Governor Announces BRT Funding for SR 400

On June 19, 2018, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal announced $100 million in General Obligation bonds for Bus Rapid Transit infrastructure, part of the SR 400 Express Lanes project. The plan includes four BRT interchanges as part of a $1.8 billion project for express toll lanes up the highway.

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation has long promoted BRT as a cost-effective alternative to rail. In the Foundation’s Agenda 2002: Guide to the Issues, for example, the Transportation section noted:

Traditional train-type transit can be very effective in the downtown ares of certain cities. London, Paris, Tokyo and New York City fit this description. In these densely pupulated cities, rail-based transit provides a high-capacity, convenient transit solution that makes up for its high capital cost. Atlanta travel patterns, as in many cities, represent a spider-web type pattern, better described as “everywhere to everywhere” travel, which does not lend itself well to traditional light rail or heavy rail solutions.

Flex-Trolley, or Bus Rapid Transit, combines the cost-effectiveness and flexibility of buses with the efficiency and customer appeal of trains. These systems utilize rubber-tired vehicles that offer amenities similar to and look very much like light rail vehicles. Stations are more robust than traditional bus stops  and offer prepayment to speed up boarding. The vehicles can operate in various modes. On regular streets, signal preemption limits the number of stops at intersections.  HOV lanes, and sometimes emergency lanes, are utilized on freeways to shorten trip times. and in highly congested corridors, exclusive busways separate the buses from all other traffic to eliminate congestion-related delays. 

The exclusive busways built for bus rapid transit provide further options for improvements. In addition to being used by emergency vehicles, any excess capacity not utilized by the flex trolley vehicles could be used for other high-occupancy vehicles such as as shuttle vans or van pools. In addition, the busways can serve as a “placeholder” for future rail transit lines if future population densities or technologies make that feasible.

The greatest benefit of a flex-trolley system is its low cost. It can be built and operated for about one-fifth the cost of light rail systems. This means that a metro-wide network could be established in very little time for the same amount of money that would only fund a limited light rail system. In addition, if growth patterns shift after the flex trolley system is deployed, it has the flexibility to adapt to the growth. the biggest challenge will be finding the right aesthetic and service characteristics that will overcome the stigma attached to “riding the bus.”

Few people realize that the “plane train” at Hartsfield-Jackson’s International Airport is an example of BRT, in fact a rubber-tired vehicle in a dedicated lane.

In 2004, Steve Stancil, then executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, announced at a Foundation event, “[W]e’re actively working on BRT on I-75/I-575, and across the top of I-285, and more.”

In a 2011 commentary, Foundation Senior Fellow Bob Poole, transportation analyst with the Reason Foundation, took the BRT concept a step further, pointing out, “As counter-intuitive as it sounds, in most cases it’s a mistake to develop BRT systems based on exclusive rights of way.”

Poole noted that an exclusive right of way “sounds pretty good until you think about how little those exclusive lanes would actually be used.” He analyzed Connecticut’s proposed Hartford to New Britain busway, 9.4 miles long. 

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. …

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.

Georgia’s SR 400 BRT would have buses sharing the planned Express Toll Lanes while having exclusive bus interchanges. The concept is what the Foundation and Poole have envisioned; a flexible step in the right direction to provide transit in metro Atlanta. 

— Benita Dodd

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