Madison is poised to take the next steps toward a speedy new bus service with a two-year planning effort and huge price tag for implementation.

Mayor Paul Soglin and a majority of City Council members are proposing to study the environmental and logistical challenges to creating a bus rapid transit system, a process that will cost an estimated $2 million-plus and take two years to complete. The city already has secured state and federal funding for the next stage of planning.

Bus rapid transit, or BRT, is a high-frequency, high-capacity, limited-stop service with unique branding that can run on city streets or dedicated lanes, or even in a rail corridor. A system covering about 21 miles would boost capacity for much-used Metro Transit, cut travel times and be a catalyst for economic development, according to a 104-page Madison Transit Corridor Study Report completed last spring.

“For cities that have heavy dependencies on buses for public transit, BRT is the next level,” Soglin said.

The proposal to move ahead on more detailed study is important and timely because it dovetails with a larger effort called Madison in Motion, a master plan intended to guide transportation decisions to make the city more walkable, bikeable and livable, Metro Transit General Manager Chuck Kamp said. The conceptual study was done by the Madison Area Transportation Planning Board.

“We need to take a more detailed look,” Kamp said. “Madison is at one of those once-in-a-generation moments.”

After the planning effort, the city would decide whether to go forward with the system, which could cost between $138 million and $192 million for bigger and snazzier buses, a bus storage facility, passenger stations, and street improvements, with annual operating expenses of about $9.8 million.

“As the city gets into details, I think there will be support, but there will be sticker price shock,” Kamp said, noting that large investments are necessary for major transportation infrastructure like the Beltline, Interstate and Verona Road exchange, and that more capacity is needed to accommodate development in areas like East Washington and University avenues.

Metro would use 60-foot-long buses that bend at the center and have low floors, three doors, on-board bike storage, Wi-Fi and technology to extend green lights, the conceptual study says.

The system would have small, medium and large BRT stations with shelters, paved platforms, benches and lighting, and for the larger facilities, ticket vending, real-time bus information, bike racks and perhaps heating.

The study identifies four corridors arranged around Capitol Square leading to north, northeast, south and west Madison, with alternate routes and possible future extensions to Sun Prairie, Monona, Middleton, Fitchburg, southwest Madison and Verona.

“It has a look and feel like rail” with long buses coming every 10 minutes or so, Kamp said.

Added Soglin: “BRT gets you enormous capacity and a certain element of speed at significantly less cost than rail.”

The federal government could pay up to half the capital costs, but it’s unclear who would cover the rest. It’s also unclear who would cover operating costs. The system also might affect some current service levels, and current traffic and parking patterns, as well as require relocation of some Metro transfer stations.

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Dean Mosiman covers Madison city government for the Wisconsin State Journal.