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The Bus Lines That Can Solve a Bunch of Urban Problems

Many cities view rail transit as an enticing boost to civic fortunes. But there’s a better, cheaper way to accomplish the same thing.

A Dallas Area Rapid Transit bus
Dallas Area Rapid Transit announced service expansions last week, including three new routes.
Juan Figueroa/TNS
Multiple pressures are bearing down on America’s cities. Many of them are fiscally pinched. They need to renew aging infrastructure. And they are looking to upgrade and expand their public transit offerings.

Fortunately, there is one type of project that helps with all of these: bus rapid transit (BRT). Bus rapid transit is a bus line that has light rail characteristics, including dedicated travel lanes, limited stops, entry-level boarding, off-board fare collection and traffic signal pre-emption. The exact details vary from system to system. Some are little more than express buses with special branding. Others are almost rail lines on tires.

One benefit of BRT is that it is much more capital-efficient and faster to implement than light rail. For many years, urban advocates have promoted light rail over bus transit, impressed by the success of light rail systems such as the one in Portland, Ore. But today’s light rail lines are extremely expensive. One proposed in Austin, Texas, for example, is projected to cost $500 million per mile. Also, most of the cities that have desired light rail are low-density cities built around cars and with little history of extensive public transit ridership. Converting them to transit-oriented cities would be a heavy lift.

BRT is much cheaper. The 13-mile Red Line BRT in Indianapolis, opened in 2019, cost less than $100 million — not per mile, but in total. The much lower financial lift required for building bus rapid transit makes it more feasible for cities to raise the required funds.

Because they typically run on city streets, BRT systems also offer the chance to perform badly needed street and sewer repairs during construction. Sidewalks can be rebuilt or added. Traffic signals can be replaced, along with new features such as prioritizing buses over auto traffic and additional pedestrian safety measures. The reduction of traffic lanes itself is sometimes a worthwhile street redesign project.

These types of improvements were made as part of the Indianapolis Red Line project. With 80 percent of the funds — $77 million — coming from a federal grant, the city only had to spend about $20 million of its own money on the project. Although the numbers weren’t broken down by component, it’s very possible that there was more than $20 million in street improvements. That means the local funds essentially went to fix streets that already needed to be repaired, and the city got a BRT line for free, courtesy of the federal government.

The Purple Line BRT in Indianapolis, scheduled to open at the end of this year, is an even starker example of leveraging transit projects to make general infrastructure improvements. The Purple Line is a 15-mile, $188 million project that is about half funded by federal grants. The major spine of this route will be East 38th Street, a major crosstown artery that passes through a low-income, heavily Black area. This is a highly trafficked street with a poor design that was in terrible shape.

Some $127 million — about two-thirds of the total project cost — is dedicated to infrastructure improvements. This includes major drainage upgrades to meet modern standards, separating storm and sanitary sewers along part of the route to reduce combined sewer overflows. The street is being reconstructed or repaved. There are 9.5 miles of new or repaired sidewalks, a wide multi-use path along part of the route and more than 350 new ADA-compliant curb ramps. Also, the line will have dedicated lanes and newly built stations.

Without the BRT, it’s highly unlikely the cash-strapped city of Indianapolis would have been able to afford the other infrastructure improvements. The transit improvements are being paid for with a 0.25 percentage point income tax increase, allowed by the state legislature and approved by voters locally.

Nashville is making similar plans. After a light rail network went down to defeat at the polls, the city is proposing an infrastructure plan that includes BRT, including many street design and infrastructure upgrades along the routes. Where less-major infrastructure work is required, BRT becomes even more financially attractive as a transit investment.

Milwaukee built an east-west BRT line for only around $50 million. And it’s planning an 18-mile north-south BRT line for $148 million. This is a far cry from light rail lines that would have cost many billions of dollars, as in Austin. Columbus, Ohio, is also putting a five-line BRT system on the ballot.

The cost-effectiveness of bus rapid transit makes it an easy choice for most American cities. Where BRT investment can be leveraged to make critical infrastructure improvements, that’s even a bigger win.
An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at aaron@aaronrenn.com or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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