Where the Rubber Meets the Road

The era of Bus Rapid Transit begins this month. How far will it take us? Will we regret abandoning light-rail?

Jacob Snow, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission, has spent his career working on ways of bringing people to Las Vegas and moving them around. In a transit-averse, auto-heavy town like this, that hasn’t been easy. Cars are happiest, he says, when there aren’t other cars around.

“We’ve got a lot of unhappy cars.”

And Snow thinks he has a solution to get people out of them. It’s called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), and it’s about to unfold across Las Vegas.

While the city’s economic engine is stuck in neutral (or worse), the RTC is moving forward with two dramatic additions to our region’s infrastructure by month’s end. The first is the unveiling of the ACE Gold Line, which will run through downtown on dedicated lanes, connect to the Las Vegas Convention Center and head down the Strip in mixed traffic. The second launch is the ACExpress C Line, which will connect Centennial Hills with downtown via high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on U.S. 95. Then, in April, the RTC will break ground on a BRT line from downtown to Henderson via Boulder Highway. A few weeks ago, the agency was awarded $34.4 million for a BRT line along Sahara Avenue, which is scheduled to open by February 2012. In addition, the downtown lines will converge on a new $17 million transit center at the corner of Bonneville Avenue and Casino Center Boulevard that is set to open by year’s end.

Dependence on the automobile is a problem many American cities face, and for many out West, the answer has been to install light-rail trains. Over the last 15 years, Denver, Dallas and Portland have built the largest systems, multi-line networks that radiate out to distant suburbs and converge downtown, and other cities have systems under way, including Salt Lake City, San Diego and Phoenix. But Las Vegas is headed down a different route, one that will put it in league with Cleveland, Kansas City and Eugene, Ore.

So, this is our future. Whether or not that’s a good thing boils down to these two arguments:

1) Light-rail trains are sexy, sleek and speedy. They don’t use the road. People want to ride them. They’re more expensive to build, for sure, but you get what you pay for.

2) The BRT system approximates the quality of trains for a fraction of the cost. These hybrid vehicles allow curbside ticket purchases (so you don’t have to queue at the driver’s door to board and fumble around for your change), boarding and exiting through multiple doors, have fewer stops than a bus, and often have dedicated right-of-way in the road.

The debate is about to be taken to the streets, as Las Vegas will shortly have the core of a long-distance mass-transit option, where before there was nothing. The sure thing right now is that the RTC is delivering it to us cheaply—all of the lines have been benefited from federal funding, either through the U.S. Department of Transportation or the stimulus bill.

On the other hand, for those of us who remember the monorail being introduced in Disneyland a half century ago, BRT doesn’t sound very futuristic. It’s a little like Las Vegas is trying to be prime time, but this isn’t really prime time.

When transit officials began looking to link the Strip with downtown and/or McCarran International Airport, the idea was to expand our monorail. But after the monorail was shut down temporarily for repairs not long after its launch, the feds withdrew funding promises. Then other monies that had been set aside were moved over to help fund the Gold Line.

“We wanted dedicated right-of-way along the Strip,” Snow says. “That’s the best transit market for this community. If you connect the airport, the Strip, the convention center and downtown, that’s the best transit market in the state of Nevada. If we can connect the rest of the community to that core, now you’re talking.”

But having a dedicated lane along the Strip is a problem, no matter what the mode of transportation. “We wanted to go right down the middle of the Strip,” Snow says. “There was enough room on the Strip until we got to Flamingo Road, going north.”

Taking a lane of traffic away from the Strip was a “real concern for a lot of people”—a polite way of saying it was a non-starter. There were other concerns, too, such as the location of bus stations and if any of the casinos workers would really use the line.

The RTC had formed a committee to find the optimal solution. The committee came back in favor of diesel-powered light-rail, but the RTC ultimately settled on BRT.

Asked whether supporting BRT was the best choice or merely a pragmatic one, Snow said this: “Honestly, I prefer electric light-rail. If we had the money and the resources, that’s how I would have preferred to have gone. We don’t have the money and the resources. Nor did we have the support from the community to do the technology, so the answer is pragmatist. We’re making incremental improvements in transit that the community will support. And it’s important to point out that the whole concept of Bus Rapid Transit can be viewed and should be viewed as a precursor to making a higher level investment in the future.”

