksonville the numbers also favor BRT. While projected 2020 daily weekday ridership numbers are slightly higher on LRT (BRT - 34,000 to LRT - 41,000), the projected cost makes BRT a much better deal. A 34-mile BRT system here is expected to cost between $388-557 million or $11-16 million per mile. LRT on the otherhand would cost a total of $974 million - $1.1 billion or $28-32 million per mile. No matter how you look at it, BRT is the most cost-effective choice – the better choice – for Jacksonville. Not only does JTA think so,so too does the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

The FTA carefully considers cost, mobility andother key factors when deciding to fund projectslike LRT or BRT. The FTA concurs with using BRT in Jacksonville as the primary mobility source andthe main component of Jacksonville’s Regional Transportation System plan. JTA continues to study ways to incorporate LRT and commuter rail into its master plan. Rail would be used to supplement the BRT, trolley and Skyway services as the number ofdaily riders increases to justify the increased cost.

“We have looked at all the data and feel that BRT is the best option for Jacksonville,” said Clem. But we also know that we cannot rely solely on one system here. We must take a multi-modal approach.We fully expect to see BRT, rail, river transit, trolleys,Skyway and even vans used to transport peoplearound Northeast Florida. Every mode is an option.”

What is not an option, adds Clem, is to wait until congestion and development have made any transit too expensive and difficult to establish. By adopting a balanced and comprehensive transit system now, Jacksonville will be preparing to offset a future wheretraffic gridlock is our reality. Without a multi-modalplan, that reality will come sooner, rather than later.

The orignial document can be downloaded here.