BRT: People movers

As the city and Metro Transit consider a growing population and the geographical constraints of an isthmus, bus rapid transit is a viable option, but not a panacea.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Before deciding which side of the street you’re on when it comes to bus rapid transit, let’s agree on one thing: A thriving city is a growing city.

Madison is both thriving, and growing, and is projected to continue on this path well into the future. Population growth, of course, creates housing needs and more traffic, and that requires comprehensive transportation solutions. As local officials look to the future, bus rapid transit, or BRT, impresses them as a more affordable way to move people east and west more quickly.

Let’s look at what BRT is not. It is not commuter rail, which comes at a price tag many times that of BRT. It is not a trolley or streetcar, nor does it run on wires or tracks. It also does not solve other transportation issues that public transit riders may face around the city, but to paraphrase Matt Mikolajewski, economic development director for the city of Madison, “It’s a start.”

The city has been down this road before. In fact, it’s been studying transportation options for decades. In 2013, a BRT study determined that Madison was a good candidate for such a system, and in speaking with several Metro Transit and city representatives this could be the best opportunity the city has had.

Bus rapid transit defined

The buses used in BRT are called “articulated,” meaning they bend at the center. At 60-feet in length, they can carry twice the number of passengers compared to standard 40-foot buses. Each bus would have a driver, Wi-Fi, and three doors allowing quick on-and off passenger access. BRT would likely share existing bus lanes through town, but may be able to drive on city streets when it makes sense. It also will require the city to build dedicated pick-up and drop-off areas where riders can purchase tickets in advance using outdoor kiosks.

The beauty of such a system, according to those involved, is that each BRT bus could move people through the isthmus more quickly because 1) there are limited stops and buses operate more frequently, seven days a week; and 2) with passengers purchasing tickets from kiosks prior to boarding, the amount of time spent paying a fare or showing a pass to the driver is eliminated. Riders simply hop on, and hop off. Metro estimates BRT could cut commuting time by 30% to 40% compared to the current system.

Buses would be equipped with signal pre-emption capability, which is the ability to extend a green light for a few seconds as they approach an intersection. And while standard 40-foot buses stop about every two blocks, BRT buses may stop two to three times per mile.

Mayor Paul Soglin introduced a resolution last year to pursue a more thorough study of BRT at a cost of about $2 million, hopefully split between the state and federal governments. The new 12- to 18-month study will look more precisely into an east-west route including station locations and neighborhood impact. The Madison Common Council has approved moving forward with the study, and RFPs to select a research firm have been issued.

But it all comes with an initial capital price tag of between $40 million and $60 million, most of which could be covered by federal funding through the Federal Transit Administration Capital Investment Grants program (if President Trump doesn’t cut its funding). Expected operating costs for BRT, according to Metro Transit, could run between $2.4 million and $3.2 million annually.

Before we consider if the end justifies the means, we should look at the need.

Does Madison have a transportation problem?

Yes, insists Metro Transit, acknowledging that the company gets frequent complaints about overcrowded buses. “Right now, we’re out of buses,” notes Mick Rusch, marketing and customer services manager at Metro Transit, “and we’re at capacity during peak hours.”

Yes, says Janet Johnson, COO and vice president of sales and marketing for QualiTemps, a staffing firm for all levels of employees, from low-skilled industrial to professional. “Transportation is one of the key issues in getting people to work. We have a huge population of people who need transportation assistance.”

Yes, states David Trowbridge, principal transportation for the city of Madison, who’s studied everything from commuter rail to streetcars to light rail. “People, particularly lower-income riders, may be blowing a quarter of their paycheck on cab rides home because we don’t have good public transportation at the times people need them,” he states. There are a lot of entry-level jobs between the East Towne and West Towne Mall areas, he adds, “and they’re becoming more and more disbursed.”

Yes, contends Mikolajewski, acknowledging, however, that BRT won’t solve all the issues. A significant problem, he explains, is that bus service doesn’t necessarily coincide with late-night restaurant shifts, or middle-of-the-night manufacturing shift changes. “We’ve heard that workers have trouble getting home late at night, and parking downtown can be very expensive,” he states.

“We also hear from businesses that would prefer to move and grow downtown, but have concerns about getting their employees to and from work.” So while BRT will always be available for anyone to use, individuals will benefit differently. “We hope everyone can take advantage of it.”

Some people may even find BRT more desirable than driving a car, he suggests. For transit-dependent riders with no car, Mikolajewski hopes BRT’s quicker rides will tip the balance.

Growth is imminent

If studies are correct, officials around the area are preparing for an influx of tens of thousands of new residents over the next few decades, and the area has plenty of capacity for future growth, according to Mikolajewski. Developing the transportation plan to accommodate that growth, however, “is a long process that will go in stages, but like anything else, you have to start somewhere, and [BRT] seems like a logical place to start.”

When the 2013 study concluded that Madison has a “good potential for the successful implementation of BRT” because of its geographical limitations and population density, the idea gained traction.

