As high speed rail progresses through the planning stages special attention will need to be paid to the important issue of local connectivity in ensuring high ridership (and high speed rail’s success). Our major problem with funding transit expansion has been the federal government’s unwillingness to give us money because of the demonstrated lack of local political will in funding transit operations and maintenance. As is the case for most transit systems, funding initial construction is not as big a hurdle as funding ongoing operations and maintenance.

Which is why I wonder why MDT and FIU are putting all of their eggs into the proverbial Bus Rapid Transit ‘basket’.  Current plans show a mixture of BRT and BRT light for most major corridors in Dade County. Don’t get me wrong, BRT is not bad, but our goal should be to accommodate the greatest capacity for the same long term cost.  When comparing the O&M of Bus Rapid Transit with Light Rapid Transit this crucial cost is the same.  While initial construction of BRT infrastructure is lower, the operations and maintenance costs, the burden most placed on our local municipalities, is the same as light rail technology, only at a fraction of the capacity.

Don’t take it from me. The bipartisan Congressional Government Accountability Office did its own analysis comparing the costs of BRT with LRT  in 2003:

Communities consider several factors when they select mass transit options. Our 2001 report examined such factors as capital cost and operating costs, system performance, and other advantages and disadvantages of Bus Rapid Transit. We found, for example, that the capital costs of Bus Rapid Transit in the cities we reviewed averaged $13.5 million per mile for busways, $9.0 million per mile for buses on high occupancy vehicle lanes, and $680,000 per mile for buses on city streets, when adjusted to 2000 dollars.4 For comparison, we examined the capital costs of several Light Rail lines and found that they averaged about $34.8 million per mile, ranging from $12.4 million to $118.8 million per mile.5 In addition, in the cities we reviewed that had both types of service, neither Bus Rapid Transit nor Light Rail had a consistent advantage in terms of operating costs.

Said another way, apart from the difference in initial cost, choosing BRT costs as much per year to run as LRT, but with less capacity (light rail cars hold more passengers than bus rapid transit cars). When thinking over the long term, the equation heavily favors LRT, because the lost capacity over time far outweighs the initial savings, especially when one considers latent demand for mass transit.

What this means for the average citizen is that real transit solutions, such as  a metro-rail link down the Douglas corridor or an LRT Bay link, are going to lose out to costly BRT lines that will spend our transit dollars without making meaningful strides in increasing ridership, or connectivity.

8 Responses to MDT’s Big Bet on BRT is BUSted

  1. Steve says:

    As someone who attended the community meetings for planning Orange Line Phase III and the Kendall Corridor (The CSX Fiasco), I can say that the chief problem is that the residents want the best transit system for everyone else but them. Especially with the CSX Corridor discussion as part of the Kendall Link discussion, residents were seeing these wonderful grass-covered-psudo-park-lane type things for a guided busway being presented by a citizen’s group not wanting any rails going down the CSX corridor and felt that that is what the county means by BRT.

    This mindset is the main problem. The people acknowledge that there needs to be some form of transit alternative and instead side with whichever can be constructed with the littlest inconvenience on their behalf. BRT means construction of a couple barriers and shelters off the side of the road whereas any form of rail expansion would cause for either roadway and/or pilons to be built. My favorite argument against an elevated guideway was this one guy who lived off Kendall Drive complaining because the view from his front door would be impeded by a train.

    The vocal minority want to keep to their gas-guzzlers and don’t want to take transit. They see it only as a means of getting people out of their way so they can get where they want to go faster. The reality is that when these are the people heading out to the meetings, the most likely alternative is always going to be BRT because it is cheaper to make and takes less strain off their lives during construction, operating expenses be damned.

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  2. Chuck says:

    First of all, you know you’re getting the least common denominator for transit when MDX is the main force behind the project. They could care less about transit. They are essentially a local extension of the highway lobby and their chief objective is to criss-cross Miami-Dade County with as many highways as possible. They actually believe that that is the way to improve “mobility” and reduce congestion across the county (this has only been discredited for decades now) and/or they are in cahoots with suburban sprawl developers who want highway extensions deep into rural Miami-Dade/Everglades to open up huge new swaths of land for tract housing sprawl (you know the UDB will be moved for this). Therefore, it should be no surprise that auto-oriented transit comes out of FIU’s research.

    BRT can be an effective mode of transit in certain situations, but LRT is a much better alternative for accomplishing Miami-Dade’s transit and planning needs. BRT in HOV/HOT lanes, in particular, is the lamest and least effective form of BRT and this has been shown many times over. It is primarily a commuter express bus service that will have no impact on land use, which should be a primary goal for any new transit line in Miami-Dade. It will be hard to access for pedestrians because stations will likely be near highway exit ramps in auto-oriented zones. This also means that a high % of riders will drive to the BRT pick-up location and that means more parking, and of course, more driving.

    Regarding cost, Tony is exactly right. In order for BRT to approach the quality of service that LRT offers, you will have to invest much more heavily in infrastructure such as separated ROWs, more sophisticated station infrastructure, and fancier buses. However, this means that you will end up approaching the the capital costs of LRT, yet you won’t be getting the productivity, capacity, or effect on land use/economic development that you would get from LRT (not to mention less ridership because of BRT’s poorer public image). Anyhow, since MDT clearly won’t be making that kind of capital investment, we will be stuck with an inferior form of transit that will likely be another bust.

