Articulated bus

A proposed bus rapid transit system would use 60-passenger, articulated buses like the one shown above.

Madison is poised to take a serious step toward bus rapid transit, eyeing an initial $40 million to $60 million east-west corridor including Downtown and the UW-Madison campus.

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.

“It is one of our highest goals,” Metro Transit general manager Chuck Kamp said, underscoring that the bus system is now too crowded with long travel times. “We have run out of capacity.”

Mayor Paul Soglin on Tuesday offered a resolution to support a staff recommendation to use $2 million in federal and state money to proceed with the first phase of project planning for an eight- to 10-mile east-west corridor — roughly from East Towne Mall to the West Transfer Point at Tokay Boulevard and Whitney Way. The exact location is still subject to change.

If the resolution is approved, the city would hire a consultant to help conduct a more detailed evaluation of the corridor, potential routes, station locations, operating plans, impacts on neighborhoods and more.

A full, roughly $155 million BRT system covering about 25 miles would boost capacity for much-used Metro, cut travel times, be a catalyst for economic development and create a more equitable transit system because low-income people and minorities are most affected by long travel times, Kamp said.

BRT would use snazzier, 60-foot-long buses that bend at the center and have low floors, three doors, onboard bike storage, Wi-Fi and technology to extend green lights.

It 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 city has been looking at options for higher capacity transit for three decades, said David Trowbridge, city principal transportation planner.

The federal government, he said, discouraged the city’s earlier ambitions for costly light rail or commuter rail systems found in bigger cities, encouraging BRT instead.

In 2008, a Metro ad hoc plan listed BRT as an effective, efficient option, and regional planning entities commissioned a study that outlined the 25-mile system in 2013. In February, the City Council adopted a new long-range transportation plan, Madison in Motion, which recommends planning and implementing BRT.

In recent months, a staff team considered criteria for the initial corridor, including existing ridership, how well the corridor would serve under-served populations, technical readiness, capital and operating costs, redevelopment impacts and traffic constraints.

The team eliminated northern and southern corridors on technical readiness grounds. Park Street, for example, is slated for a major upgrade and it wouldn’t make sense to implement BRT before that reconstruction, Kamp said.

The $2 million planning process for an initial east-west corridor is expected to take 12 to 18 months, Trowbridge said.

To start BRT, the city must first secure funding and build a $39 million, 165,000-square-foot satellite bus facility on Nakoosa Trail and Commercial Avenue on the East Side to house new buses. The current, sprawling bus garage at 1101 E. Washington Ave. is more than 30 years old and originally designed to house 160 buses. Currently, 200 40-foot buses and 17 paratransit vans are stored there.

Soglin’s proposed nonbinding, five-year capital improvement plan calls for building the garage using $15 million in local funding and the rest in federal money in 2020. The initial BRT corridor could be implemented in three to five years, Kamp said. The city would be looking to the federal government to fund 80 percent of the estimated $40 million to $60 million cost, which would cover buses, stations, traffic signal equipment and more.

Metro estimates it will cost about $2.4 million to $3.2 million annually to operate the initial corridor, and about $9.8 million annually to run the full, 25-mile system, which could be completed in about a decade.

The city is still hoping the state Legislature will let municipalities create regional transit authorities (RTAs) with taxing power to help pay for operating costs of BRT, Kamp said.

“Without an RTA, there’s no way to do this all at once,” Kamp said.

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