As Maryland considers bids on the $2-plus billion, 16-mile light-rail purple line in suburban Washington, D.C., Connecticut’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system is already blowing past ridership projections, hitting sub-10-minute waits for local and express bus services on a $600 million, 9.4-mile dedicated busway from New Britain to Hartford.
Maryland should return to the planning process — specifically the alternatives analysis performed in 2009 — and endorse a strong BRT alternative providing better, higher-frequency service at the medium ridership levels projected for this crosstown connector.
A Connecticut-style BRT system offers many advantages. Not only does it cost a lot less than light rail, but it also offers shorter wait times, point-to-point express options and easy extension into new service areas as the option becomes popular.
The bus system is also more appropriate for Maryland’s built environment. At the low densities mandated by suburban Maryland governments, it’s literally unlawful for enough potential riders to live nearby to justify a 400-passenger light rail vehicle pair with reasonable frequency throughout the entire day. But the corridor could easily justify a 120-passenger BRT vehicle every four minutes at peak.
There’s a benefit during off-peak hours, too, since bus frequencies of even five-seven minutes can still be economical when a larger light rail vehicle pair would have to fall to 10 or 15-minute frequencies. Transfer times were not accounted for in the alternatives analysis. This is quite unfortunate, as anyone facing a 15-minute wait for a transfer on the way home after happy hour could tell you.
Unlike commuter and light rail, buses can run express from point to point with reasonable frequency even on relatively low-ridership routes. Have you ever gotten on a MARC or VRE train and wished your individual train car could detach from the rest of the train, pull onto a traffic-free dedicated right of way and skip all remaining stops en route to Union Station? That’s basically what BRT-style express buses do. Unfortunately, express service options were not considered in the alternatives analysis due either to a lack of creativity or to a pervasive pro-rail bias.
Last, the low capital costs of BRT mean that system expansions — with attractive stations and digital arrival signs — are fiscally realistic and doable. Jealous of early success between New Britain and Hartford, the neighboring city of Manchester is already asking for an extension.
The most disappointing thing about the planned purple line is that various BRT options were actually studied. The 2009 alternatives analysis estimated that the medium-investment BRT option would cost $585 million up front and $18.3 million annually to operate, attracting 58,000 daily boardings in 2030, while the medium-investment light rail with tunnel option would cost $1.3 billion up front and $24 million — 36 percent more — to operate every year while attracting 64,700 boardings in 2030. In other words, light rail costs twice as much to attract just 11 percent higher ridership by 2030.
The primary reason local planners chose the light rail alternative was the federal government’s commitment to cover most of the additional upfront costs. The marginally higher ridership of light rail seems less absurd when one can offload $1 billion to federal taxpayers for construction.
This perverse local incentive is exactly why Republicans aren’t unreasonable in pushing to de-federalize most transportation spending. Local planners’ decisions are distorted when they have billions in project-specific “free money” from the federal government with which to play.
The potential advantages of BRT are clear for Maryland. If keeping the large federal contribution is politically necessary for local politicians, some of the cost savings could be redirected to improve feeder bus services around major destinations in the corridor to make the network even better. Connecticut has already done better with BRT, and Maryland should have done the same. It’s not too late to go back to the BRT alternatives and save taxpayers hundreds of millions.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner