In 2016 the voters approved a referendum with a clear plan to design and build a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system spanning 20 miles from downtown Raleigh in four directions. At the time, there was a fair amount of debate about whether we wanted light rail or BRT. In the end, BRT won out because it could be implemented faster and would come at a fraction of the cost. More about that later.
The city is seeking federal funding for the implementation of four corridors which could be anywhere from 50-80% in reimbursement of the design and construction costs. While the city, based on feedback from the public, is hoping that the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) will allow all four corridors quickly in succession, they are starting with the least expensive one with the fewest construction and environmental impacts first. That is the corridor along New Bern Ave (East Corridor).
Right now, the New Bern corridor is covered by route 15, which travels from downtown to Wake Med hospital. Currently, this is the 2nd most utilized corridor (behind route 1, on Capital Boulevard) with over 50,000 boardings monthly on average, with around 34 passengers boarding per hour. Here is a snapshot from Wake County on overall transit utilization and number of boardings annually. Following national trends as gas prices sunk, ridership peaked in 2013 however since service improvements came online in the past year there has been a significant increase in ridership in the system. In 2018, ridership was over 16% higher than in 2010 with 9,350,356 boardings annually system wide.
Over the next couple months, the city will be studying the early environmental impacts and holding public comment periods. To apply for these funds from the FTA, they must prove that the corridor in question is feasible, the public wants it, and the route has enough of a reasonable ridership now or will soon. With those items proved, they’ll submit an application in September that needs to get Congressional approval to be included in the budget and signed by the President of the United States in October of 2020. If it doesn’t get support in one of those steps, they’ll have to try again in 2020 for the next budget in 2021.
That’s a lot of technical information to mean that BRT needs community support this summer and that it’s coming first to New Bern Ave. Hopefully opening for service in 2023!
BRT is a lot like Light Rail in that it uses largely dedicated lanes (either by street paint or separated from traffic) and passengers will pay at the stations and get on the vehicle quickly. The stops are much further apart than bus stops thus providing a fast and efficient service that arrives every five to fifteen minutes. To get a feel for BRT service check out this tweet. One caveat we should provide up front. Unless our BRT system takes seriously the critical nature of the bus having its own right of way – this system will not be successful. Many markets are experiencing “BRT creep” which is a very real issue where communities scale back plans and integrate a bus with normal traffic to avoid the political blow back of allocating lanes for a bus over cars. This article provides a great overview of how these systems can fail. Raleigh will need bold leadership that prioritizes sustainable mobility over our current standard operating procedures in order for this system to be successful.
Here is some data on why BRT makes sense for Raleigh right now.
Let’s start with some of the low hanging fruit. The ill-fated 17.7-mile Durham-Orange Light Rail (DOLRT) was slated to cost $3.3 billion to complete or $186 million per mile. The almost 20-mile BRT system is expected to be about $350 million or around $17 million per mile. For a point of reference, the current 540 extension is estimated to cost $2.2 billion for 28 miles of roadway (or $78,571,428 per mile), we’ll take the BRT line that promotes more sustainable travel behaviors and land-use any day.
It’s great for the environment
We all know transit has significant benefits with reducing the number of single occupancy vehicles on the road, but the Wake Transit plan is going above and beyond by converting the bus fleet over so that conventional diesel buses are off the road. GoRaleigh has begun replacing its fleet with Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) buses and is constructing an advanced anaerobic digestion process through the development of the Neuse River Resource Recovery Facility (NRRRF). The methane produced from your and my waste will be converted into gas to power the GoRaleigh buses. So, go ahead and have that other slice of pizza, it’s going somewhere useful!
People will often point out that trains can move up to 60 miles an hour (though there are some stricter street level restrictions). BRT will realistically move slower than a peak train travel speed, but the most important speed from our vantage will be it’s ability to quickly be implemented, taking only a few years to get funded, designed, and built. Looking to peer markets like Richmond, Virginia, they have been able to recently launch their Pulse BRT system which is providing enhanced transit service for their market today. Light-rail is all or nothing and not scalable. Although we were big proponents of seeing the light rail transportation investment come online for our friends up in Durham, when all eggs are placed into one basket, it’s politically and financially much more challenging to pull off construction of a system. BRT allows our market to build ridership over time and continue to create a case for car free mobility and incrementally work toward mode shift.
What are your views? Are you a light-rail or go home advocate, or do you support an incremental and scalable approach like BRT? Both have pros and cons, but we’re excited to see Wake County working to implement enhanced bus service and hope that these investments help to transition our market to more sustainable growth and travel patterns. As investments like BRT show success in our market, additional density and land-use modifications help to create the case for additional transportation investments like the planned commuter rail corridor. We’re looking forward to having options outside of our car for getting around Raleigh! Stay tuned for future updates on these exciting projects and share with us your thoughts on what you’d like to see for mobility options in Raleigh.