Bus Rapid Transit Systems: A Viable Transit Solution (Industry Perspective)

Bus Rapid Transit often costs 20 percent of a light rail system but can capture 80 to 85 percent of light rail riders.

by Wes Guckert, President, The Traffic Group / July 23, 2015
Bogota, Colombia, has perhaps the most famous BRT system worldwide. Called the TransMilenio, this system carries 30,000 to 42,000 passengers per hour. Flickr/Oscar Amaya

On the heels of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's administration’s recent decision to terminate plans for the Baltimore Red Line light rail system, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford announced that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) should be considered as an alternative.

The reason? In short, it comes down to cost. Light rail is notoriously expensive — to the tune of approximately $150 million to $250 million per mile. Comparatively, BRT is typically $10 million to $30 million per mile. Specifically, the Baltimore Red Line was projected to cost $2.9 billion for 14 miles, which boils down to $205 million per mile for the stretch running from the west side of Baltimore to the east side. 

This is no small undertaking from a financial standpoint, particularly when coffers are already empty. A December 2014 Baltimore Business Journal article reported that Baltimore city government had a projected $14.8 million deficit. At the same time, the Baltimore Sun reported that the state of Maryland's revenue was nearly $1.2 billion short of its expenses.

As we all know, budget deficits are not just a problem plaguing Maryland. According to an informal count conducted by the watchdog group State Budget Solutions, at least 16 states are projected to run budget shortfalls in 2015 and 2016. The states range in geographic location, from Alaska to Alabama. And budget issues cross party lines.

Without a doubt, budgets are past the point of stretched. Many state and local governments have had to make cuts to balance their budgets, a constitutional or statutory provision requiring a balanced budget for 49 states.

The challenge, however, remains that traffic congestion plagues many cities, both large and small, across the country. Take, for example, the Baltimore-Washington region. The average automobile commuter in the region is delayed 74 hours each year, burning through 37 gallons of gasoline and costing each commuter $1,495 dollars annually. By comparison, commuters in the region back in 1982 averaged a yearly delay of only 14 hours. On the West Coast, congestion in Los Angeles eats up a total of 207 hours wasted over the course of a year sitting in traffic — the equivalent of a week’s worth of vacation days. Recognizing that the population across the country is only projected to continue to grow, this situation isn’t going to get better.

But how does a city or state serve the transportation needs of growing populous while providing a solution to help curb traffic congestion? Enter BRT.

When it comes to BRT, it's what we at the Traffic Group refer to as the 80-20 Rule. This means BRT often can cost 20 percent of a light rail system but can capture 80-85 percent of light rail riders. In other words, this has the potential to save taxpayers millions of dollars while reducing traffic congestion. 

This doesn’t mean we are trading quality for cost. A BRT solution has all the amenities of modern rail, such as Wi-Fi, level boarding and off-vehicle payment systems. BRT is flexible and serves dual purposes: It can ride on dedicated lanes, but has the ability to leave those lanes and take another route if necessary. Rail, by contrast, cannot switch routes once constructed.

BRT systems can be built in the median areas of roadways, the same layout as many light rail systems. A great Class A BRT system can be built in an area that comprises 27 feet in width without a station and another 13 feet with a station. Larger buses in dedicated lanes move faster along the route due to traffic signal priority systems, allowing for more people moving more quickly from origin to destination. 

Nationally BRT has resulted in upward of 400 percent of return on investment along transit corridors. There are more than a dozen BRT systems being planned throughout the United States. Some of the most noteworthy can be found in Las Vegas and Eugene, Ore., to name a few, while the most state-of-the-art can be found in Cleveland.

The Cleveland system’s transit stops are iconic along its route — named the HealthLine — with paid naming rights by the Cleveland Clinic. The stations could be mistaken for metro or light rail stops with all the amenities. To top it off, economic growth and density along the HealthLine Corridor has generated billions in development, jobs and taxes. Specifically Cleveland’s BRT delivered more than $5.8 billion in economic development in and around the route: a staggering $114.54 gained for every dollar spent on creating and launching the HealthLine. Ridership is thriving. In the six years since opening, the HealthLine has carried more than 29 million riders. Annual ridership has increased about 60 percent over the previous bus line, which the HealthLine replaced in 2008.

Internationally one of the best BRT systems can be found in Toronto. All of the city's materials describing and marketing the BRT system focus on the lifestyle the service provides, not on the BRT itself. Perhaps the most famous BRT system worldwide is located in Bogota, Colombia. Called the TransMilenio, this system carries 30,000 to 42,000 passengers per hour.

So many things can be achieved with a great BRT system that has been properly designed. BRT allows for more transit riders and a greener, more sustainable community. Not only can it help riders save precious time and money, but it can also connect more people to jobs and educational opportunities.

The bottom line: BRT systems present us with a transportation option that is economically feasible and proven to reduce traffic congestion, while still providing a solid transit solution. 

Wes Guckert, PTP, is president of The Traffic Group, a leading 30-year-old traffic engineering and transportation planning firm headquartered in White Marsh, Md. For more information, please contact him at wguckert@trafficgroup.com or follow him on Twitter @wes_guckert.