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BRT vs. Light Rail: Urban Transit Debate Plays Out
Is this a bus or a train? Hard to tell! Photo by World Resources Institute Staff.

Is this a bus or a train? Hard to tell! Photo by World Resources Institute Staff.

One of the hottest transportation debates in the region these days relates to the proposed Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT). The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) envisions a 14-mile transit link roughly following I-270 from the Shady Grove Metro station in Gaithersburg  to Clarksburg near Frederick County. MTA is considering both bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail (LRT) alternatives. The project is  part of a larger effort to reduce congestion and improve travel times in the rapidly growing area to the northwest of the District that extends to Frederick and beyond. That larger effort encompasses various proposed reconfigurations of I-270 and US 15 that could add HOV or general purpose lanes to the two roadways.

The CCT debate is complicated by Gaithersburg West “Science City,” a Johns Hopkins University proposal to build 8 million square feet of life science research and development space that would more than double the county’s current inventory of such facilities. The project would support 60,000 new jobs as it is phased-in in the next 30-40 years. On November 17th, the Montgomery County Council voted 6-3 to support a LRT alternative over BRT for the CCT. Their preference for light rail echoes the growing trend of light rail projects nationwide. They also supported two reversible toll lanes that would be free for buses, carpools and van pools. The vote supported an amended CCT alignment that would route the transitway through Gaithersburg West.

If MTA goes forward with the Montgomery County Council recommendation, the increased cost of the light rail choice could render the project basically unfundable from a federal standpoint. Indeed, the debate between BRT and LRT may be a hollow one. According to the Washington Post, the choice of LRT would double the cost of the project for virtually the same ridership.

Image couresy of the Washington Post's Laris Karklis.

Image couresy of the Washington Post's Laris Karklis.

The Federal Transit Administration has strict cost-effectiveness requirements for transit projects both regionally and nationally. Exchanging the CCT’s more competitive “high” cost-effectiveness rating for a lesser “medium” rating  would severely hinder its chances of success in the fierce competition that is the cumbersome federal New Starts program. Transit advocates would be wise to look at this as more of a debate between BRT and no CCT at all.  According to the Washington Post, the CCT…

“would compete for scarce federal construction money along with two other Maryland projects: a Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton and a Red Line in Baltimore. Council members who supported a less-expensive busway option for the transitway said the state has little chance of winning highly competitive federal money for three relatively expensive light rail lines. “

Metrobus in Mexico CityA brief conversation about BRT vs. light rail for the CCT played out on radio station WAMU yesterday between EMBARQ Director Nancy Kete, and President of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce Georgette Godwin. Kete pointed to the EMBARQ-led Metrobus system in Mexico City which sports two bus rapid transit lines. That project took just three years to plan and launch and now serves 450,000 passengers per day, nearly half of the number of daily passengers who ride the D.C. Metro and at a fraction of the price of the heavy rail Metro system. Fifteen percent of Mexico City’s BRT ridership are people who have exchanged their cars for the quicker bus service.

Kete goes on to state that those unfamiliar with BRT should think of it “more like a rail system on rubber wheels.” Time savings brought through dedicated lanes and traffic light preemption combined with station platforms (pictured at the top) and other elements that mimic a rail user experience are all important components of any BRT system. Godwin and the business community feel that light rail represents “a permanent commitment” to transit that will trigger economic development and dense urban infill projects in a way that BRT will not.


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  • For some professional planner perspectives on how to critique a BRT proposal, see here:

    http://www.humantransit.org/2009/11/bus-rapid-transit-some-questions-to-ask.html

    I also posted on the land use lessons of the CCP here:

    http://www.humantransit.org/2009/11/integrating-transit-and-land-use-a-cautionary-tale.html

  • Clayton Lane

    Another major benefit of BRT is that we can built lots of high-quality service, really quickly, and carry many times the number of people as light rail.

    As transit advocates, I think we need to stand up for what’s best. I agree with you, BeyondDC, that the BRT concept is too often watered down in the U.S. We need well-informed people like you to advocate for the real deal, nothing less. Otherwise, we’ll never build enough high-quality transit to make a real difference.

    Advocating for light rail where it doesn’t make sense can hinder the cause. Poorly placed light rail can diminish the cost-effectiveness of transit, limit how much gets built, and delay implementation. Maryland is a perfect example. A “medium” cost-effectiveness rating all but assures the rail project won’t get built. Maryland could have attractive, high-quality BRTs running on all three routes in just a couple of years, or maybe one light rail line by the time the Orioles win their next pennant.

  • Agreed.

    And honestly, I don’t really have a problem with using BRT on the CCT route. If we can only get light rail on 2/3 of MD’s corridors, the CCT is the correct one to drop.

  • Noah Kazis

    I think we can all agree that the more important vote that the County Council took was to improve the route.

  • 1. If we accept the hypothetical theory that BRT at its best can be a “rail system on rubber wheels”, one of the biggest problems with BRT is that it is so easy to cut corners. In Gaithersburg the argument for BRT is that we can get almost as much ridership by using buses instead of trains. The problem is that the discussion virtually never ends there. During the next phase of engineering we’ll discover that we can get almost as much ridership by using normal-looking buses instead of fancy-looking buses, that we can get almost as much by using stops instead of stations, almost as much by putting the running way on the shoulder instead of in the median, almost as much by dispensing with signal priority, etc etc ad nauseam. Before long you’ve cut so many corners that your service is much worse and carries many fewer riders. Technically this is possible to a lesser extent with rail as well, but when the whole point of using BRT in the first place is to cut a corner, it’s inherently easy to apply the same standard over and over. When you start off asking “how can we do this on the cheap” and make that your driving philosophy in system planning, it’s incredibly difficult to stop after one step. It’s telling that you had to go outside the US to find a BRT picture you could use for that “train or bus” picture.

    2. Even if we accept that a “rail system on rubber” BRT line can be built, there is simply no getting around the fact that gliding on a rail offers a significantly more smooth and comfortable ride than rumbling on wheels over pavement. This is pure physics, it cannot be overcome no matter how fancy a bus you provide. For this reason even the best BRT line will never be viewed as equal to rail by the general public, because it will never be as comfortable to ride. Despite what BRT proponents would have you believe, this *is* a big deal.

    Long story short: BRT is great, for what it is – an mode with useful applications all over the city that is nonetheless limited in what it can achieve. In the same way that light rail is useful but not equal to subways, BRT is useful but not equal to light rail. We should build lots and lots of BRT all over the city wherever it is appropriate, but it is simply wrong to say that it can do all the things that light rail can do. It makes perfect sense to build BRT in some corridors and rail in others, but to continue to insist that BRT is “rail on wheels” does a disservice to meaningful discussion. It’s isn’t the same, like it or not.