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From Freeway to Busway? The Call for Bus Rapid Transit

Carmine Palumbo-SEMCOG
Carmine Palumbo-SEMCOG - David Lewinski Photography
Chances are you've heard about the M1 light rail line that will bring streetcar style public transportation to Woodward Avenue in Detroit. And you may know that construction on the $137 million, 3.3 mile stretch of rail is expected to begin within weeks and be completed by 2015.
 
What you have might have heard less about is BRT, or Bus Rapid Transit - already commonplace in many cities but the next frontier in mass transit along the suburban portion of Woodward Avenue – as well a presence in Detroit, complementing M1's trolleys.
 
BRT has emerged as the preferred mode of mass transit for the 27 miles of Woodward from Ferndale to Pontiac. By year's end or early 2014 the most important details: price, station locations, bus styles, road design and more will be rolled out.
 
Typically, though systems vary, BRT is a higher speed, higher tech collection of buses that run nearly round the clock in dedicated lanes connecting substantial transit stations, not flimsy bus stops. The detailed information to be released in a few months about the Woodward BRT will become the sales pitch for the public, which will eventually vote on funding the system.
 
“I'm confident there is support, but will enough people understand the benefits of a system like this?” says Carmine Palombo, transportation planner for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). “Ultimately we're not going to get this system until the Regional Transit Authority puts a ballot initiative together and asks the people of the region to fund the project.”
 
The grand plan is to design a modern, regional, desirable mass transit network – an effort backed by the federal government as an economic development tool. Cities such as Denver, Las Vegas and Portland are BRT operators. Chicago is building a BRT line and Cleveland is so proud of its BRT it shows it off to outsiders, like the busload that came from Michigan some months back.
 
The Woodward Avenue BRT line would co-exist, maybe even overlap, with M1's trolleys in Detroit, and be a crucial link – the linchpin, really – in forming what could finally be a truly regional mass transit system in southeast Michigan. 
 
"We're working with M1 to try and develop a seamless system," Palombo says. "M1 has a different goal, a different purpose from what we're doing. Their main goal is to provide economic development opportunities for people who are already in the city. Our job is to put together a system that will complement M1 and get people to and from the city.
 
The larger objective is to "provide a transit system that will compete with the automobile time-wise from Pontiac all the way into the city. We're going to coordinate with M1. There may be places that will have stations we'll both stop at, but it's important we work together. It will be two separate systems that work together.”
 
After many months of federally-mandated meetings, planning sessions and other hoops for local and state transportation planners to jump through, BRT wound up as the favored option for suburban Woodward Avenue for numerous reasons, Palombo says.
 
For one it's a more affordable alternative to light rail. It is also less time-consuming to build and less disruptive. And, perhaps, most of all it is seen as an easy way to stimulate the economy and cut down on air-polluting traffic.
 
"The region needs good transit, reliable transit from Point A to Point B. This is high level service, on-time service that would provide service for people with a car and people who don't have a car,” he says. “Getting people to jobs is a huge piece of it, the economic development potential at the stations in particular is a big benefit. “
 
Like subway cars or light rail trains BRT buses can be a place to relax and ride, avoid traffic, get some work or talk about the Tigers, Lions or Red Wings game the buses can carry riders to.
 
“Those are the some of the things we can do to make it more attractive for people to ride,” Palombo says. “The stations with BRT are much more than just a bus stop. There's example after example of economic development,” he says. “It would also decrease traffic on Woodward and there are environmental benefits that go along with that.”
 
In the meantime Palombo and others, working with consultants who specialize in BRT, are nailing down the numerous details and holding public meetings for input.
 
Some questions being answered: Where will the buses' dedicated lanes be located? In the median, by the curb, mixed in traffic or a combo? How many stations will there be and where will they be? What style of buses will be purchased and what kind of fuel – or alternative power – will they take? How should a feeder bus network to the BRT line be designed how could riders be provided with easy ways to walk or bike to BRT stations?
 
"All those specifics we're not there yet," Palombo says. "But we will be soon.”
 
And the race is on with Grand Rapids, Michigan's second largest city.
 
"Grand Rapids has already passed a tax and is building a BRT line. In the spirit of competition we may want to move this along quickly," Palombo jokes.
 
Woodward Avenue BRT grew out of state legislation meant to support the creation of a regional mass transit system that would connect major thoroughfares from Pontiac to Ann Arbor, including Gratiot and Michigan avenues and Hall Road (M59). Part of that legislation called for the creation of a Regional Transit Authority. Last week it named John Hertel, the general manager for the SMART bus line and former elected official who hails from a Macomb County political family.
 
For now the focus – and guinea pig - is Woodward Avenue, but a blind experiment it's not. Palombo and locals have looked to other BRT cities, worked with BRT consultants and held a series of public meetings "that were very well attended," Palombo says.
 
He was on the bus that went to see Cleveland's HealthLine in action. "We were very impressed. We came away thinking if Cleveland can do it so can we." Palombo says. "When you were on it, it felt like a bus, but it looks more like a rail vehicle. Most importantly it ran quickly. Getting on or getting off was much different than a bus. There are much larger doors, no steps, curb boarding. You could see the economic development. It was clean. You sort of got the best of both worlds there…You could see how it would work for us."
 
However it is not an apples-to-apples comparison.
 
The HealthLine by is 9.2 miles in one city long compared to Woodward's 27 miles passing through 11 cities. It cost $200 million to build and took about five years to complete – a "pretty common time-line for projects of this size,” says Mary Shaffer, a spokesperson for the Cleveland RTA, operator of the HealthLine. 
 
Funding for Cleveland's RTA in general is a combination of a 1 percent county sales tax that makes up 70 percent of the budget. The remainder comes from fares and other sources. The federal government paid for 80 percent of the HealthLine construction.
 
The HealthLine runs along Euclid Avenue and gets its name from its location near Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals, which are both corporate BRT sponsors.
 
Joe Calabrese, the director of the Cleveland RTA, says private investment and development around the new line and stations began when ground was broken. He says it's amounted to $5 billion and numerous quality of life improvements. The success has led to building another BRT line, the smaller Clifton project, which is in the final stages.
 
"No regrets, just great amounts of success," declares Calabrese.
 
Will metro Detroit be so effusive in hindsight?
 
SEMCOG seems to think so. According to the organization that promotes regionalism, every public dollar spent on such a project generates $6 of private investment. 
 
"There is job creation," Palombo says. "There will be temporary jobs created during the construction and there will be jobs created to eventually run the regional transit authority."
 
Until then, Palombo, Owens and other supporters will are the little engines that could bring a BRT system to metro Detroit.
 
"It's going to take work," Palombo says. “It's going to take time."

One time-consuming job will be swaying the naysayers, says Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United.

“What this region has to overcome is an attitude that public transportation is just for poor people. It's not just poor people. In other parts of the world this is not the attitude. Nobody in New York City says buses are only for the poor."
 
The better attitude is to see what's in it for everyone, not just the car-less.

"What we need is to replace the term 'riders of need' with riders of opportunity, Owens says. "What it comes down to is need vs. choice. The most successful systems are for riders of choice."
 

Kim North Shine is a freelance writer and Development News Editor for Metromode.

Photos by David Lewinski Unless Noted

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