With the recent reauthorization of the federal surface transportation program, public transit agencies find themselves in the ironic position of facing unprecedented competition for funding, even while the new bill guarantees record federal investment through September 2009. This irony increases at the state and local levels, which have also approved record funding increases for public transportation.
In an environment where agencies feel pressured to get projects implemented as soon as possible, success favors cost-effective and quickly implemented vehicle technologies and project delivery techniques. Fortunately, as research has shown, well-proven solutions exist both here and abroad.
The re-creation of transit
Public transportation is in the midst of a comeback in the U.S. Although the above situation describes transit as a victim of its own political success, cities are increasingly offering commuters real alternatives to sitting in their cars hour upon hour in stifling traffic. Every year, new light rail, streetcar and commuter rail lines are making their debuts. Enhancing these new systems is bus rapid transit (BRT). Not only is BRT being deployed where rail is not possible, it is also being deployed to make rail networks more productive and cost-effective by linking them to areas where travelers need to go.
Public transportation investments are now documented successes in enticing people out of their cars and attracting smart growth investment. For example, Los Angeles’ Metro Rapid BRT network increased ridership on its corridors by as much as 42%, one-third of which came from former auto commuters, according to a BRT Ridership Analysis conducted by WestStart-CALSTART. Similar or even better shifts in market share are also being achieved by new rail starts.
With distinctive, aerodynamic, “rail-like” and modern designs and interiors, BRT vehicles are literally becoming crowd stoppers, similar to new railcar designs in Houston and elsewhere. In late 2001, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) demonstrated the European-built and highly futuristic Civis bus, which is now in regular service in Las Vegas, to overwhelming public accolades. “People stopped in their tracks to check this vehicle out,” said Michael Schipper of the GCRTA. “The looks on the public’s faces were telling; they were in amazement and awe.”
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) receives the same reactions over new designs in its BRT network. According to Richard Hunt of the MTA, the agency is overwhelmed with positive feedback about its Orange Line BRT, which began operation last October. Combined with the exclusive busway and stations designed to light rail standards, this new line has already exceeded ridership projections, reaching levels predicted for 2020. Successes are equally numerous with new rail starts.
Implications down the line
Each new BRT and light rail line can displace up to a million gallons of gasoline consumed by commuters each year, helping to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. Attendant benefits in air quality, greenhouse gas reduction and economic growth are equally impressive. Moreover, BRT can help catalyze the development of cleaner propulsion for trucks and non-transit buses.
In short, transit has a broad variety of very cost-effective tools for attracting new market share. What’s more, BRT, streetcar and commuter rail options can be deployed quickly, an important quality in these “show me” political times. The key now is for political leaders to show the urgency required to come up with local match funding either through public sources locally or through showing flexibility in partnering with private capital and industry.
We must help them seize this moment. If we don’t, the opportunity could slip away into the background of competing national and local priorities.
Boesel is preesident and CEO of WestStart-CALSTART in Pasadena, Calif.