The Charlotte Sprinter: Cost Effective BRT

November 22, 2011 3 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Once again, a Jacksonville competitor finds a way to quickly implement major mass transit improvements for an affordable cost through no-frills, effective, low-cost solutions. Today, Metro Jacksonville takes a look at the Charlotte Sprinter and ponders why can't JTA take lessons and follow suit with their own bus rapid transit plans?

Trimming the fat: How to reduce the cost of JTA's BRT

Since our founding in 2006, Metro Jacksonville has been a strong proponent of cost-effective solutions for enhancing the quality of life for Jacksonville's residents.  In 2010, we took a closer look at JTA's Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project along Philips Highway.

According to JTA, the proposed project would extend approximately 11.6 miles from downtown Jacksonville from Kings Avenue Skyway Station to a multimodal hub at Avenues Walk/Southside Boulevard.  The project will include five bus stops (stations) at Emerson Street, University Blvd., JTB Blvd., Baymeadows Rd., and Southside Blvd.  Improvements under consideration include new or enhanced stations, potential park-and-ride locations, and other near-term improvements using existing arterial roadways to provide improved bus operating efficiency and reliability.  The project is expected to cost taxpayers $25 million and is anticipated to be operational by 2014.

As a result of what we deemed an extreme cost for BRT along an existing street, we provided suggestions for implementing this project and others that would significantly reduce the cost of BRT and speed up implementation of such service within the community.  All without the use of federal dollars.  These "no-frills" solutions included:

1. Eliminating Transit Signal Priority

Transit Signal Priority techniques are best implemented along congested thoroughfares.  However, the majority of Philips Highway flows smoothly with a Level of Service (LOS) B and C.  While there are limited hot spots, such as the University/Bowden intersection, TSP may be something JTA yearns to have with federal dollars but it is not a necessity for improving bus reliability and frequency along this corridor.

2. Eliminating Real-Time Information Initially

According to JTA's plans, buses along Philips Highway will arrive at stops every 10-15 minutes.  At that rate, the frequency of service is strong enough for riders to know that the next bus will be arriving very soon.  This makes the immediate need for real-time passenger information a desire rather than necessity.  Without real-time information, the cost of shelters can be reduced significantly.  In addition, if JTA can get their shelter advertising program worked out, the entire cost of shelters (transit stations) can be provided by the private sector, completely eliminating the burden of this expense on the taxpayer

3. Using Existing Rolling Stock

The purchase of new bus vehicles could make up as much as 40% of the overall capital cost for this $25 million BRT corridor.  JTA currently conducts three system modifications a year to refine existing routes for more efficient service.  This can be done with existing routes and buses in this area of town today, instead of waiting to 2014.

4. Eliminating Queue Jumps

Queue jumps, or bypass lanes, allow buses to move to the front of the line at traffic signals.  Instead of buses lining up behind a line of cars at intersections, buses move through a bypass lane on one side of traffic.  This allows the bus to avoid any long lines of automobiles, and results in more efficient transit service and less travel delay.   Queue jumps would be ideal for a congested roadway such as Blanding Blvd. in Orange Park.  Philips Highway does not back up and will not be backing up anytime in the foreseeable future, making expensive Queue jumps a want instead of a true need.

5. Introducing Reliable Headways

JTA would like to reduce headways along this corridor to 10-15 minutes.  Current BRT plans suggest that such an improvement can only be achieved by investing $25 million.  However, a look at JTA's current Southside bus routes indicates that several routes tend to parallel each other, providing duplicate services as they flow into downtown.  Metro Jacksonville suggests taking a look at streamlining the duplication and shifting the operational savings generated to upgrade the L7 route (DT - Avenues Mall) to 15 minute headways.

Despite having no money, a bad reputation and a transit system that leaves a lot to be desired, a year later, none of these cost effective ideas have seriously been considered outside of Metro Jacksonville discussion boards.  Nevertheless, we now offer proof of a progressive community that has implemented these "no-frills" concepts described above to immediately enhance local transit service without waiting for years in favor of expensive federal handouts.  That community is Charlotte, NC.  The same community that has a vibrant downtown, a successful starter light rail line, and economic development we'd love to see here.

About the Charlotte Sprinter

Charlotte Sprinter route between Charlotte-Douglass International Airport and Uptown Charlotte.

The new Sprinter service commenced on Monday, September 14, 2009. Sprinter is an interim transit solution while Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) continues to plan for a future streetcar line that will permanently replace airport bus service in 2034.  For the time being, the new Sprinter service provides a direct cost effective connection between Charlotte Douglas International Airport and Uptown Charlotte.  Take a closer look at the system and you'll find its a "no-frills" BRT corridor similar to what Metro Jacksonville has suggested for JTA's plans.  However, it only cost CATS $4 million and $2.65 million of that happened to be spent on five new $530,000 hybrid buses that will get 50% better gas mileage than the regular fleet.

Image courtesy of Willamor Media at:

The Sprinter will run every 20 minutes until around 8 p.m. -- the schedule hasn't been finalized -- and CATS expects the trip will be three to four minutes faster because there will be fewer stops.

The new airport route will use five new hybrid buses that CATS says will get 50 percent better gas mileage than its regular fleet. The hybrids will get about 6 miles per gallon, compared to today's 4 mpg.

