By Robert Poole
The idea of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has gradually been catching on with U.S. transportation planners. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, in most cases it’s a mistake to develop BRT systems based on exclusive rights of way.
First, what some have called BRT-Lite can be a highly cost-effective improvement over regular city bus service. The best-known example of this is the highly successful Metro Rapid program in Los Angeles. Specially marked buses operate on regular lanes of major arterials in Los Angeles, with stops between one-half and one mile apart, and often getting through signalized intersections thanks to traffic signal priority.
Those may sound like trivial improvements, but Metro Rapid routes offer longer-distance commuters considerable time savings and have been so successful in attracting customers that the service has been expanded from its original corridor (Wilshire Boulevard) to 26 routes spanning 450 miles of major arterials. Other than the cost of the additional buses, there is practically no infrastructure cost.
Contrast that with currently planned exclusive-busway BRT projects. Connecticut’s long-planned Hartford to New Britain busway, 9.4 miles long, would be built on a former railroad right of way, but its cost is now put at $567 million – over $60 million per mile. Far more ambitious is a proposed 150-mile BRT network for Montgomery County, Md., at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion (at $17 million per mile, far less than the Connecticut project and much less than an estimated $120 million per mile for light rail).
That sounds pretty good until you think about how little those exclusive lanes would actually be used.
Even during peak periods, three-minute headways (i.e., one bus every three minutes) would mean only 20 buses per hour. A single lane of highway can handle about 1,600 vehicles per hour without congestion, which many High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes are doing today, thanks to variable pricing. Even if you count each bus as two passenger car equivalents, that is still just 40 of a possible 1,600, leaving more than 1,500 spaces unused.
In the Hartford busway case, that route parallels congested I-84. If the busway were instead developed as a HOT lane facility, it’s quite plausible that 1,500 motorists per hour would be willing to pay a toll to bypass congested I-84 during peak periods.
Such shared use would convert the busway into what I have dubbed a “Virtually Exclusive Busway” (VEB). From the bus system’s perspective, the VEB would provide the same high speeds and absence of congestion as a physically exclusive busway, but would serve the additional purpose of providing additional congestion relief for paying motorists. And, in the process, it would generate toll revenues that would cover a significant portion of the $567 million cost.
Such a busway conversion is under serious consideration in South Florida. This 19.8-mile busway parallels highly congested U.S. 1 in southern Miami-Dade County. It was developed in 1997 when the state acquired a disused freight rail line alongside the highway. Because the busway (like U.S. 1) is intersected by numerous cross streets, it has dozens of signalized intersections along its route, meaning there is nothing like “express” bus service. Hence, the busway has done very little to relieve congestion on U.S. 1.
In 2008, the Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), that region’s equivalent of the Atlanta Regional Commission, conducted a study on the possible expansion of the busway and its conversion into a HOT/bus facility. Several of the alternatives included grade separations at major intersections. The results were promising enough that the MPO board in 2009 authorized a more detailed study, which got under way last year. A 2009 “vision study” for the Florida DOT included the revamped busway (as a VEB) as one component of a regional managed lanes network.
The synergy between BRT and priced managed lanes is also being explored in a project that recently got under way in Tampa. Under a Value Pricing Program grant, Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit and Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority are jointly exploring the feasibility of a set of what they call “Bus Toll Lanes” that could be added to selected corridors in that metro area. The idea is also a key element in a forthcoming Reason Foundation mobility study of the Southeast Florida region, which will be released early next year.
Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation and a Senior Fellow at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation (www.georgiapolicy.org) is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (December 2, 2011). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.