Bus Rapid Transit: Precursor to rail, or obstacle?

Written by Lyndon Henry

For decades, even when it was designated by other euphemisms such as "enhanced bus", so-called "bus rapid transit" (BRT) was repeatedly hyped as a kind of interim service on the way to light rail transit (LRT).

Accordingly, as available railway rights-of-way or busy arterials were eyed for possible new-start LRT lines, BRT promoters and extra-cautious planners would suggest: Why not try out BRT first? And if buses prove good transit would work, invest the extra money to convert to LRT.

So how’s that worked out? Not so well.

Ottawa-TransitwayAn early clue came in 2003 from Ottawa, where a former railway line had been converted into a “Transitway” for BRT buses (pictured). That year, a city study, noting that although “The transitway has been designed to be convertible to LRT,” actual conversion would be daunting, both in terms of disruption and cost. Thus, Ottawa’s current LRT project is routed in a totally different alignment, including a downtown subway. (See: Ottawa: New light rail system recommended … But “BRT” conversion presents obstacles.)

 The big challenges, it turns out, involve physical incompatibilities (like different station platform heights and lengths, the need to remove pavement, etc.) as well as the drawback of suspending or disrupting a viable high-quality bus service to install LRT in the same alignment.

Fast-forward to 2014, in Austin, Tex., where a significant conglomeration of central-city residents (including me) and businesses has been lobbying for the city’s first “urban rail” (LRT) line to be routed in the heaviest, densest central north-south local corridor — Guadalupe St. and Lamar Blvd. — rather than the more peripheral, easterly areas preferred by planners with the official planning agency, Project Connect. For background, see:

Austin LRT plan criticized … by rail advocates

An alternative Urban Rail plan

 • Central Austin CDC’s Light Rail Alignment Proposal

This is where the BRT issue becomes involved, in a situation that demonstrates how sometimes BRT can be a political obstacle rather than physical. That’s because a high-quality bus service, funded as BRT by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and branded as MetroRapid, has been operating in this same corridor since January. To reject the community-proposed Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) plan, local officials and planners have been arguing that MetroRapid is an insurmountable obstacle to rail — and that replacing buses with trains would jeopardize future FTA funding for the region.

But G-L urban rail supporters contend that the minimalist, low-cost MetroRapid service, far from an obstacle, functions rather as a precursor to rail. (See: Why the MetroRapid bus project currently is NOT an obstacle to urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar.)

Indeed, Surinder Marwah — the Capital Metro planner who originally designed the MetroRapid project and helped secure FTA Small Starts funding — corroborates MetroRapid’s role as a precursor to urban rail, and disputes that the project was ever intended to block rail in the G-L corridor. Marwah ranks as a strong and knowledgeable advocate of urban rail in the corridor.

And on top of all that, the Austin Rail Now blog (which, full disclosure, I edit) has made a case that, running almost totally in mixed traffic, with bare-bones infrastructure, MetroRapid is not really even “BRT.”

Maybe Bus Upgraded Transit?

So far, the FTA has given hints that it “would consider [a] request” for “a new need in this corridor” if “Capital Metro and the community” can “show that urban rail is the highest priority in this corridor.” (See: Contradicting local official claims, FTA says it “would consider request” for urban rail on North Lamar.)

Currently, Project Connect and local officials seem inclined to ensure that doesn’t happen, especially by floating proposals to construct special bus lanes in the G-L corridor, a heavy infrastructure investment that could well present a bona fide obstacle to LRT in the eyes of the FTA.

Where will this all end up? Voters, possibly this November, would have the ultimate say in either approving or rejecting municipal bonds needed for the local share of the Project Connect plan. But support is growing for the alternative G-L corridor, and lots can happen before plans become final.

Meanwhile, for communities mulling the LRT-or-BRT issue, Austin’s real-world situation should be an object lesson that the “Build BRT first, then convert to rail” notion may have more pitfalls than are immediately evident.

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