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This photo illustration depicts a rapid transit bus driving on Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Is Bus Rapid Transit a feasible Red Line alternative?

It's been successful in some cities, but Baltimore poses challenges

Bus Rapid Transit, a possible alternative to the now defunct Red Line light rail proposal, would still require substantial investment, and it’s unclear if it could meet Baltimore’s transportation needs.

View of Pratt street looking East from a pedestrian bridge next to the Pratt Street Pavillion. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

View of Pratt street looking East from a pedestrian bridge next to the Pratt Street Pavillion. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Members of Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration have previously voiced support for investigating a rapid bus system as a cheaper substitute for the $2.9 billion Red Line, which would have connected Woodlawn in Baltimore County with Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in East Baltimore. Although the project had been in the planning stages for almost a decade, the administration announced in June it was killing the project because of concerns about its cost — particularly the portion requiring a tunnel through downtown.

A true Bus Rapid Transit system involves a fleet of buses being driven on a dedicated right-of-way, often with traffic signal priority. The buses stop at stations like those on a fixed rail line that require passengers to prepay their fare before boarding. This form of mass transit first became popular in South America and has emerged in U.S. cities, such as Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, as a cheaper alternative to light rail and street cars.

“Any type of implementation has seen some success, and I think a lot of it is due to the perception of more reliable service … sometimes it could be very little [actual] speed increase, but the perception is that people feel like they get a more reliable service,” said Jeff Hiott, the American Public Transportation Association’s senior program manager-bus programs. “Another indicator of the success is just increased ridership. I don’t know of any BRT system that’s been implemented that has not increased ridership.”

Jacob Mason, transport research and evaluation manager at the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, said although it’s cheaper to build a rapid bus system cities must realize they can’t just put a new vehicle on the street, call it a rapid bus and expect it to see transit improvements.

“BRT is infrastructure. It’s not just fewer bus stops,” Mason said.

But the cities that have made a serious investment in the systems have reaped the rewards. Cleveland completed its HealthLine system, considered the gold standard for Bus Rapid Transit in the U.S., in 2008 at a total cost of $200 million — about 7 percent of what it would cost to build the Red Line. According to the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, that system has spurred $5.8 billion in transit-oriented development. In 2012, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority estimated it cost $2.23 per rider, with more than 4.2 million riders, to operate the HealthLine.

Despite the advantages of rapid bus, it isn’t a panacea for the city’s mass transit issues. Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, said any mass transit project needs to be thoroughly planned to make sure it delivers results a community is expecting, and even then there’s no guarantee of success.

“Any kind of fixed infrastructure investment, even the most obvious ones, can always be done inefficiently and not deliver on their promise,” Tomer said.

It’s unknown if the Hogan administration will seriously consider building a rapid bus system, or whether the expressed interest is to placate city residents and political opponents upset about the Red Line. It’s also unclear how much enthusiasm city officials have for rapid bus. William Johnson, director of Baltimore’s Department of Transportation, has questioned whether such a system could operate on the city’s narrow streets.

Stakeholders are set to meet in August to discuss Red Line alternatives, although Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn has made it clear state funds intended for that project have been reallocated. He has also indicated simply improving the current bus system’s operations could be the best way to address Baltimore’s mass transit woes.

About Adam Bednar

Adam Bednar covers real estate and development for The Daily Record.