Johnson, however, argues the problem extends much further. “A lot of people who need public transportation tend to be less-skilled and perhaps less educated, and they’re looking for entry-level opportunities. One of the key problems we have is that there just aren’t enough bus routes taking people to where the job opportunities are.” Using a direct east-west route through downtown will be “great” for restaurant workers, she notes, or janitorial workers, but “that’s not where the manufacturing jobs are.”

BRT won’t run 24 hours, but its seven-day-a-week schedule will be an improvement over Metro’s limited weekend schedules. More importantly, BRT would run in addition to regular bus routes, not in place of them.

That doesn’t solve the issue Johnson and QualiTemps encounter day in and day out, however, which is a need to get workers to places like Verona, for example, or Waunakee, or even DeForest and Windsor, where manufacturers such as the Little Potato Co. need employees.

“BRT does not negate the need for the city to expand its bus service,” Mikolajewski clarifies. “That’s not the intent. We look at things decades ahead, but at the east-west corridor in particular,” where congestion during premiere travel times won’t be solved by ride-sharing services like Uber that transports one or two passengers but doesn’t do anything to reduce travel time or improve the environment, he suggests. “It has to include things like carpooling, use of transit, or biking.”

Much of what the final system will look like, including an exact route and cost, is yet unknown, but one thing is certain: neighborhoods, property owners, businesses, and the public will be invited to weigh in throughout the process.

This is Madison, after all.



The financial nut

Because everything is still so preliminary, discussions about an initial 10-mile bus rapid transit route — which proponents say “in a perfect world” could be implemented by 2024 — is just a part of what could develop into a larger, 25-mile system stretching north and south in years to come.

“Our transit ridership, just on our local routes, is the envy of cities many times our size,” notes Trowbridge. “A big part of that may be because the city’s downtown doesn’t have a lot of free parking, but I think we’d be very competitive for an FTA grant that could pay a significant portion of the capital costs,” and that, he promises, will be the focus over the next year.

“We have to come up with a local share,” he says, “but we’re confident that the council and the mayor view this as a high enough priority that they will provide funds for the local share of the capital.”

It’s the operational costs that concern him. The initial route being discussed, which could travel generally from the East Towne Mall area to the West Transfer Point or Hill Farms area, could cost $2.4 million to $3.2 million annually. Ten years from now, if north-south routes are added along Sherman Avenue and/or Fish Hatchery Road, for example, the entire 25-mile system could total $155 million and cost $9.8 annually to operate, according to reports.

Can Madison afford it? “That’s really a question for our elected officials and their priorities,” Trowbridge says. “But it’s still much less expensive than any rail option we’ve looked at in the past.”

In his 20 years plus in transportation, Trowbridge has seen this movie before. “People in Wisconsin just don’t think regionally,” he cautions. “They don’t want to pay for transit that they think won’t benefit them directly. I think that was one of the problems with commuter rail. They didn’t see the benefit.”

The commuter rail option years ago, for example, sought to put passenger cars in a railroad corridor that also moved freight. “We didn’t have a way to pay for it regionally,” says Trowbridge.

That’s what makes BRT attractive, he argues. “With BRT, we have control over our funding resources, it operates in the streets, which are under the city’s control, and we can start it ourselves rather than relying on a region that, in my opinion, is getting more and more polarized.”

Trowbridge and others, including those at Metro Transit, believe an RTA, or regional transportation authority, could be a solution to the funding nut. An RTA could allow for the implementation of a sales tax that would be dedicated to public transit, which is how Minneapolis and other larger systems fund it, he notes. In this region, a quarter to a half-cent sales tax has been discussed.

“That would be very helpful,” he admits.

Drew Beck, planning manager at Metro Transit, concurs. “The whole idea of having a regional transit authority funded by sales tax would lessen the impact on property taxes. The notion is to take the pressure off the property tax. They kind of go part and parcel.”

But RTAs aren’t created in a vacuum. In Wisconsin, the state Legislature must give the region the authority to tax itself, and that’s a potential roadblock. Former Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration approved an RTA that allowed for a dedicated sales tax up to a half-cent but it was never levied before being struck down in Scott Walker’s administration on a 12–4 vote to dissolve all four state RTAs. Reports at the time quoted Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, arguing that RTAs were “unpopular, unelected ‘abominations’ that would raise taxes.”

So what are the chances the legislature would reconsider? “That’s the million-dollar question,” Trowbridge admits, which is why BRT proponents feel the pressure to get the business community on board.

Their work is cut out for them. Several businesses we contacted either weren’t familiar with BRT yet, or didn’t feel they had enough knowledge to comment. That will likely change.

“In a regional, urban area, a quarter-of-a-cent sales tax could raise maybe $20 million every year, so you could operate your BRT system plus have the funds for other services,” Trowbridge argues, suggesting smaller carriers could connect commuters in outlying areas to the main BRT line.

