Tag Archives: BRT

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.

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Getting to Yes on Bus-Rapid Transit (BRT)

circulatorFormer Bethesda Circulator

Yesterday, I detailed some advantages of bus-rapid transit (BRT) over the much more pricey streetcar and light-rail options that the Greater Greater Washington blog plugs very aggressively (yesterday’s example here) but now appear to be going nowhere.

So what is the barrier to BRT gaining more traction?

Paying Far More for Image Not Substance

Josh Barro on The Upshot blog at the New York Times put his finger on the source of the problem:

“Bus-based public transit in the United States suffers from an image problem.”

That fact, laid out in a 2009 report from the Federal Transit Administration, isn’t surprising, but it has led to a perverse outcome: Transit agencies are spending millions of dollars on new rail infrastructure that is no faster than existing bus service, simply because riders perceive a train as better than a bus.

Barro details how New York is now planning to spend $1 billion on an AirTrain from LaGuardia Airport that will go no faster than the existing bus connections. He reports similar investments in streetcars and trains elsewhere that go no or little faster than existing bus routes.

Corporate Welfare

In Washington, the proposed streetcar slows down far more people on buses than will ride the streetcar. This isn’t “greater” but grandiose public policy that wastes billions of transit dollars.

Indeed, it’s really corporate welfare masked as social justice as it benefits property developers. There is nothing wrong with benefiting developers or other companies if we think that makes good transit policy and economic sense. But it just becomes corporate welfare when we can get the benefits much more cheaply through another similar technology.

Improving BRT’s Image

The good news is that FTA has found that gaining acceptance for lower cost BRT occurs with the adoption of straightforward design and marketing solutions:

That 2009 transit report gives reason to believe it’s possible. The researchers conducted focus groups with “choice riders” in Los Angeles: people who have cars but sometimes use transit. These riders had an unsurprising preference for trains.

“Riding the bus carries a ‘shame factor,’ ” the researchers found. “Most of the choice riders would not consider using it, or if they did, they would feel ashamed and keep it a secret.”

But what the local transit agency marketed as the “Orange Line” — really just a bus route in the San Fernando Valley with high frequencies on a dedicated right of way — managed to gain acceptance among “choice riders.”

As it turns out, making buses look as good as light rail or streetcars is just not that hard as this photo from the Montgomery Planning website shows:

brt-photo1

We can even make them look like streetcars, complete with hard and uncomfortable benches, as the former Bethesda Circulator bus (shown at top) demonstrated for many years. People still ride it even though it now looks like a bright red bus.

These design features and marketing simply have to be far less expensive than the literally billions of dollars more that streetcars and light-rail cost to do the same thing. The good news is that BRT is expanding around the country and so hopefully the unfamiliarity with it will decrease.

Conclusion

Public officials along with transit advocates need to get past the idea that trains are better and more elite or equivalent to faster, heavy rail Metro. They’re not. They just waste dollars that could used be to provide more public transit or something else useful. The sooner they realize it, the sooner we might stop spinning our wheels and build something useful and affordable.

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The Giant Purple Credit Card, Part III: Is Pro-Purple Anti-Transit?

Opportunity Costs

The choice to spend vast sums of money on one project requires foregoing other choices. The tangled finances for the Purple and Red Lines (see also here) render it especially obvious. When the fares from Baltimore’s public transit system are needed as a backstop in case Purple Line fares are lower than hoped, the use of the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) for non-Purple purposes is obviously going to be quite limited.

The plans to move ahead also with Baltimore’s Red Line should further assure that the TTF is tied up for literally decades. Indeed, the two projects have been closely tied together in order to build political support. It is hard to imagine moving ahead with one project without the other, as legislators in one metro area are unlikely to want to fund an incredibly expensive project in the other unless their constituents share in the benefits.

Existing Transit Needs

Montgomery and Prince George’s County already have an extensive public transit system. Both are integrated into WMATA’s Metro and Metrobus system. Each operates its own bus system: RideOn and TheBus. Both are also tied into the MARC system.

All parts of the system have suffered from cutbacks and need investment in infrastructure. Metro, the lungs of Washington’s transit system, remains in particularly dire need of money to maintain and to upgrade its infrastructure. Placing so many chips on the Purple Line will constrain the ability of the State to aid Metro–Montgomery and Prince George’s cannot expect to get all of Maryland’s transportation funding.

Less widely heralded in Montgomery in the face of perennial Metro problems–endless single tracking, escalators that don’t work, overly crowded trains at rush hour despite stagnating ridership–have been the cutbacks to MARC and Ride-On. Oddly, we reduced transit service designed to connect to the Purple Line even as we move forward with building it.

Foregoing Other Transit Opportunities

Some key supporters of the Purple Line recognize these implicit tradeoffs even if they don’t advertise them. In the at-large County Council debate in Chevy Chase, new Council President George Leventhal derided Councilmember Hans Riemer’s support for additional Ride-On service. He and other Purple Line supporters have also expressed great skepticism about the proposed countywide bus-Rapid Transit System (RTS).

The irony here is that for the cost of building the Purple Line, we could build a RTS that would serve all parts of the County. Indeed, a Purple Line incorporated into an RTS would accomplish most of the goal at far less cost than the proposed light-rail system even according to MTA’s own analysis (see also here).

Purple Line supporters like to accuse opponents of being anti-transit–it’s a good simple communication meme that boils down a complex decision to good versus bad. Except that wanting to spend transportation dollars wisely and get the most for our tax dollars is pro-transit. Opposition to expanding bus service and continued negativity regarding an RTS that could serve the whole county sure doesn’t sound pro-transit.

The Bottom Line

We shouldn’t starve our existing transit system and forego future opportunities in order to build the Purple Line and the Red Line. Ironically, we could build cheaper RTS versions of both that would save the State billions–not chump change–and allow for additional transit and road improvements that would truly aid economic development and the ability of all Marylanders to reach jobs far more broadly. Now that’s smart growth.

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