New Plans Would Make Detroit the Nation’s Run-Away BRT Leader

As disappointing as it’s been to see Detroit’s light rail plans being squashed, it’s been pretty exciting watching what has been taking shape in its place.

Detroit's planned bus rapid transit system would cover 110 miles and three counties. The system is designed to help urban workers reach suburban jobs. Photo: Wall Street Journal

The Motor City’s plans to shift some $500 million from a 9-mile light rail system to bus rapid transit system could go a long way toward remedying the crushing mobility problems experienced by the city’s transit-dependent population. Detroit BRT, the Free Press reports, will cover three counties — serving as a crucial connection to the region’s largely suburbanized job centers.

The new system will cover a total of 110 miles with dedicated lanes. That would make it by far the country’s largest BRT system, says Stephanie Lotshaw, at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. The existing BRT systems in the country are all under 20 miles, she said.

More good news: it could be operating within three to five years.

Ridership estimates, at this point, are uncertain, according to the Wall Street Journal. But the need for better transit options is dire. The paper, this morning, profiled a Detroit janitor who leaves his house five hours before he has to be at work — just to be on the safe side.

“As long as I have a job, I’m good,” he said. “I just need them to run tomorrow so I still have one.”

Without a strong transit system, it was difficult for the city to justify the addition of light rail.

“People are losing jobs because they can’t reach them,” Mayor Bing told the WSJ.

US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said he remains committed to providing as much as $46 million to the state and the region. But federal officials have maintained that the region must develop a integrated regional transit system in order to receive that funding. (Detroit is the largest major city in the country that operates separate city and suburban transit systems.) So Detroit BRT still has some hurdles to clear, but the Free Press reports suburban leaders are more supportive of the BRT plan than they were of light rail.

Private investors behind the light rail plans have said that they remain hopeful that a smaller light rail system could be built between downtown and the New Center. Columnist Jeff Watrick at Mlive.com says metro Detroit should seize the moment, establish a regional transit system, do the BRT and — once a baseline of acceptable transit service has been established — return to the light rail plans. We’re with him.