A commuter rail alternative

2009-10-06T06:00:00Z A commuter rail alternativeBy KRISTIN CZUBKOWSKI The Capital Times kristinc@madison.com madison.com

When people in Dane County hear the words "regional transit authority," what usually comes to mind is the area's hot debate over installing a $250 million, 16-mile commuter rail line running from Middleton to the town of Burke near Sun Prairie.

Advocates of the city's Metro bus system, however, are seeking to expand that definition by bringing another option back to the table: bus rapid transit.

Bus rapid transit, or BRT, was discussed as an alternative in an ongoing regional study called Transport 2020, but concerns about the potential cost of the system and its ability to provide faster public transit in the long-term ultimately led to its shelving.

Because of the stiff competition for federal rail funding, however, bus advocates say bus rapid transit could be an effective complement or alternative to commuter rail. Dane County withdrew its funding application to the Federal Transit Administration in December because of the lack of a local funding source for commuter rail, but talk of transit was renewed this summer after Gov. Jim Doyle authorized a Madison-area regional transit authority in his 2010 budget. The authority could levy up to a half-percent sales tax, or an estimated $38 million a year in transit funds, but local officials have said that will not happen until there is a referendum on the tax.

The discussion of bus rapid transit, which included a seminar hosted last week by Madison Metro and the Florida-based National Bus Rapid Transit Institute, comes at an interesting point in transit talks. While initial discussion about the regional transit authority focused almost entirely around the controversial commuter rail line, there has been little talk about it recently from proponents while opponents, largely in more rural and suburban communities, dig in their heels.

While no one is saying so directly, the renewed talk about bus rapid transit could be an acknowledgement that commuter rail will be an uphill battle. Although local officials who support the transit authority stress that bus rapid transit could be used as a complement to other modes of transportation, it has been an alternative to rail when used in cities close to Madison in size.

One main characteristic of bus rapid transit is a system of dedicated bus lanes, which can range from diamond lanes shared between buses and cars making right turns, to more distinct bus-only lanes made by converting rail corridors or using concrete medians as barriers. Other major attributes include engineering traffic signals to allow buses to extend green lights and building fewer, but more substantial bus stops with passenger-friendly features like signs that track when buses will arrive.

While Transport 2020 officials calculated a $190 million cost of implementing bus rapid transit throughout the city, including moving railroad tracks near University Avenue to create dedicated lanes, representatives from the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute who came to Madison on Thursday, Oct. 1 as part of the workshop say a system that was flexible and unlike rail, could be put in place incrementally as funding becomes available.

In particular, transit managers from Eugene, Ore. and Kansas City, Mo., both of which have implemented bus rapid transit systems in the last 20 years, spoke about how their regions successfully implemented the systems, which can reduce travel time around 25 percent on a given route.

Chuck Kamp, general manager of Madison Metro, worked with the Madison Area Bus Advocates to bring the free workshop to the city. While he acknowledges the high profile of commuter rail in the community, Kamp says improved bus service has always been discussed as part of a regional transit authority as well as in Metro's long-range planning process.

"When we had the public hearings for that plan, one of the most repeated comments from our passengers had to do with improving the travel time from the east transfer point to the west," he says. "One way to do that is to look at express buses."

Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway, who has been an advocate for bus transit on the City Council, says BRT has "a lot of potential in Madison," particularly where rail lines do not exist. All of the serious discussion about commuter rail so far has focused on using already-existing freight rail tracks.

"Again, it comes back to, where are the tracks?" she says. "It's extremely unlikely we would build tracks. Where you don't have them, you have to think about something else."

Another argument for Rhodes-Conway, who jokes she wants better transit service "yesterday" is the relative speed to install BRT. If federal funding for rail cannot be secured in the next year or two, she says BRT could take place in the same corridor to establish more transit ridership in the area.

"It really bears looking into as a complementary thing or an initial thing," she says.

But not everyone is so enthusiastic.

Dane County Board Chairman Scott McDonell, who has served on the Transport 2020 study team in recent years, says he sees a lot of potential for express buses or bus rapid transit in certain places in the county, but he adds that the density of the Isthmus would likely prevent creating dedicated lanes for buses. As the county's population grows -- and thus traffic congestion increases in the isthmus -- the effectiveness of express buses in the long-term could be limited.

Dave Merrit, who focuses on transportation issues in County Executive Kathleen Falk's office, says improving and expanding bus service in the region has always been a part of transit discussions, but adds that it will be up to the transit authority, when it is formed, to make priorities about where the funding goes.

