How Much Bang Are Cities Getting From Federal BRT Bucks?

The vast majority of cities implementing bus improvements with federal BRT dollars have seen ridership increases -- some of them quite dramatic. Image: GAO

How substantial are the benefits delivered by federal investment in bus rapid transit projects, and how can the feds help local governments build better bus improvements? A new report from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office [PDF] looks at the results of BRT projects that have been completed in 20 cities since 2005, when SAFETEA-LU expanded federal funding eligibility for such projects. The GAO found that almost all of the projects have proven successful as cost-effective upgrades to increase ridership, but it also identified a few ways that federal policy provides incentives for local governments to avoid building bus projects that meet the standards for high-quality BRT.

Ridership is up on 13 of the 15 routes that were completed in time to furnish data for the study. (On the other two routes — both in Los Angeles — local officials claim the BRT projects have still led to increased ridership on local bus routes.) In many cases, ridership increased by more than 30 percent in the first year, and five projects saw ridership jump between 60 and 80 percent. These are people who would not have taken transit if not coaxed aboard by these federally-funded improvements, including peak travel time savings ranging from 10 to 30 percent.

Still, few of these projects meet the standard for “true BRT” developed by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. Since bus rapid transit consists of a menu of possible improvements — such as off-board fare collection, dedicated bus lanes, and platform-level boarding — local governments often end up calling a project “BRT” when it’s really just a smattering of different upgrades. And the GAO report bears this out, finding that all 20 routes took the menu of BRT features as mere suggestions, often incorporating just a few of them. Some of the more significant ones – with the most power to cut travel times and increase ridership – were also the most expensive, and therefore the least used.

Only three of the 20 bus routes run on a dedicated lane for at least 30 percent of their length. Two more run on a “semi-dedicated” lane at least 30 percent of the time. A dedicated lane can allow buses to speed past bumper-to-bumper traffic, but most of the routes the GAO studied operate primarily in mixed traffic on arterial streets. With capital costs averaging $50,000 to $100,000 per mile in mixed traffic — compared to $2 to $10 million per mile for projects that have dedicated lanes – it’s understandable why so many communities have opted to keep it cheap. And in some cases, such as Kansas City, congestion is low enough that a dedicated lane would be an unnecessary expense.

BRT projects may include separated lanes for buses, platform-level boarding, off-board fare collection, signal priority at intersections, and real-time arrival information, but no U.S. system takes advantage of all those features. Image: GAO

Other BRT features — like off-board fare collection, low-floor buses that speed boarding, and technological improvements like transit-priority signal timing – were more widely adopted. One of the GAO’s interesting contributions is its explanation of why agencies opt for certain BRT upgrades but not others. Incentives to skimp on bus projects may actually be baked into federal funding formulas.

To qualify for a New Starts grant, the Federal Transit Administration requires BRT projects to meet the definition of a “fixed-guideway” for at least 50 percent of its length during peak hours. Or, to be a “Small Starts” project, it should be a corridor-based bus project that contains certain upgrades. Since the fixed-guideway requirement is often considered cost-prohibitive, the vast majority of cities – 28 out of 30 – got their federal funding through the Small and Very Small Starts programs.

But the way this funding is configured may end up pushing communities to scale down their ambitions, since funding from “Very Small Starts” is capped at $50 million per project. (The new transportation authorization, MAP-21, seeks to eliminate “BRT creep” — the watering down of BRT projects into minor upgrades over standard bus service — by requiring not just fixed-guideway but separated right-of-way for New Starts BRT projects.)

The relative economy of bus improvements compared to rail projects has given federal funding programs a huge bang for their buck – BRT represents 30 of the 55 New/Small/Very Small Starts grants since 2005 but accounts for less than 10 percent of committed funding. Those are great numbers for any local or federal official looking to stretch scarce transit dollars, but are they being stretched too far and turned into projects that are weaker than they should be?

