Research: BRT can truly be pricier than LRT

Written by Lyndon Henry

In my last article (Research study: New light rail projects beat BRT), I summarized the general results of a research study, co-authored with my colleague Dave Dobbs, that I presented in mid-November to the 12th National Light Rail Transit Conference in Salt Lake City, a confab sponsored by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

CATS LRTAs the article reported, according to our study, “An array of new light rail transit (LRT) projects came out ahead of new bus rapid transit (BRT) projects ….” For example, for what we designated as “Minimal” installation projects (less than 5% of route length involving heavy civil works), the average cost for LRT came to $51.8 million/mile vs. $30.8 million/mile for BRT.

This seems to have raised some eyebrows. Originally, I’d intended to focus on some other interesting details and findings from our study, but for this installment in the saga, I’ll focus a bit on the criticism. How come BRT, which is touted as “just like light rail, but cheaper” — supposedly down to a tenth of the cost per mile — comes out so expensive in our study?

Why? Because we focused on real BRT, and rejected the notion of “BRT Lite” — how can something running in mixed traffic like a regular bus be classified as “rapid transit,” whereas light rail, much of which runs on reservations and private right-of-way, is not considered “rapid transit” in similar fashion?

We decided that, if you’re going to compare two basically “guideway” systems, then you should compare the “guideway” portions, at least in terms of cost, which is what we did. We omitted systems that did not run on significant “guideway” alignments, and discounted the segments where buses departed from the “guideway” and ran basically just as buses on the street in mixed traffic. Lots of express and limited-stop bus systems do that, but I would not call them “BRT.”

In essence, we fired a shot at what seems a kind of creeping deception (though we didn’t call it that) — relabeling more or less ordinary bus operations as “rapid transit.” This seems to be fooling some decision makers, and tries to fool the public. But I think the public will simply be somewhat disgusted and distrustful when they’re promised any more such “rapid transit.”

In any case, when you follow our methodology — accepted by the peer review and not challenged in the presentation — and price out the cost of just the “true” BRT mileage, you get the figures we presented.

Eyebrows went even higher at the average costs we found for what we called “substantial” installation projects (5% or more of route length involving heavy civil works). In this comparison, LRT came out at $79.8 million/mile, BRT at a whopping $451.7 million/mile. We were asked to identify a single project costing that much.

That’s easy — the Boston Piers Transitway BRT (Silver Line), which had a cost of nearly $800 million/mile in 2012 dollars. Hey, people — it’s all in a tunnel, under downtown Boston. OK?

When you average this with the $113.1 million/mile cost of Pittsburgh’s West Busway — of which a significant segment runs in a refurbished tunnel — you get a pretty darn high average cost for these types of projects.

In my next article, I’ll focus on more details from our study — including some of the amazing ridership gains we found for LRT, and more insight into the disparity between the relatively rigorous federal scrutiny of LRT projects vs. the comparatively facile approval of new BRT starts.

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