The Role of BRT in the Durham Orange Transit Corridor

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,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. 



Tom - there is much ideological conjecture in your post.  I can only work with facts.  So lets take a couple of key points:

  • Glad you agree that BRT is 1/10th of the cost of LRT - proven over and over again.  So how about this - why not put BRT on the DOLRT corridor?  We'd have service a lot sooner and could free up about $2 billion for transportation to other parts of the area.  
  • Second is how much capacity is needed? GoTriangle has already “value engineered” about half of the capacity away.  Maybe we wouldn’t need so much capacity if we had a backbone network that reached more destinations.  Then we wouldn’t need to bring half the riders to the DOLRT corridor by bus or car.   MLK BRT moves through three of CH Hill’s 2020 focus areas and could easily extend to Hillsborough and Chatham Park.  How many of the estimated 27,000 boardings (not sure where you get 70,000) would be better served by bus or BRT service along a different corridor (86, 15-501s, 54 west, etc)? How many will be served by MLK BRT?  
  • Third, while we try to figure out how to create affordable housing amidst escalating housing costs on the DOLRT corridor, there are many places that house low income families today that are not getting decent public transportation.
  • Finally - why settle for 18 miles of LRT when, like Wake, you could have 140 miles of rapid, convenient transportation sooner and for less money? That would bring us closer to becoming a transit-oriented community where people could live without cars. Are you willing to wait 12 more years to start thinking about that while DOLRT vacuums all the money from bus transit for the next 50 years? 

It’s time for Plan B - which would bring us to world class integrated public transportation, rather than an urban-wannabe.


 Be honest. You own property along the proposed LRT line in Durham over near Duke, right?

One can say LRT creates more economic development, and one can also turn that around and say it raises property values and creates gentrification, all the while taxing those with a moderate income to pay for it. Yep. to paraphrase; "we're going to build a fancy new LRT and make the average guy pay for it".

Busses can run on electricity just as easily as LRT, so you get the coveted red herring award for this thread.

Go Triangle ridership has been falling over the last few years, due to gas prices, better fuel economy, and lower emissions. When do expect those capacity concerns to materialize again?

Further, applying the DCHMPO population projections to the narrow short DOLRT line are a complete fantasy. At least three commissioners have agreed when it was pointed out how many sq feet of housing and office space would need to be built. The universities also know that transit isn't the only infrastructure that won’t support their growth and thus are diversifying their operations moving operations and employees triangle wide. As far as the proud record of transit participation this area has you can thank CHT, where the bus is free. CHT ridership dwarfs GoTriangle ridership.

Now to the cost to operate. I would love to see you sources for the statement “BRT is less expensive to operate only up to about 2000 riders per hour.”. I suspect if it can be substantiated it is due to employment of drivers. Now there are two ways to look at that. First, the jobs have economic benefit and second if you do not care about the jobs then driverless technology will eliminate your alleged advantage. Again with the Diesel, Tom? Pin a ribbon on the red herring. Your comparison of this area to LA and Ottawa is specious at best. I lived in Ottawa in rthe 90’s no way this area comes anywhere near the density of Ottawa. I won’t even give the LA comparison the dignity of a retort. Ottawa IS NOT abandoning its extensive BRT system. Ottawa has a *great* BRT system. The first LRT (as I recall less than 5 miles) was to alleviate congestion on the limited number of bridges over the Rideau river and canal. There is a new LRT system that is (supposed to) go to the airport from downtown (near Albert & Bay and the Parliament) Not so here..

Reading on; the Shell Oil slight is a bit over the top, another ribbon for your red herring.

You sound like an urban planner, Tom. Any chance you are applying for a job at GoTriangle?

Though we disagree, I respect the points you make and recognize that we both want what is best for Orange County.  Let’s remember that regardless of what happens with DOLRT, we are still Orange County neighbors and that the future may find us supporting the same cause one day.

I'll ditch the hyperbole if you do, the false equivalencies you repeatedly infer are just flat out wrong.

GoTriangle has been less than forthright with their information.  Look how they have muddied the water on finance. They have put the proverbial "long tail" on the finance so that DOLRT will not be paid for in more that fifty years. Really?

Look at the 40 at grade crossings that will snarl traffic rather than improving it. Look at the tiny portion of Orange County being served and where the economic development is possible.

Look at the delays and cost overruns. Look at the GoTringle cash burn rate now at $1Million per month with nothing but a slick marketing campaign to show. That money could deliver real benifits now with plenty left ofver for a much larger BRT system that serves many more riders who rely on public transit. DOLRT is a terrible waste of scarce and regressive transit tax dollars and it will serve a small fraction of choice riders.

Look at how long DOLRT will take to deploy. Look at the technologies that will obsolete DOLRT before it is deployed.

In the face of this criticism how can you say this is good for Orange county?

Not comparing NYC to the triangle, but my question is that if they can’t make LRT work how is it we are supposed to? 