There are probably 30-40 BRT systems across the country, says Dennis Hinebaugh, director of the National BRT Institute at the University of South Florida. Most large transit agencies are at least contemplating BRT lines, he says. “It’s a mode that’s here to stay.”

So, what is it, exactly? The common denominator among all systems is that Bus Rapid Transit is associated, as the name implies, more closely with a bus than a train, which is a problem because the bus is perceived as a lower-class affair in this country. Beyond that, there is some confusion about what a BRT constitutes. Some cities merely reduce the number of stops (compared with a bus route) and time a few signals so they can slap a “rapid transit” tag on the result.

“Fairly mediocre bus improvements have been called BRT by their promoters and given the technology a bit of a bad name,” says Walter Hook, executive director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York.

Most experts agree that a strong BRT system includes a dedicated right-of-way, off-vehicle ticket purchases and level boarding platforms, all of which Las Vegas’ ACE line will have (though all but two miles of the 11.2-mile Gold Line will operate in mixed traffic). BRT advocates cite success in smaller cities, such as Eugene, as well as lines in large cities, such as Cleveland, where the Euclid Avenue corridor links downtown to a cultural and medical district. The nine-mile line there has helped spur billions in new development, and the naming rights were recently sold to the Cleveland Clinic. (The route is now called the Health Line.)

Cleveland spent only $21 million a mile on the system, and unlike light-rail, there was no need to install electrification systems or to dig up the ground to reroute utilities. “You can do it a lot quicker and with less disruption,” Hinebaugh says. “You can also do it incrementally. If you have a mile of a BRT down, you can start operating it. If you have a mile of [light-rail], until you finish everything in between you’ve got nothing.”

Supporters also tout its flexibility. BRT lines can leave their right-of-way lanes and operate like regular buses, if need be. “What the bus lacks in sex appeal it makes for in flexibility because it’s on rubber tires,” Snow says. “If you build tracks, you’re stuck. You don’t have flexibility to respond to special events, to respond to accidents or incidents or to meet the needs of a dynamic, changing community over time.”

In fact, BRT may work best when it’s not thought of simply as a train line on rubber wheels. Advanced BRT systems coming up in China and Colombia allow regular buses on local routes to pick up riders and then interface with a massive trunk line that enables buses to pass each other, and then allows buses to exit out of the trunk and back into local service. It sounds like a freeway system, only instead of one HOV lane for buses, the whole thoroughfare would be buses.

In cities such as Curitiba, Brazil (the Ground Zero of large-scale BRT) and Bogotá, Colombia, BRT systems can really haul. In Bogotá, where buses have the ability to pass one another in the system, the average speed can top 30 mph. “An optimally designed BRT will probably [be] very competitive with what you can achieve with light-rail or tram-based technologies,” Hook says. And it will have lower infrastructure and capital costs, and comparable operating costs.

And the cost consideration can’t be ignored. Phoenix’s new light-rail line, which is pretty much at street level, cost $70 million a mile to build. Seattle’s new 15.6-mile line, which had to negotiate a trickier topography, cost around $173 million per mile. The Gold Line cost about $52 million for the entire 11.2-mile route. “We think a system that serves the entire community is better than just one small line that serves a portion of it,” Snow says.

Not everybody agrees. One of the most vociferous critics is Dave Dobbs, a former Las Vegan who started a website 10 years ago to push for light-rail in Austin, Texas. Today LightRailNow.org has become a nationwide champion of that mode.

For starters, Dobbs prefers the smooth ride of a light-rail car to the sometimes-springy ride of a bus. “It’s a fine thing,” he says, “but don’t tell me a bus is a train.” Moreover, while he concedes BRT might work well in a small city such as Eugene, bigger cities should plan for greater growth. “We should always build public transit infrastructure of the proper type in the appropriate corridor,” he says. “You can’t look at it as a cost; you have to look at it as an investment.”

