Board members of Lane Transit District (LTD) in Eugene, Ore., began discussing bus rapid transit (BRT) in 1995. This December, their foresight and planning will come to fruition when the agency’s first BRT corridor opens for service.
Stefano Viggiano, LTD’s director of development services, says the concept grew out of a desire to attract more riders by improving both the performance and image of a conventional bus system.
Viggiano says he traveled to South America, Europe and several U.S. cities to examine existing BRT systems and came away impressed by what he saw.
The BRT concept was vetted through a regional transportation planning process and was eventually approved as the preferred transit strategy for the Eugene/Springfield community.
Currently, LTD operates 101 buses and provides approximately 8.3 million rides annually. It will soon receive five 60-foot articulated buses manufactured by New Flyer for its fledgling BRT service. Eventually, transit officials hope to add a new corridor every five or six years.
Editor Steve Hirano recently spoke with Viggiano about LTD’s ambitious BRT strategy, examining how the system will fit into the Eugene-Springfield’s regional transit plans and meet the needs of the community.
METRO: Were you considering light rail before opting for BRT?
STEFANO VIGGIANO: While there has been local interest in light rail, the reality is that the Eugene-Springfield metro area doesn’t have the population or population density to support rail. We have, however, indicated that right-of-way used now for BRT can eventually be used for light rail, if and when that is determined to be feasible.
How has the community responded to the adoption of BRT?
The BRT concept has generally resonated very well in the community. The idea of creating a transit system that reduces travel time and creates a rail-like image made sense to people. It was seen as a transit strategy that is appropriate for the community and would create a transit system that the community can grow with over time.
When we reached the stage of actually designing and engineering the first corridor, the discussion moved from concept to reality. As should be expected, there were a number of individual concerns regarding access and property acquisition that we had to resolve. These were resolved and the first corridor was approved by the elected officials of all the two cities and the county. We had made a commitment to the community that we would not proceed with the BRT project unless the local general purpose governments approved the project.
How much has the public been involved in the planning and construction of your BRT program?
We’ve had a high level of public involvement and communication, both in the project planning and during construction.
During the design phase, we did all the “normal” public involvement efforts: mailings to the community, newsletters, open houses and public hearings. We also did two things that weren’t quite as common. At the start of the design process, we met in person with all businesses along the corridor to explain the project and to invite them to participate in the design process. Then, as part of the design process, we held lengthy community workshops for each of the various segments of the corridor where citizens could offer opinions on designs and suggest their own ideas. Each workshop was followed a short time later by a second workshop that showed the citizens designs based on ideas from the first workshop. This process was very popular, and we had a high level of citizen participation.
During construction, we have maintained a very high level of communication with affected businesses and other interested persons. A construction update is e-mailed once or more per week to a mailing list that numbers in the thousands. This communication reports on construction activity and also explains the various components of the system as they are being constructed. In order to help businesses cope with the construction, we have used special access signs to direct the public to businesses in the construction area, and we have provided “dollar off” coupons to construction workers and others to encourage them to patronize restaurants, cafes and markets that are impacted by construction.
As a result of these efforts, the construction has gone very smoothly with a minimum of complaints and bad publicity.
How will the demographics of the expected BRT users differ from the current riders?
We are hoping to attract more choice riders. We find that the current transit system just doesn’t compete well in getting people to stop driving their cars.
When will you be starting service for the Franklin EmX? The rest of the corridors?
We have named our local system EmX [pronounced “M-X”], which is short for Emerald Express. The Franklin EmX corridor connects downtown Eugene and downtown Springfield. Service on that corridor is expected to start in December.
We are in the environmental review stage for our second corridor, the Pioneer Parkway EmX. This second line will be an extension of the Franklin EmX from downtown Springfield into a rapidly developing part of north Springfield. If all goes well, service on that corridor could begin in 2010.
There are several other EmX corridors planned for the community, and we generally expect to be able to add one corridor every five or six years.
How long is the Franklin corridor?