The GAO writes:

The limited use of BRT’s more costly features might also partly reflect the relatively large role that the Small and Very Small Starts programs have played in funding recent BRT projects as compared to state and local funding sources. The funding these programs provide to smaller transit projects has allowed communities that otherwise may not have been as competitive in the New Starts process to obtain federal transit support. However, it is possible that limits on the total project cost create incentives for BRT project sponsors to omit more costly BRT features. In general, though, it appears that BRT project sponsors are using the Small and Very Small Starts programs to design and implement projects that address their communities’ current transit needs and align with the projects sponsors’ overall objectives.

Of course, it’s not just federal funding hurdles that weaken BRT plans. Sometimes drivers resist giving up a traffic lane to buses, as in Los Angeles, or businesses raise a stink over reduced parking, as in Eugene.

Officials are also sometimes content to put off until tomorrow what they could do today. Because BRT is based on a menu of separate improvements, project developers can leave space for possible future improvements instead of building the most complete possible BRT system from the get-go. In four of the five BRT locations the GAO traveled to, communities were planning to incorporate more features in the future. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since it allows the public to quickly see the benefits of bus improvements.

In a survey of local officials, the GAO also looked into the economic benefits of transit-oriented development (TOD) along BRT corridors. Most local officials thought BRT provided some economic boost but found it hard to quantify or separate from other factors, including the recession and other development going on in their cities. Most still thought rail was a better economic catalyst, in part because it’s perceived as more permanent. Another limiting factor is the fact that transit agencies might not own as much land around BRT stations as around rail stations, giving them fewer opportunities to directly incentivize TOD.

  • Guest

    The GAO report, while pretty thorough and fairly gung-ho on BRT, I think rather frivolously included the LA Metro ‘rapids’ as part of the BRT spectrum. While ‘rapid’ is smarter branding 

  • Ben Kintisch

    Meanwhile, Governor Cuomo thinks that even BRT “lite” isn’t worth it. But a gazillion dollar double span bridge for private cars  – that’s worth billions upon billions.

  • Anonymous

    BRT probably isn’t worth it on the Tappan Zee.  If you’re starting from scratch, there isn’t any reason why light or heavy rail isn’t cheaper. 

  • Anonymous

    If it’s not faster than car traffic, by definition it’s not B”R”T.  The goal of federal funding ends up almost always being that money is spent, not utility.  Transit use has been trending up anyway; comparing fed-funded to non-fed-funded routes, what’s the $/passenger benefit?   To really create mode shift, you need transit that’s fast and comfortable.   Pouring money into routes which compete with private automobiles is just flushing it down the fiscal toilet.

  • Andy Chow

    Most cities have a bus system, so upgrading a part of the system to BRT is not particularly difficult. Besides stations, guide ways, a new vehicles (which a bus system would regularly replace them anyway), there’s nothing much need to be added. To have a rail system, you need a separate maintenance facility, separate administration and maintenance. So no system is starting from scratch, and that rail is not cheaper by any means. Rail can carry more, as long as there’s planning effort and community support for a city density that can support rail.

  • Anonymous

    @014d815e337305dccb0b861fe6cdb3e3:disqus : almost none of that is true. There is no transit service with a dedicated ROW across the bridge now so, yes, we’re starting from scratch. The low-hanging fruit should be connecting the train tracks west of the river with those east of the river for MNRR to use.

    And, the bridge is being built from scratch (for some reason). Laying rail across the bridge, at least enough to support lighter LRVs, should be *cheaper* than the busway. (Nonetheless, buses and LRVs can certainly share maintenance facilities,
    and the engineering and material costs of building a kilometer of
    busway lane typically exceeds the costs of building the rail ROW.)

    new vehicles (which a bus system would regularly replace them anyway)

    Having to replace your vehicles so frequently is precisely why buses are more costly in the end, before operations even begin. Amortizing vehicles that cost double but provide double the capacity over a life span that is several times longer is decidedly cheaper.

