With the rollout of regional transit plans in our area, we can see that Wake County plans 20 miles of bus rapid transit (BRT) routes. Here in Orange County, we have an 8 mile BRT route planned in additional to a proposed 18 mile light rail line connecting Durham and Chapel Hill. Should we deploy BRT as the anchor of our transit network and replace the Durham Orange Light Rail line with BRT?
First, a bit about BRT. It takes many of the things that make riding light rail transit (LRT) attractive, but uses diesel buses in dedicated exclusive roadways instead of electric rail cars on tracks. A true BRT system has stations with shelters and raised platforms like LRT. Fares are paid in advance to speed loading and buses come at regular intervals. Most importantly, a true BRT system has its own exclusive roadway. If the bus is stuck in the same traffic with cars, it’s not really “gold standard” BRT. It’s just a bus.
There are those who contend that we would be better served by scrapping the proposed Durham Orange Light Rail line and deploying BRT along the Durham to Orange corridor. Common arguments include the claim that for every mile of LRT, 10 miles of BRT can be constructed. Also, there is the contention that Wake County rejected LRT in favor of BRT.
To start, let’s look at Wake County and their BRT plans. We need to remember that two main things determine success of a light rail line. First, what it connects: I have extolled the virtues of Durham Orange Light Rail (DOLRT) in my first blog post. Among the many things that DOLRT connects are 100,000 jobs in two rapidly growing urban centers and three major medical centers all suffering from bus congestion and parking issues. Indeed, new employees at the Durham VA Medical Center can’t get on-site parking. Second, pre existing transit use: as of 2013, there were over 70,000 weekday boardings of buses in Durham and Orange Counties.1 This creates a large network of transit users that bodes quite well for light rail ridership. Wake County does not have these kind of ridership numbers. According to the FTA and 538.com,2 the Durham region ranks 21st out of 290 metro areas in transit trips per capita, a remarkable number when you consider that many metro regions at the top of that list already have rail transit. Wake County ranks 195th. Wake County did not reject light rail. The truth is that Wake County is not yet ready for it.
Now, let’s look at the cost. Many opponents of DOLRT claim that BRT could provide the same service at a small fraction of the cost of LRT. It is indeed true that BRT lines can cost less to construct than LRT. The cheapest proposed option for Chapel HIll’s planned North South BRT system along MLK Jr Boulevard costs around $12 million per mile.3 However, that plan would save money on construction costs by taking away two travel lanes for motorists to create a BRT exclusive roadway.
So why is it not completely accurate to claim we can build nearly 180 miles of BRT for the cost of DOLRT? The big reason is that using existing road lanes is not an option for the Durham Orange transit corridor. Take a drive during rush hour and decide for yourself if we can lose two lanes on NC-54 or 15-501. Building new roadway for BRT significantly increases the cost. From the Federal Transit Administration approved assessment of the Durham Orange corridor, building BRT instead of LRT would only be about 30% cheaper.4 Once the BRT system is up and running, those 30% savings on construction costs can vanish quickly. BRT is less expensive to operate only up to about 2000 riders per hour. At that point, LRT becomes cheaper to operate and this cost savings increases with more passengers. Then come the maintenance costs. Buses typically wear out after 12 years, but light rail train cars typically last for 30 years. Factor in the potential for rising diesel fuel costs and the BRT system can easily become more expensive than LRT after only a few years of service.
BRT lines also have lower peak capacity than light rail. Solving the capacity overload can prove more expensive than building light rail in the first place. Consider the cautionary tale of Los Angeles’ Metro Orange line, the 18-mile BRT line that opened in 2005 along an abandoned railroad corridor for its dedicated roadway. With over 28,000 boardings each weekday, the Orange Line has reached its capacity and is now considering a $1.7 billion conversion to LRT, a cost far higher than simply building LRT in the first place.5 Ottawa, the North American city with the most BRT experience is also now turning to LRT because of capacity issues that BRT just can’t handle.
There is yet another financial benefit of choosing light rail that is not factored into the construction and operating costs. Light rail lines have a proven track record of spurring tax-paying private investment, typically generating 4 times the economic development than the original construction cost. This is playing out in many places including Charlotte where they are doubling their light rail investment. Unfortunately, BRT doesn’t spur the same kind of economic growth as light rail. The construction money saved is easily lost in the diminished economic growth and tax revenue of BRT.
Light rail develops economic growth in walkable transit oriented communities that emphasize people and public spaces over asphalt. BRT reinforces highway patterns in urban designs, making our streets less friendly for walking shoes and bikes and making our cities less livable. Further, "BRT creep" is a well recognized issue whereby even the best of BRT projects are compromised by the politics of motorists unwilling to give up asphalt. This can make BRT little more than new signage on a bus stuck in traffic.
When looking at transit cost, we need to think of what we are purchasing and focus on performance as well. It is too easy to fall into the trap of quoting the performance of gold standard BRT with the cost of “BRT creep” lines built on the cheap. Despite a number of bus lines labelled as BRT, there are only 5 true BRT systems in the US and all are compromised by BRT creep.6 Not a single line in the US qualifies for gold or silver standard BRT according the the Institute of Transportion and Development Policy.7 This applies to many a well intentioned gold standard BRT plan such as Seattle’s Roosevelt BRT project where projected average BRT transit speeds of over 21 mph have BRT crept to under 8.5 mph.8
Historically, BRT can trace roots back to a philanthropic grant from Shell Oil. There are those on the political right who support BRT as a cover for promoting more fossil fuel use, more highway construction, and hostility to all forms of public transit. Do not think less of BRT because of this background. BRT has an important role as part of an integrated transit plan. However, as the anchor of a regional transit network, BRT tends to disappoint.
Durham Orange Light Rail is economic development and sustainable growth that doesn’t choke our roadways, pollute our air, and consume our open spaces. It is high capacity access to jobs in our urban cores and a wise investment in our economic future.
The time is now for light rail. We voted for it. We can't afford not to get off our asphalt and build it.