The Franklin EmX is 4 miles long. It links our major hub of transit service in downtown Eugene with a secondary hub of service in downtown Springfield. The corridor also serves the University of Oregon and a major medical center. This first corridor can be considered the backbone of the system. Future extensions of the system will be from one of these two hubs and future lines will benefit from having this “backbone” in place. The Pioneer Parkway EmX, our second line, is a 7.6-mile corridor.
What special BRT characteristics will the vehicles have? Did you piggyback off Cleveland BRT’s order?
LTD and Cleveland [Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority] are jointly procuring BRT vehicles from New Flyer. The vehicles are 60-foot articulated buses with hybrid-electric propulsion. The exterior and interior of the vehicle has been redesigned to provide a sleeker, more rail-like appearance. The most unique feature of the vehicles is that they will have doors on both sides. Both LTD and Cleveland have designed a system that has a mix of right-side and left-side boarding platforms.
How much did the vehicles cost?
About $916,000 per vehicle.
What’s the capacity of the vehicles?
The EmX vehicles will hold 107 people, standing and sitting. That compares to 70 people in a standard 40-foot bus.
You’ve apparently had some problems with hybrid-electric propulsion in the past. Are you comfortable with the hybrid systems currently available?
We probably jumped the gun a bit in going after hybrid-electric buses about six years ago. We purchased six small hybrid-electric shuttle buses from AVS, a company that has since gone bankrupt. The technology was pretty new at that time, and the system used by AVS did not work well. However, the Allison hybrid system that is to be used on the New Flyer EmX vehicles has been tested extensively. Seattle has purchased more than 200 buses with this propulsion system and has been very happy with their performance.
What special BRT characteristics will the running ways and stations have?
The running ways have different configurations and designs, depending on the various constraints in a particular segment. We use segregated transitways, transit lanes, bi-directional transit lanes, and travel in mixed traffic. One of the real benefits of BRT is its flexibility of design, and we take full advantage of that flexibility.
The stations look like light rail stations and are spaced about 1/3-mile apart. Each station has its own name and has an attractive shelter and other passenger amenities.
Many of the elements of BRT service will be added incrementally after the service has been launched. Will all of the proposed corridors be developed in this manner?
We will open the Franklin EmX as a fairly complete BRT corridor with most of what are typically considered BRT elements and technologies. In fact, we feel that our EmX system will be one of the most complete BRT systems in the country. The system includes exclusive right-of-way, signal priority, raised platforms for level boarding, improved stops and stations, real-time passenger information and specially designed vehicles.
The second corridor, Pioneer Parkway EmX, will also be developed as a complete BRT corridor. We are considering incremental development of some other corridors, primarily to try to get some BRT elements in place sooner throughout the system.
What is the capital cost of the first two corridors?
The total cost for the 4-mile Franklin EmX is about $23.5 million, including the vehicles. The Pioneer Parkway EmX is estimated to cost $38 million, including vehicles.
The buses have a splashy, eye-catching paint scheme. Was that done to differentiate them from the standard buses in your fleet?
The EmX vehicles — we’re trying not to call them buses — have a sleeker appearance and are considerably taller than conventional buses. The paint scheme will be silver with two shades of green. There shouldn’t be any problem distinguishing the EmX vehicles from the rest of our fleet.
How will fares for the BRT service be structured?
Like many light rail systems, our BRT system is designed for off-board fare collection
with proof-of-payment. Fare checkers will ride routes and check for fare compliance. Each platform will have a fare machine.
What are your projections for EmX ridership along the Franklin corridor for the first year?
The regional transportation model predicts that the BRT system will increase ridership by approximately 50% compared to a conventional bus system. The Franklin EmX, as a small piece of an eventual system, is expected to see a more modest increase until other parts of the EmX system are added. We estimate that the Franklin EmX should show a 20% ridership increase in the first year.
Los Angeles County’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority had a rash of bus-automobile accidents on its
Orange Line shortly after launching the BRT service. Are you concerned about the possibility of similar problems along your BRT corridors?
We have been in contact with L.A. about this issue and are monitoring some efforts they are making to address the problem. We don’t foresee problems, but want to be sure that we have thought through all the possible safety issues.