  • Joan Byron

    If capturing more “choice riders” is the only goal of BRT, then increased ridership is the right metric. BUT – often the point is to reduce trip times, increase mobility, and improve the experience of already transit-reliant riders in neighborhoods far from subway lines – as in New York City. Even implementing selected BRT features increases reliability, decreases travel time, and improves rider satisfaction. And though the percentage increase on the M15 is “only” about 12%, the actual numbers translate to almost 60,000 total riders per weekday – more than any of the new rail systems the GAO looked at on page 25 of its report.    

  • Anonymous

    @fc5391f6ab30cf3153c214b5621d0d29:disqus: possibly reduces costs too. Even if ridership doesn’t increase, better throughput means fewer drivers pulling the same number of people. Lower fuel costs too. 

  • Mike G

    I don’t think that any of the 7XX bus lines in Los Angeles really qualify as BRT, since none of them are faster than driving, and they are only faster than local buses by virtue of having fewer stops.  Even so, the 7XX bus lines are nicer buses, and having fewer stops does have a noticable effect on overall speed.

  • I don’t understand the point of the grumbling.  So these projects aren’t “BRT” — they are increasing ridership, and they are making use of programs (Small/Very Small Starts) that couldn’t go towards rail or dedicated-ROW BRT either.  Sounds like these agencies are figuring out very cost-effective ways to boost ridership and improve services.  

    And it also sounds like the one issue — New Starts projects that loosely interpret “fixed guideway” — has been addressed by clarifying qualifications in MAP-21.

    Projects that are “weaker than they should be” for some are “rightsized” for others.  The vast majority of the urban landscape in our country is NOT amenable to rail transit — incremental improvements in bus service in these areas is far more sensible than building rail in the hopes that TOD will spring up around stations.  For example, MetroRapids in LA increased bus ridership in areas that won’t be getting rail lines for decades, if ever.  Providing that alternative is far better, and will promote infill development far more, than not doing any project because existing land use makes rail infeasible.

  • There are many obstacles to BRT. Overcoming NIMBY myopic parochialism is partly why the Wilshire lanes are (at least initially) modest as to the more hard to implement enhancements.

  • Bolwerk

    Re what qualifies as BRT: where is there an official definition of BRT anyway? I got into a sorta-debate with someone about this a while ago (Alon Levy maybe). I didn’t really have any trouble with calling SelectBus in NYC a BRT. Dedicated lane and off-board collection seems close enough to fit the bill to me.

    I have this aching suspicion that the True Believers think the only “true BRT” are dedicated, grade-separated bus lanes. Of course, this makes “true BRT” both undesirable and largely unattainable.

    The vast majority of the urban landscape in our country is NOT amenable to rail transit

    Comments like this are downright perplexing. Any place with a sizeable downtown and some bands of modestly high population density (low thousands/mile^2) probably can support at least some rail transit. If that’s not the majority of the U.S. urban landscape, it’s certainly a majority of the 50 or so largest metro areas. At least the Germans have shown this to be the case in places with populations in the low hundred thousands. Buses do a lot more good when they feed such rail transit, rather than being the core transit offering themselves.

    The problem in the U.S. is we do it all wrong. Syracuse got OnTrack, a service that ran a few times a week. Buffalo is doing a little better with its light rail, but they kind of gave up on it when it didn’t turn Buffalo into San Diego.

  • JrtoGunnery

    “For example, Los Angeles local officials told us that the city’s Orange Line BRT can come close to light rail in terms of economic development because its station infrastructure and enhanced amenities relay a sense of permanence to developers.”
    I live near the Orange Line and that this bus route has done little to spur economic development.  That was the point of using buses instead of rail, to limit the usefulness of the route and therefore, limit development.  Los Angeles Metro noted recently that most of the riders of the Orange buses are transplants from local bus routes and attracts few automobile owners.  Likely in large part because the BRT is slower then a comparable rapid (7XX) route, let alone a private car.

    BRT certainly has a role in public transportation, but it is not a substitute for rail in any form, and is not an alternative to driving.  

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