"At the rate we're growing, at least a quarter-million people will be added to Dane County by 2050," he says. "Expanded bus service, rapid bus service, commuter trains -- those types of improved transportation are absolutely necessary. As the RTA gets set up, we would expect the RTA to make that decision of, how much money do we spend on bus and trains and other transportation options for residents here in Dane County?"

Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who spoke at the beginning of the seminar Thursday, added that it was an "exciting" time for transit thanks to the governor's authorization of a Madison-area regional transit authority. While improved bus service on a basic level will "certainly" be included in a regional transit authority, more elaborate systems like BRT will also be discussed, he says.

"The RTA will open up a whole host of possibilities for us, and the mayor certainly wants to take a look at all of those options as we go forward," mayoral spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson says.

Despite talk of installing the system as a complement to commuter rail, however, the two examples presented Thursday portrayed BRT as a cheaper, more flexible alternative to rail in areas where politicians felt they would not get federal rail funding or where voters rejected rail funds.

"Since Obama has come into the White House, the major rail service that's surfaced is high-speed rail, and Chicago to Madison is one of the corridors being looked at," says Alan Danaher of PB Americas, who is a consultant with the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute. "Certainly there's always been the fascination with trains and rail transit, but the realization with smaller metro areas such as Madison is there's just not enough money to go around to put rail in everywhere. There's now this BRT medium that can provide rail-like qualities at a fraction of the cost."

Mark Pangborn, who heads up the Lane Transit District in Eugene, said Thursday there was a strong desire for light rail in the area, which has a population just over 150,000, but added that bus rapid transit's relatively low cost won out in the end.

"The genius of BRT is its flexibility. You can pick and choose, add and subtract, for what's appropriate for your community," he says. "It makes it compared to some of the other options very flexible, which makes it politically perhaps more possible."

The district's first BRT line, a $25-million, 4-mile stretch between downtown Eugene and downtown Springfield, opened in 2007 with 75-percent federal funding. A second, eight-mile line is currently under construction at a cost of $41 million (with $38 million from federal and state funding) and is expected to open in winter 2010.

Similarly, Mark Huffer of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority said Thursday that its first BRT line, which opened in 2005 after just over three years of planning, came about after a 30-year effort to bring light rail to the city was rejected by about 75 percent of local voters in 2001.

"We knew that we wanted to build it quickly and operate it. We had no money for it, but we wanted to do something quickly and we had to build or political and business support," he says.

Kansas City was the first city to receive a Very Small Smarts grant for the Federal Transportation Administration, which paid for 80 percent of the city's $20.9 million BRT line through its downtown cultural district. The city also recently secured similar federal funding for a second, 13-mile BRT line with more green elements, like hybrid buses and solar bus station lighting at a cost of $30.7 million.

Bus ridership on the first BRT line has seen a significant jump -- at least 50 percent, and up to 100 percent on certain days -- Huffer says. He adds that the public image of the city's BRT line is very positive, owing in large part to the installation of electronic signs that start tracking when a bus is 15 minutes away. Taking away the guess-work of bus ridership and giving riders the opportunity to step away from a bus stop and grab a cup of coffee if need be has been a major plus to the image of bus travel, he says.

Susan De Vos of Madison Area Bus Advocates, which helped bring the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute to Madison this week, said she is not opposed to commuter rail, but that the high capital costs of a rail system generally require more population than Madison has to make the operational savings worth it. If a train is pulling one car full of people, it makes more sense to save money and use a bus, she says.

"They've lumped all these bus people together as the Great Train Robbery people. We're not against trains, she says. "The major limit of buses is capacity. When you build capacity to a certain extent, trains make sense. I think, and I've heard a lot of people say, that we're not big enough for rail. It should not be an issue of the mode -- it should be an issue of where" transit should go.

Transport 2020 member Dick Wagner, who spoke at the beginning of Thursday's seminar, says regardless of what type of transit is ultimately chosen, building a transportation network is a key element of the region moving forward.

"We are failing in our vision for the region without a transportation network," he says. "It's not our history for things being quickly accepted here ... Yet, I still think we're ahead of the curve. We are an intentional city. We're here because (James) Doty came with a plan. Because we do believe in that democratic plan, our process is very open. With all that, I say, yes we can."

Copyright 2015 madison.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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