“We thought the sales tax was the best option because the big generators are typically automobiles or appliances, plus there are exemptions already in place to protect the elderly or food, which for the most part isn’t taxed.

“It’s hard to say whether we could do this without an RTA,” Trowbridge admits. “It would be painful, but that will be part of the conversation.”

Metro’s metrics

Metro Transit operates about 215 40-foot buses and 17 paratransit vehicles. Its bus garage on East Washington Avenue was built for 160 buses and has no space for the 60-foot articulated variety.

The company has purchased land on Nakoosa Trail for a $35 million satellite garage and maintenance facility, hoping its request for a $19.6 million federal TIGER grant (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) isn’t rejected for the third year in a row.

This time around, though, financial partnerships the transportation entity has secured with Madison, Sun Prairie, and Madison Gas & Electric may provide its best chance of success. A decision on the request is expected soon.

The proposed 160,000-square-foot maintenance facility would accommodate 60 buses, including 36 articulated vehicles, and employ 67 workers, Rusch reports.

The TIGER grant could help with the purchase of five all-electric, 60-foot articulated buses to serve the busiest routes through town and allow Metro to add service to Sun Prairie and increase its service to Verona, home of Epic Systems.

Metro Transit’s goals over the next 15 years include purchasing between 30 and 85 all-electric 40-foot buses and between 10 and 35 all-electric 60-foot articulated buses.

The company was recently awarded with a $1.3 million Federal Transit Administration Low or No-Emission grant to help with the purchase of three battery-electric buses in 2019, replacing three older diesel buses.

“We also have a goal of making 50% of our bus fleet all-electric, zero emissions by 2035,” Rusch adds.

Metro’s Transit Planner Mike Cechvala has noticed some shifting demographics as people become more flexible in terms of where they work — whether from their homes or their offices or coffee shops, “but as Madison continues to grow, we still will have a need for mobility. A good transportation system only makes a city more desirable.”

Fare-wise, BRT would likely operate similarly to current city buses, with a flat rate (currently $2) regardless of how far a rider travels. For lower-income customers, the company provides a limited number of discounted (50%) 31-day passes, but they have not been selling out, Rusch reports.

Who benefits?

Until the new, more thorough study is concluded, it’s difficult to get a full understanding of BRT’s actual costs or how it might impact riders, businesses, and neighborhoods other than the obvious — moving more people more quickly through town. For some lower-income riders, however, that could be reason enough.

With on-board surveys showing that lower-income communities are being pushed further away from good transit service areas, some riders currently have to transfer not just once, but twice to reach their destinations, which could take as long as 90 minutes one way.

But the city is also trying to boost its appeal to a future workforce including millennials who tend to be more amenable to mass transit. The rapid expansion of the Capitol East District along East Washington Avenue provides the perfect artery in which to do so.

“We’re growing in the central city and the Capital East District in a significant way,” Trowbridge states. “I think we really do need a different kind of transit system that will attract the type of residents you want to live here, the millennials and those asking for better public transit, as well as being able to limit the amount of parking and traffic coming into the central city.

“But BRT has to be competitive with driving [and gas prices] or people probably won’t make that choice. To me, it’s important to the health of our city, not just the low-income communities and businesses but in the way we move around the region. Is an RTA the only way we can get there? I don’t know.”

That’s what the new study will help determine.

“A regional transit authority is the method used in most other RTA communities,” Trowbridge explains, citing dot-com locales like the Twin Cities, Denver, or Seattle-Portland. “That’s kind of what we’re striving to be. We’d like to grow our tech industries here, and attracting those types of workers will require investment in these types of systems.”

The National Bus Rapid Transit Institute website ( lists 26 American cities with BRT systems, including some smaller communities such as Aspen, Colo., Eugene, Ore., and Albany, N.Y.

Trowbridge argues that BRT can be marketed to the broader community from several angles, whether economic development, social equity, or environmental. “Hopefully, as a result of those discussions, people start to think beyond their own personal ways of getting around. A healthy city is one that is growing and busy and congested. We just need to manage it.

“Just because you personally may not like buses or may not use a bus doesn’t mean your community doesn’t benefit.”

Johnson suggests the answers may lie within the business community itself. “There’s a bus stop right outside of our [QTI’s] new building on East Washington,” she says, “but it’s not for a Metro bus, it’s for an Epic bus.

“My point is that companies may have to become more open to the idea of providing transportation for their employees,” she continues, “and they’ll have to be more creative in terms of recognizing the hours people work. Public transportation will need to work with employers and organizations that most need the workers to set up schedules and transportation options that fit the demand and the needs that are out there.

“What if private bus companies that drop kids off and pick kids up from school could be used during the day to help move people around?” Johnson wonders aloud. “Look at Vortex Optics, an amazing company in Middleton that will be moving to a huge industrial park in Barneveld. It has so much opportunity for growth and expansion, but there’s no bus system going out to Barneveld.”

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