The bus vs. rail debate

Our view: Red Line's light rail service may be expensive, but that's doesn't make a touted rapid bus alternative more cost effective

August 23, 2010

The wheels on the bus aren't the only things that go round and round. So does the debate over whether light rail or a kind of express bus service known as "bus rapid transit," or BRT, is a better fit for projects in Baltimore and Montgomery County. This summer, it's been former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his running mate, Mary Kane, who are leading the cheers for upscale bus service.

The irony of Mr. Ehrlich embracing buses isn't lost on mass transit advocates who ruefully recall his preference for spending transportation dollars on highways during his four years in office. But the Republican candidate makes no bones about why he likes BRT: It's cheaper, and the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund doesn't have the money to build either the Washington area's Purple Line connecting Bethesda with New Carrollton or Baltimore's Red Line from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

Of course, the trust fund doesn't have money to build a new bus system, either, but even so, to suggest BRT is cheaper is a little misleading. It's less expensive in that you pay less upfront, but it can be surprisingly costly in the long run.

Maryland has never invested in BRT, but communities in other states have. In Cleveland, for example, the "HealthLine" (named by the local hospitals it serves) runs 6.8 miles to the city's downtown. It features a bus its owners prefer to call an RTV, a rapid transit vehicle designed similar to a rail car that is bigger (it can accommodate up to 100 sitting and standing) and lower to the ground.

Stops look a lot like rail stations, with covered waiting areas and ticket machines. The vehicles either mix with traffic or ride on bus-only lanes.

The system has worked for Cleveland, but some scrutiny is in order. It is more expensive and less reliable than rail and isn't particularly cost-effective in places where infrastructure expenses will be high compared to the number of riders served.

That's exactly the problem in Baltimore. Planners looked at BRT as an option for the Red Line but found it's still expensive — more than $1.1 billion if tunnels under Cooks Lane and downtown are built — but much slower and offering less capacity than a $1.6 billion light rail. Worse, computer models and rider surveys showed it would attract far fewer passengers.

One could build such a system for as little as $500 million without tunnels, but then travel would be very slow. Even if buses could preempt signals (something the city would probably never allow downtown), commuters would likely get bogged down in traffic because of the disruption it would cause. Buses also have higher operating costs — $2.7 million more annually than light rail, according to a Maryland Transit Administration study.

Baltimore needs an effective transit system. It's one of the best investments government can make to improve economic opportunities. That's one of the reasons the 14.5-mile-long Red Line project has been a top priority for the Greater Baltimore Committee and why light rail was chosen as the preferred alternative last summer. The rail line is in the planning stage now but Maryland's next governor could easily stop it in its tracks.

Instead of looking in the rearview mirror, the candidates ought to be more focused on explaining how they'd replenish the depleted transportation budget in the long term. As governors, both Mr. Ehrlich and Martin O'Malley, the incumbent Democrat, raised taxes or fees to augment the trust fund, then subsequently took money out of transportation aid to balance the state's general fund budget despite many billions of dollars of unmet transportation needs in this state.

Buses, whether BRT, express or regular commuter, have their place — but they are no panacea. And while it's all very well to pledge to restore past trust fund withdrawals, as Mr. Ehrlich did on Friday, it's another thing to come up with a way to finance such promises whether they involve buses, rail lines or highways.

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