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  3. Prem says:

    I think one aspect of this discussion which is perpetually ignored is the different kinds of commitments a city makes for BRT contrasted with LRT.

    BRT can go as low at 700k per mile because they don’t have to build as much infrastructure. The roads are there. The people are there.
    BRT has a versatility not afforded to LRT, which is the long term commitment.
    While BRT is itself a long-term commitment, or must be for a transit system to get better over time, the ever changing interests and circumstances of the County favor a method for delivering transit which meets the needs of the people, not the expectations of politicians.

    For instance, look at the various permanent structures erected in the guise of public transportation, which in some ways may contribute more blight to the community than use. While it may be easy for LRT optimists to suggest that the Metromover and the Metrorail either aren’t failed objects, or are examples of bad planning, I wonder if there isn’t some aspect of bad planning inherent in in these kinds of projects.

    In terms of “efficient” and “responsive” public transportation I much favor the BRT option myself because (although perhaps not in practice) it’s tremendously cheaper to move a bus stop than it is to move a light rail stop.
    Miami-Dade County is dynamic, with time changing its facade not to the tune of some government horn, but at the interests and efforts of individuals.

    The ideas for these kinds of projects are never practical. Because of what land is available and this and that they couldn’t build, for instance, a rail of some kind all the way up or down biscayne or collins. But that makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Millions of people use these streets daily.
    Well they’ve got busses on these streets. Why not get rid of all that damned parking and put in a dedicated bus lane?
    IF that doesn’t encourage people to use public transportation I don’t know what will.
    And maybe I don’t.
    But I at least use the stuff.

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  4. Tony Garcia says:

    Prem,
    BRT stations are just as permanent as LRT stations; that is one of their main design features – elevated platform stations, with prepaid boarding. It must function and look like a normal transit. It has nothing to do with the normal bus service that MDT offers – and which can be changed with flexibility.

    Just picking up and moving the station is just as dificult (and costly) for brt as for lrt.

    The advantage of BRT is not station flexibility, but the lower initial cost (when using fixed existing rights-of-way, like the dolphin expressway).

    Also, read again my comments above. Those permanent structures which you suggest lead to blight, are simply part of a transit system that still has not been finished. They also result from car based land-use planning.

    LRT is just as flexible as BRT because it too is used at-grade, within the existing ROW, using the same traffic signal coordination as for BRT. No elevated structures, no blight, no permanent infrastructure that doesn’t get used.

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  5. Tony Garcia says:

    PS. They could absolutely build a rail line down biscayne/8th street/collins…you name it. It would shares the road as is the norm in places like Seattle, Phoenix, Charlotte…etc.

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  6. transitnerd says:

    building a line down biscayne/a1a/collins ect. is way too obvious of an answer.

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  7. Chuck says:

    To anyone touting the flexibility of BRT:

    Flexibility of BRT is just as much a negative as it is a positive. Without enough infrastructure to make the BRT route appear to be a truly permanent investment, it has been proven over and over and over again for decades that it will not attract anywhere near as many riders (nevermind the poorer image of buses) and it especially will have a negligible impact (if any at all) on land use and economic development. Just look at the South-Dade Busway; this is a form of BRT that has mostly an exclusive ROW and station platforms at many stops, yet it still has done nothing to create transit-oriented development along it’s corridor. Perfect example of why BRT, even with a moderate degree of “permanent” infrastructure and a physically separated ROW still can’t attract economic development: it’s about to be destroyed by allowing cars to access the Busway by paying a toll, like a HOT lane.

    So, in conclusion, we all agree that Miami-Dade suffers from all the negative impacts resulting from severe traffic congestion and sprawl, and therefore it clearly needs to reduce vehicle miles traveled and increase the number of trips taken by walking or transit. This means that we need transit-oriented development, i.e. pockets of higher density, pedestrian-friendly development built around transit stations and corridors. However, BRT will not achieve these goals because it is TOO flexible and lacks the permanence of more infrastructure-intensive rail transit. The answer is to stop pissing big money away trying to expand Metrorail and start planning LRT which is the perfect middle ground between heavy rail and buses and has a long proven track record in scores of cities in countries all over the world for attracting high ridership, economic development, and TOD.

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  8. Prem says:

    transitnerd, it may be obvious, but is it an unreasonable answer?
    these are the streets people in my area use. they’re currently dumping millions to do something on biscayne boulevard, not bothering to build any bike lanes, just creating bigger sidewalks and larger bus stops. they could take advantage of this renovation to start implanting some infrastructure for transit dreams of tomorrow?

    I’m always going to prefer bus over train over such small distances. You bring up good points that I’d overlooked, Tony.

    I guess what I think may work best and could be implemented soonest/cheapest is a watered down version of BRT.
    For instance, eliminating cash fares on certain lines (ANY max/express line), but also installing fareboxes at all stops.
    With a dedicated bus lane and fareboxes at all special stops, people would blaze up and down biscayne or collins

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