Transferring the focus to fast buses

Ride: Maryland officials ponder a different kind of rapid transit system for the Baltimore region - one that would include big rubber wheels as well as steel rails.

March 16, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Seattle does it.

Miami's on board.

Pittsburgh, too.

So why not consider "bus rapid transit" in Baltimore, asks state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. He wants to take a serious look at running rapid buses along some of the region's proposed rail routes. Buses are cheaper than rail cars, and they could get rolling a lot faster.

"It's a rail car with rubber wheels," Flanagan said, who is so enamored of the idea that he has begun calling the region's rail plan a transit plan.

Rapid buses are typically longer than conventional city buses, so they can carry more people, and they run in designated lanes along highways or on city streets. Often, they have sensors that trigger traffic lights to turn green as they approach.

They also move faster than regular buses because they have fewer stops, street stations where fares can be paid before boarding, and multiple doors. And, ideally, they run so often that riders don't have to consult schedules.

"For cities like Baltimore that are challenging transit markets, we need to be looking for low-cost improvements that are, in fact, tangible improvements," said Henry M. Kay, director of planning for the Maryland Transit Administration.

"It's still the Red Line," Kay said, referring to the east-west segment of the region's transit plan that the Ehrlich administration hopes to begin building in five years. "But the Red Line could be a red bus."

Bumps ahead

Kay acknowledged that rapid buses face significant hurdles, particularly on streets jammed with cars, regular buses, service vehicles and construction equipment. Then there is the perception of buses as slow-moving, air-fouling monsters that stop every block to pick up and discharge passengers.

Buses typically move at 60 percent of the speed of cars on city roads. That's why middle-class commuters - the folks the MTA hopes to attract - usually prefer rail, which is often faster than driving. They also like being off the street and in a closed system.

"What's appealing about rail is that it's a sure thing," Kay said. "The region is going to be guaranteed a certain level of service forever. You can plan your communities around it. You can plan your day around it. You can plan your life around it."

But rail systems can be prohibitively expensive to construct. The recent 6.5-mile extension of the Washington Metro's Green Line into Prince George's County cost $761 million. The total cost of Baltimore's regional rail plan is estimated at $12 billion.

That much money is hard to come by, especially as the number of cities seeking transit money multiplies every few years. This year, the Federal Transit Administration received applications for 121 projects. It recommended 26 of them to Congress for funding.

To spread the money around further, the FTA is pushing rapid bus lines, which often cost between a tenth to a half of light rail. The FTA has established demonstration projects in 10 cities, which report success with rapid buses.

In Charlotte, N.C., ridership along three rapid bus routes doubled during the past three years, to 20,000 daily. Pittsburgh has 16 miles of busways - roads reserved for buses - carrying 54,000 riders daily. Miami's 8.5-mile busway, opened in 1997, has doubled ridership to 15,000 daily.

"It's like if you were to build a light rail line, but instead of putting rail down you put in a ribbon of concrete," said Judi McNeil, a spokeswoman for Pittsburgh's transit agency. The busways run from the suburbs to near downtown, and the program is popular for its flexibility.

"You can go out into the community, collect all the folks at their neighborhood bus stops and a couple of blocks later get on the busway and be [on] an express into town," McNeil said.

But it's more difficult for rapid buses to be rapid when they get into city centers, and success in such places has proved more elusive. Even with the bus lanes, the problems of cars turning, service vehicles stopped in the reserved lanes and traffic-light timing exist.

Seattle found a way around all that. The city built a 1.3-mile tunnel beneath its downtown, to be used exclusively by buses. The tunnel has five transit stops, and 34,000 commuters travel through it daily.

Some transit officials warn that the operating costs for rapid buses can exceed those of rail cars because the buses can't carry as many passengers, and thus must run more frequently. That means more money spent on pay for drivers and on gasoline.

The typical urban bus has 45 seats. Rapid buses seat about 130 people. But the light-rail trains in Baltimore seat 168, while each Metro subway train can carry 912 people during rush hour.

"You're dealing with city and county streets that have a certain level of congestion today that could be potentially exacerbated by the removal of a lane," said John A. Agro Jr., co-chairman of the group that drew up Baltimore's rail plan and MTA chief from 1993 to 1997.

Agro said rapid bus lines are best viewed as precursors to rail, to entice riders to use mass transit. The lines should be converted to rail when ridership is high enough, he said.

Negative perception

In Baltimore, transit advocates say passengers will be wary of rapid buses because of the tortured history of light rail. Those trains inch through downtown because they are not given priority at traffic signals. Some worry that rapid buses will face the same obstacles.

Even in Charlotte, where thousands have taken to rapid buses, there remains the lingering perception that buses are a last resort.

"We haven't gotten over it," said Catondra Noye, the city's transit agency spokeswoman. "People hear the word `bus,' and they think it's not going to be nice. But if you can do something at a less expensive cost, then you can do more of it."

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