Category Archives: Bus Rapid Transit

Moving Forward on Public Transit

WMATA_Metro

Making This Work Should Be Our #1 Priority

In a series of posts, I’ve outlined how the major light-rail and streetcar projects are in deep trouble and why. Today’s final post completes the more recent portion of the series on what we should do to spend smart to produce workable, effective transit.

Fix Metro

Members of the Maryland General Assembly have rightly come to the conclusion that they have had enough of the failing WMATA status quo and want to grapple in a serious way with the issue. Fixing the Metro system should be our #1 transit priority because it remains the lungs of the region’s public transit network. We need a serious assessment of how to turn the corner on this one because the problems have only been getting worse. MTA also has major problems that need attention and merits more oversight.

Reorganize Existing Bus Lines

I love solutions that don’t cost any money. This isn’t a case of getting something for nothing (that just doesn’t happen) but getting a lot more out of our existing budget. Houston just showed the way by reorganizing its bus routes in a smart way:

The old system, like many bus routes in the United States, expended a lot of resources on very low-ridership routes for the sake of saying there’s “a bus that goes there.” The new plan says that the focus should be to provide reasonably frequent service on routes where reasonably frequent service will attract riders. That does mean that some people are further than ever from a transit stop. But it means that many more Houstonians will find themselves near a useful transit stop.

Just check out the before and after maps. I’ve often heard advocates of light-rail claim that we need it because there is no bus route that does not connect place A to place B. But this is, after all, an easily solvable problem without building light rail. In Houston, the difference is amazing and it didn’t cost the city any more money. Now that’s smart growth.

Bus-Rapid Transit

Bus-rapid transit (BRT) has real cost-benefit advantages over other more expensive modes. You can build an equivalent mode of transit at a far cheaper price. Montgomery County has already moved forward tentatively in this area. I hope they will continue.

Build Only What We Can Afford to Maintain

The key lesson from Metro is that transit systems take a lot of money to operate and to maintain. Governing recently highlighted an even more disastrous example from the Boston area. Though Boston is a slow-growing area, it embarked on very fast paced transit growth that it could not afford either to build or to maintain. Beyond the system’s collapse this winter:

Today the MBTA owes nearly $9 billion in debt and interest, which translates into more than one-quarter of its operating revenue going to debt service. And since money that should have funded maintenance had to be diverted to the legally mandated expansions, the system faces an estimated $5 billion maintenance backlog.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build anything. It means that we need to spend smart because money is always tight and we need to build future operation and maintenance costs into the plan before we begin construction.

Final Word

The point of this series was not just to discuss how and why we arrived in our current cul-de-sac of overly expensive projects but how we can get out of it through transit that provide more in the way of transit and economic benefits at a much lower cost and will be more sustainable over the long term.

Rapid Transit at the MoCo Fair

Councilmember Roger Berliner: “There is nothing more fundamental to the future of Montgomery County than making this happen. And making it happen during the next four years.”

Councilmember Marc Elrich: “This is the best answer we have to both the need for capacity and the limited dollars available.”

Councilmember Cherri Branson: “I cannot tell you how important a bus-rapid transit system would be for Route 29 not only to alleviate some of the current congestion but even more importantly to help us develop the east part of the county.”  –

County Executive Ike Leggett: “It will happen in Montgomery County. This is the right thing for our future.”

Moving Forward with RTS in Montgomery

RTSMap

Proposed Rapid Transit System Map

Montgomery County has adopted plans for a bus rapid transit system (RTS) of nearly 96 miles. This system includes not only the long planned Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) of 15 miles but a separately planned system of nearly 81 miles.

Proposed and pushed relentlessly by at-large Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich, the plan to add 81 miles is the most ambitious effort to expand public transit in the area since Metro. While other jurisdictions, including DC and Alexandria, are ahead of Montgomery in moving ahead with RTS, Montgomery’s is the most extensive network.

The above schematic map shows the proposed routes as well as the planned light-rail Purple Line and CCT. The map produced by Communities for Transit, an RTS advocacy group, uses the familiar Metro system design, which makes it look attractive but also misleadingly suggests that RTS is heavy rail like Metro. It’s not. Repeat: map looks like Metro; system is not Metro.

On the other hand, I understand the drive by proponents to avoid the word “bus.” In the DC area, people associate the buses with Metrobuses–the slowest still moving form of transportation ever invented. Drivers perceive buses as barely moving hulks to avoid and to pass. Though RTS is not heavy rail, it is also definitely not Metrobus.

RTS buses move much faster and are much nicer, more analogous to light or heavy rail cars. These buses are also designed to approach platforms at level–again like Metro or light rail–so there is no climbing up or down.

Greater speed than conventional buses is achieved because RTS buses usually travel in their own dedicated lanes. There can be two lanes on either side of the street along the curb or two in the median. Alternatively, in tighter areas, there may just be one lane that switches direction. Buses traveling in the direction of heavy traffic use the dedicated lane while buses going in the other direction travel with regular traffic.

In some areas with little room, the buses may have to travel in regular traffic in both directions. However, even in these areas, RTS buses can go faster than regular buses because they communicate to hold the traffic lights so that they can make the lights if they are close to the light but it’s about to change.

People often wonder why we don’t just expand Metro, like the delayed Silver Line in Virginia, or build light rail, like the planned Purple Line, instead. They reason is cost. RTS is far cheaper than either of these methods. This item from the Communities for Transit presentation caught my eye:

SLC BRT

In Salt Lake City, light rail would have been ten times as expensive as the RTS alternative. The price difference means that Montgomery can get far more bang for the buck with RTS. Indeed, the CCT was originally planned as a light rail but is now expected to be a bus rapid transit system, so that it is financially feasible.

The low cost is critical because, even with the Governor’s successful  drive to take measures to expand Maryland’s transportation fund, there is not nearly enough money for all of the State’s transportation priorities from roads and Baltimore’s Red Line to MARC and Metro (those elevators. . . ).

One of the most appealing aspects of RTS is the potential, and it remains just potential, to help weaken the battles between civic groups and developers. Developers want greater density while civics worry about the impact on infrastructure, especially the increased traffic.

The Montgomery RTS plan allows more growth to occur in the context of a system designed to address heightened traffic and also to spread development, along with its benefits and problems, around a much larger area rather than one or two nodes. It recognizes that Montgomery remains a spread out suburban area even as we develop multiple new urban centers.

According to Communities for Transit, RTS does produce additional investment:

Cleveland

And growth needs to occur to provide jobs and income, as well as to pay the taxes to regenerate our aging infrastructure and expand it. The key is to invest the public transit money wisely.