He even finds the flexibility of BRT a disadvantage, as it tends to discourage private investment. The Cleveland example notwithstanding, he argues that buses follow development, while trains lead it.

Light-rail train cars tend to go faster (though they also tend to have fewer station stops; so pedestrians might have to walk or drive farther to connect), and they certainly can carry more people than buses. It’s easy to couple three or four cars together under the control of one driver.

“If you have really, really high numbers of passengers and really narrow right-of-way, you can probably move more people through that narrow right-of-way” with light-rail, Hook says. Then again, he notes the reality is that most systems in American cities are not running anywhere near their maximum capacities, so BRT may make more sense.

The question of light-rail and Bus Rapid Transit brings us to what could be a turning point in American transit planning. If we begin to live more densely, then the greater carrying capacity of light-rail systems begins to make more sense. If not, then BRT may prove to be the effective solution—less expensive and less ambitious. For all the success of the back-to-cities revival of the last two decades, this is still—love it or hate it—a suburban nation. Especially Las Vegas, which has had less success in revitalizing its center city as a place to live than most other places. Although the city seems to be finally shifting in a more urban direction, it’s still one big cluster of suburbs.

If you want a taste of the BRT, check out the RTC’s MAX line, which opened in 2005 and runs from downtown up Las Vegas Boulevard to Nellis Air Force Base. The stations feature cool, curving sheets of metal, and ridership has been pretty good, about 8,000 people a day. The buses are clean, airy and light, with skylights, and the ride, which takes about 30 minutes, is smooth. The passengers are about the cast you’d expect: a young woman and her baby, an older woman, young couples holding hands, people chattering away on their cell phones or talking to their friends about the swap meet. The agency has saved some 60 percent of costs to operate the line versus the slower line it replaced.

Will the MAX success be replicated on the Gold Line? The RTC certainly hopes so, but questions remain. Ridership, for one. The RTC is being coy about releasing projected ridership information on both the Gold Line and ACE Express, possibly a hedge on numbers coming back less than what it anticipates.

Because the Gold Line does not have a dedicated right-of-way from start to finish, there will be no fixed-time schedule. Instead, the schedule will be based on frequency, with peak-hour headways of eight minutes. Snow says the Gold Line will add 40 percent capacity beyond the 33,000 people who ride the double-decker Deuce bus every day, though that’s not quite the same as predicting ridership will be 40 percent higher.

Certainly, it remains to be seen how fast the ACE Gold Line will run once it gets in heavy traffic on the Strip—which remains the street most in need of a fixed-transit solution. You can imagine tourists making good use of the Gold Line to get from the Strip to downtown; and business travelers moving to and from the convention center will also likely use it. It’s unlikely many locals will use it at first, but that may be understandable—as lines from the rest of Las Vegas come into the central city, the Gold Line may start to act as a trunk line, not just for the resort corridor but for the whole city.

It’s easy to think that we’re blowing it with BRT. If even the transportation boss says he’d have rather gone with light-rail, why are we settling for a second-banana system? Then again, Nevada doesn’t have a smooth-running state government at the moment, and so you’d have to wonder how a light-rail system—absent an extraordinary gift from the feds—would even be funded. Would Nevadans support a tax? The value of these BRT lines may be as much symbolic as functional—creating the idea for Las Vegans that mass transit belongs here.

And we have to be careful not to paint with too broad a brush. After all, Denver’s light-rail will soon include a rapid bus route to Boulder (and without a new tax increase, its ambitious network of lines is more than $2.4 billion short of funding); and even in New York City—America’s heavyweight champ of mass transit—a BRT line is being discussed down Manhattan’s transit-deprived Second Avenue, thanks to delays in constructing a new subway.

Snow hints that perhaps, if ridership demand proves high, the BRT might be upgraded to some sort of rail option. Yet you can easily imagine the difficulties of such a proposal—to rip out a system that people like and replace it with one they might like better. By the time such a change was made, all those people might well have started driving instead.

Or, as John Shonsey, chief engineer for Denver’s Regional Transportation District, puts it, “If I were to spend my capital, I would want not to rip it up.”

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