I’m curious if Ms. Hauser actually bothered to read Tom’s post.  Here’s what I noted: 

  1. Building real bus rapid transit (BRT) with its own travel lanes would actually cost 70% as much as a light rail train in the UNC to NCCU corridor, not the “1/10th” she claims.  (Her figure assumes the DOT will give you travel lanes on existing roads for free.  Do you seriously think we can lose two lanes along NC-54 and U.S. 15-501?) 
  2. Operating costs could quickly eat up even the meager constructions 30% savings, since busses need more drivers than trains, require more maintenance, and wear out in 12 years compared to trains’ 30-year lifespans.
  3. “Light rail lines have a proven track record of spurring tax-paying private investment, typically generating 4 times the economic development.”  See for yourself in Charlotte.  Unfortunately, private investors show no such interest in building next to bus stops.   
  4. BRT can’t carry as many people, so If BRT proves successful (which given the very high rate of transit usage in Durham and Chapel Hill already, it easily could), it could cost us tons more to convert to rail in the future than it would cost to build a train in the first place. Los Angeles and Ottawa are learning that lesson the expensive way.

Seems to me that Tom’s point here is that bus rapid transit instead of a train from UNC to NCCU might be penny wise and pound foolish. 

Radiomatt1 - of course I read Mr Farmers post and yours.   I'd love to see anything that substatiates your assertions.   

Wake's BRT is a fixed guideway system with the substantial stations and other permanent features of LRT. at $20 million per mile.  DOLRT is $146 mm per mile. Do the math.  Operating costs are lower too.   You can choose to believe your own rhetoric or do a little reasearch.  Wake has not even entered the New Starts/Smart Starts process and sitll plans to have 20 miles of fixed guideway BRT up and running by 2024.  Even if they are a year or two late, they will be way ahead of us.  

Oh - and what's most impressive about their plan is its dynamic and flexible. By adding over 100 miles of frequent bus service throughout the county, they are doing the real work - building ridership.   And their plan is flexible enough that they can course correct as ridership patterns emerge.   No massive investments in park n rides - cause they are planning last mile service and expect people to function without cars.  (think affordability)  

In the meantime -we'll be paying for the $2.5 billion DOLRT until 2062. That means no other major corridors or service expansions.

Its clear what Tom's point is - and everyone is entitled to their opinion. But where are the facts. 








Many of the facts you seek are in the web links at the bottom of the article.  The 70,000 bus boardings is in link 1.  For the fact that building BRT in the Durham Orange Corridor would cost 70% of LRT, see link 4.  This makes sense because true  BRT along 54 and 15-501 would require 2 new lanes of roadway. Recent road expansions on 15-501 have shown this to be expensive.

Link 4 shows GoTriangles estimate of the cost of BRT. Your reference ignores that 1) the estimate of 70% was back in 2011 when DOLRT was projected to be 1.3 Billion and 2) the FTA now favors BRT and will cost share up to 70% of the cost of BRT as opposed to 50% for LRT.

You still do not address DOLRTs very creative financing, lack of coverage, paving over a watershed, 40 new at grade crossings that will server to snarl, not calm traffic and the historic negative impacts of LRT on affordability.

Link 4 shows GoTriangles estimate of the cost of BRT. Your reference ignores that 1) the estimate of 70% was back in 2011 when DOLRT was projected to be 1.3 Billion and 2) the FTA now favors BRT and will cost share up to 70% of the cost of BRT as opposed to 50% for LRT.

You still do not address DOLRTs very creative financing, lack of coverage, paving over a watershed, 40 new at grade crossings that will server to snarl, not calm traffic and the historic negative impacts of LRT on affordability.

Mr Farmer- you might want to vet your sources and update some of your assumptons.  

As Mr Blake points out, the 2011 report- which estimated DOLRT per mile at about $80 mm a mile; now its $141 million a mile.  oops.  Since 2011, there's a lot more experience with fixed guideway BRT.  That's why Ch Hill and Wake are reporting $15 and $20 mm per mile. But if you can produce ONE BRT project that's anything close to $100 million a mile, (70% of $141 million a mile) I'm all ears.  

Since 2012, DOLRT has magically grown from 14,000 to 27,000 boardings per day - and at least half have to drive or take a bus to the train.  At 27.000 boardings per day (that's 13,500 people taking two way trips),  that means DOLRT will serve about 2% of the population (estimated at 550,000 in 2030)

The rest of us will be waiting till 2062 because that's when the debt will be  paid on DOLRT.   Meanwhile, the rest of the world, including Wake, will be living without cars.  (that last sentence is just an opinion). 


Ms. Hauser claims Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), “is flexible enough that they can course correct as ridership patterns emerge.”

Uhmmm… Durham Orange Light Rail’s #1 destination here is UNC & UNC Hospitals, serving the 49,000+ students, faculty and employees that are on campus each week. 

Is UNC-Chapel Hill leaving town? 

If it is, we have far bigger problems. 

You state one of the main problems very well......serving 49K students to do what? Go to Durham? The flexibility needs to be at both the source and destination and public transit dollars should serve the people paying for it. Besides, if this line is strictly to serve UNC as you say, how come UNC and Duke aren't kicking in monies from their considerable endowments? Why do all of the funds have to come at the expense of the local taxpayers who might want to use public transit to go some place other than Durham as well?


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