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Metro wants public input on adding rapid buses to its system

Provided by Metro

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 17, 2013: Bus Rapid Transit isn’t an ordinary bus and it’s not another MetroLink line. It's a middle ground between these public transportation options most St. Louisan know. And area leaders hope it will attract more riders, help economic development and serve commuters.

To that end, they are asking for public input. Questions to be addressed at a public meeting tonight and in an online survey include:

  • Which route would you choose?
  • Where would you like faster, more comfortable, more frequent, bus service?
  • Perhaps you’d like to reduce commute time along I-64 to and from Chesterfield?
  • Or go to Westport Plaza along Page Avenue?
  • Maybe you use the North County Transit Center in Ferguson, going downtown via West Florissant and Natural Bridge, or via Halls Ferry and Riverview? (See map at the article's end.)
  • If you were to use a new, faster bus service, which amenities would you prefer? On-board Wi-Fi, real time notification of the whereabouts of the bus or internal bike racks?

Whether or not you would use these routes, a collection of agencies known as the Transportation Improvement Group wants your opinion about them.  In a series of public meetings, TIP group member agencies Metro, East West Gateway, St. Louis and St. Louis County and MODOT are presenting plans for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and looking for feedback on which of four routes to choose. The online survey closes Sept. 30, but transportation officials hope that people will put in their comments by Sept. 20.

At the end of September, Metro will tabulate results from the survey, public meetings and other variables such as projected ridership and number of jobs along the routes, and choose two. Metro will then seek a federal grant for each of the chosen two routes. The entire process, said Metro Project Manager Mark Phillips, may take up to two years before anything is built.

Determining these routes is the culminating step in the St. Louis Rapid Transit Connector Study, an $800,000 project funded by federal grants and local sales tax.  

What is Bus Rapid Transit?

BRT, say proponents, is a way to use a new type of bus with the existing infrastructure of roads to create a system with faster, more comfortable, more frequent service connecting employees with jobs. BRT, proponents say, combines the speed and comfort of light rail with the lower cost of buses.

“It’s inbetween light rail and buses,” said Mary Grace Lewandowski, corridor studies coordinator for East West Gateway. “It has a lot of amenities that a light rail system would have.”

In addition to having comfortable buses with features such as Wi-Fi, internal bike racks, and nicer transit stations, BRT uses various methods to shave off travel time. Customers pay before boarding so they can enter the bus from multiple doors. The floor of the bus door is low (or the boarding platform is raised to match the level of boarding), allowing passengers to get on and off more quickly and giving the disabled faster, easier access.  In addition, the buses run more frequently, every 10 or 20 minutes throughout the day, to accommodate workers on nonstandard schedules and riders who are shopping and running errands.

Technology is a key part of making BRT work. Using Traffic Signal Prioritization, a BRT bus communicates automatically with the traffic light system, triggering the system to hold a green light several seconds longer, if needed for the bus to get through.

“Those things add up to make the travel time faster than a local bus,” said Tim Reynolds, senior principal technical specialist at Parsons Brinckerhoff, an engineering firm Metro hired to study BRT. Reynolds was at the Sept. 10 public meeting in St. Louis City Hall to present the plan to the public and answer questions.

These changes, Phillips said, are estimated to reduce travel time by 30 to 40 percent.

Why BRT over more light rail?

The appeal of bus rapid transit can be explained in one word, funding.

“Everybody wants to build a MetroLink system,” said Ray Friem, Metro chief operating officer. “But at $70 million a mile, you have to say to yourself, ‘OK. Can this corridor really support that level of capital investment, or is there a different transit method to do some of those?’”

Because of its lower cost, Friem said, BRT has become popular in cities such as Seattle, Portland, Cleveland and Denver.

“Not only does BRT tend to meet the economic capabilities of a region, it doesn’t require the huge density that a light rail line does to make it work,” he said.

Contrast the estimated cost of $30 million to $50 million for an entire BRT line to the $800 million projected cost of building a new MetroLink line to Chesterfield (according to  Jerry Blair, transportation director of East-West Gateway) and the way to enhance transit in the St. Louis area in the near term is clear, say proponents.  Metro is not abandoning MetroLink so much as looking for a way to complement it, Friem says.

“What we’re looking at is a BRT overlay,” he said. ” A system that is complementary to the existing light rail investment, cognizant of future light rail investment, maybe even a precursor to future light rail investment.”

With shrinking federal dollars to build new transit systems, and a far greater number of competitors for Federal Transit Authority dollars, Phillips and Friem said that grant proposals to build new systems have to be lean and mean.

“It’s much much more competitive,” Phillips said.

Kim Cella, executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit, agreed.

“Federal funding is such a competitive environment,” she said. “All these other cities are trying to get on board to improve their transit infrastructure.”

Deciding on routes?

Connecting people to jobs, improving travel time, serving low income and zero car households, and expanding transportation choices are some of the criteria Metro is considering in deciding what routes to pursue. Other factors include how the proposed route will strengthen a neighborhood and how it will support the regional economy.

Phillips said that Metro is also looking into the future.

“We’re focusing on the connection to jobs in this project,” says Phillips. “But one thing that we know is going to happen in the relative near term is people aging in place.”  BRT service along the I-64 corridor, for example, could serve not only riders who live in the city and work at Chesterfield Mall or St. Luke’s Hospital, but also aging baby boomers living in pockets of West County who may give up driving a car.

In addition to input from the online survey and public meetings, Metro is combining residential and employment data into a Transit Need Index to help choose the areas for BRT.

Residential factors include population density, minority population, low median household income, automobile availability and an aging population of 65 years or more. 

Employment based data includes employment density, concentration of minority workers, low median worker wages, employees with one or no cars, and a higher concentration of elderly or disabled workers. 

Commuter reactions

Ramona C. Scott, who lives in North City, came to the transit meeting at St. Louis City Hall, “to make sure that North City is included and see what they have planned for North City,” she said.

Scott, who regularly combines bicycling with MetroLink, hopes Metro will choose the West Florissant-Natural Bridge route as a BRT option. She’s also interested in the I-64 route to Chesterfield.

“I know there’s quite a few jobs in the area along [highway] 40,” she said.

Barbara Brown is a St. Louis native who lived in New York. She doesn’t have a car and relies on public transit, but is not happy with the current system here.

“There’s so much room for improvement. I don’t understand why it’s not being done,” she said.

Scott expressed frustration at long wait times transferring buses. “If the Number 1 bus is pulling in, and the Number 10 bus is pulling out [at the same time] I’ve got to wait a half hour for the Number 10 bus,” she said. “I should not have to wait a half an hour.”

Impact on economic development?

Not all local transit organizations are on board with the BRT plan.  Cella, of Citizens for Modern Transit, said her group has not yet taken a position on BRT because of concern over the potential for economic development.

Developers, she says, like to build around permanent infrastructure, such as a light rail station, and not around bus stops, which can move at any time.

Because the stops used in BRT are more permanent and more similar to light rail stops, they may encourage development. “Some of this BRT transit is permanent infrastructure,” she said, which developers may choose to capitalize upon. Cella said that Citizens for Modern Transit was waiting to see updated ridership numbers and other data before taking a position.