CATS is planning four stops uptown: the Charlotte Transportation Center; Trade and Tryon; Graham and Trade; and near Johnson & Wales University.

"We think we have a great ability to capture business travelers," said Jason Lawrence, a CATS transportation planner.

CATS is still determining how to outfit airport buses to accommodate passengers with luggage. Lawrence said it's likely the buses will have wider aisles. CATS is studying how it can install luggage racks without removing too many seats.

CATS is planning to invest $1.3 million for station improvements. Each of the hybrid buses costs $530,000 -- about 50 percent more than for a "clean diesel" bus.

The Airport Sprinter is part of an "enhanced bus" program that could be expanded to other routes.

Sprinter interior. Image courtesy of Willamor Media at:

1. Eliminating Transit Signal Priority

Instead of installing TSP to improve bus travel times, CATS chose to simplify their bus schedule and reduce the amount of bus stops along the route to make it less intimidating for riders and while also speeding travel times up.

2. Eliminating Real-Time Information Initially

As Metro Jacksonville suggested, all of the Sprinter's stops don't offer Real-Time Information.  However, they do effectively provide transit users with a sleek design that is unique from the rest of the system, maintains visibility on every side, while still keeping riders protected from the elements.  In addition, the route map is built into the shelter design.  The total cost of the Sprinter's station improvements was $1.3 million.  Simple and affordable, yet highly attractive and effective.

3. Using Existing Rolling Stock

While Metro Jacksonville suggested use of existing rolling stock as a method to significantly reduce costs, CATS went in a different direction.  By not investing in frills like Real-Time Information, Queue Jumps, dedicated lanes, and TSP significant money had already been saved.  Thus CATS purchased five $530,000 hybrid buses to operate along this enhanced bus corridor.  While the cost of hybrid electric buses are 50% more than "clean diesel" buses, they get 50% better gas mileage than CATS' regular fleet, thus reducing long term annual operations and maintenance costs.  In addition, buses were designed with luggage racks to better accommodate passengers with luggage.

4. Eliminating Queue Jumps

The Sprinter doesn't utilize queue jumps because like Jacksonville's proposed BRT routes, the streets the Sprinter operates on don't back up.

5. Introducing Reliable Headways

You can catch Sprinter every 20 minutes during weekdays and every 30 minutes during nights and weekends.  This service replace CATS Route 5 local buses that ran every 30 minutes during peak times and every hour in off-peak times.  Sprinter buses were also branded with their own green color scheme and increased marketing with the goal of making this bus line an attractive option for airline passengers coming to Charlotte for business.

Sprinter Statistics

A Sprinter bus stop. Image courtesy of

The five new Sprinter hybrid-electric buses get approximately 50% better fuel economy than regular buses.

The Sprinter bus interiors offer more space for passengers carrying luggage.

Morning through evening frequency will be increased to every 20 minutes versus every 30 minutes with the old route #5 service. Night and weekend frequency will be increased to every 30 minutes verus every hour with the old service.

Travel time between the airport and the Charlotte Transportation Center will decrease from between 25 to 29 minutes to between 21 to 23 minutes.

The number of stops will decrease from 36 to 17. The goal was to select the most heavily used stops and space the stops evenly along the route.

Each stop along Morehead St and Wilkinson Blvd will feature a new bus shelter unique to Sprinter. Each shelter will feature a route banner similar to those on LYNX stations. They will also feature pedestrian lighting, a trash can, and will include public art. The shelters will more closely resemble those along the LYNX Blue Line than current bus shelters.

The Sprinter buses will not stop inside the Charlotte Transportation Center; instead the stop will be located on Brevard St beside the center. A bus shelter twice as long as the others will be located at this stop.

Three key stops — Charlotte Transportation Center, Ashley Road, and the airport — will feature electronic variable message signs with real time schedule information.

Fare will be the same as for the current local route at $1.50 each way.

The 2030 transportation plan includes streetcar service along Morehead St and Wilkinson Blvd to the airport, but this project is not scheduled to be built for 15 to 20 years.

According to, “CATS is planning to invest $1.3 million for station improvements. Each of the hybrid buses costs $530,000 — about 50 percent more than for a ‘clean diesel’ bus.”

CATS has not given a date the new service will start — it is still listed as “Fall 2009.” The Sprinter service could be expanded replace other popular routes in the future.

Wake Up Jacksonville

A Sprinter bus stop. Image courtesy of

There are two significant lessons JTA and Jacksonville can learn from CATS and the Sprinter:

1. Charlotte's Sprinter is living proof that BRT can be implemented at a fraction of what the price Jacksonville is considering and in a significantly less time frame than we have already been waiting.  Why wait years to pay more for something we can implement in the short term with existing resources?

2. CATS appears to search for cost effective solutions to implement immediate projects such as BRT on existing streets, while working with the FTA to secure dollars for significant economic development catalyst transit projects such as streetcars, light rail and commuter rail.  Given Charlotte's success rate in landing money from the FTA, instead of asking the feds for BRT and commuter rail money down Philips Highway, Jacksonville should consider following the path Charlotte has paved.

Article by Ennis Davis