A regular 40 ft Gillig bus in the Metro scheme at Mall of America

Solving BRT Creep

With BRT construction afoot on Hennepin Avenue and Lake Street, it’s time to expand on some points from my recent article on Bus Rapid Transit creep. In that article, I established three things:

  • What Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is;
  • What Bus Rapid Transit isn’t;
  • How what is BRT often backslides into something that is not.

Since that article’s publication, full-time transit lanes on Hennepin and First Avenue Northeast have been removed. Instead, they will be transit-only Monday to Friday, 6 AM- 7 PM. This is despite those surveyed preferring full-time lanes 5 to 1. This would have primarily benefited the E Line, but also the 4, 6, 61, and a few express buses.

As if to prove my point that most people don’t view BRT as a unique mode, Minneapolis Public Works has decided against making 900 feet of Nicollet Avenue bus-only. Now even our local routes suffer from BRT creep! Despite a full busway being the narrow favorite, Public Works is instead insisting on a car-centric design for the former Kmart site. Honestly, the 300 feet of northbound lane they left is almost more insulting than completely eliminating it, although I’m sure that will also disappear in due time. Can we save it before its too late, and if so, how?

The ‘Engineer Brain’ Solutions

“Engineer Brain” is a term I use to describe a particular type of thinking wherein the simplest solution is automatically the best. These solutions usually only look at things from a purely mathematical perspective, or through basic, computational logic (if this, then that, else this, etc.), ignoring things like history, politics, finance and so on. From eight years’ experience, I can tell you that those aspects of a project aren’t the engineer’s strong suits. That said, there are a couple of proposals in line with this kind of thinking that I will put out here anyway, hopefully with some added nuance.

i. Use a Different Mode

How do you prevent BRT from becoming a bus with fancy paint? How about throw out the bus altogether? From a safety perspective, it’s hard to justify allowing mixed traffic when cars are no longer mingling with 30,000-pound buses and are instead in the way of a 300,000-plus-pound train. Once rail is selected as a mode, it is much harder to make cuts like these. Moving or removing tracks to make way for cars comes at a much greater cost than rerouting a bus, with little benefit.

That said, rail is not immune to these changes. Much of the aBRT network was originally envisioned as streetcars, after all, which might have also lacked dedicated lanes and signal priority. The ongoing battle over the Riverview Corridor is already starting to give me Red Line flashbacks.

A rendering of the Minneapolis streetcar system. Photo credit Star Tribune.

Riverview is a great example of how not to use rail. Despite the $2B price tag, it’s actually projected to take 2 minutes longer than the 54 between the Mall of America and downtown St. Paul. This is due to the omission of dedicated right-of-way on the busiest part of the line, as well as close stop spacing, low top speed (assumed 30 mph even in dedicated lanes), and a lack of signal priority. This may seem contradictory to my point, as it’s clearly possible — and even probable — that these cuts can be made to trains as well as buses. A previous light rail option with completely dedicated ROW was dismissed solely due to impacts on parking and car traffic, not cost or build time. Once again, cutting corners simply does not pay for rail, not even on paper.

Of course, rail may be overkill for many of these corridors. It’s much more expensive and the additional capacity may not be needed. Also, having dedicated ROW can be a double-edged sword here, as the larger footprint of rail is much more likely to sever communities and cause displacement. The initial studies for a few of the BRT corridors included rail as an option and then discarded it for these and other reasons.

ii. Elect Better People

Where do you even begin with such a broad, open-ended solution, right? Don’t even get me started on how belittling it is to take an action dependent on mass organizing and a large capital backing and instead treating it like it’s something one individual can do on their own. This is to say nothing of the fact that many of the people who make these decisions aren’t elected and even those who are occasionally just, you know, lie. Nicollet Avenue is a great example of the latter, with Minneapolis Public Works claiming that the option with mixed lanes is more transit friendly than the bus-only option.

How to deal with such flagrant disregard to process and public opinion? That question has been pondered since the time of Confucius, and I don’t have an answer for it. Even after going through all the steps and checking all the boxes these things still happen, often in a way that feels predetermined. The fact remains that for transit projects to happen, be good, and succeed, those officials who oppose it have to go. The efforts to improve transit on Hennepin Ave (north and south), Robert St, and in White Bear Lake all failed because local politicians had other priorities (to put it nicely). On the flip side, the only thing keeping the Riverview Corridor alive is Ramsey County’s insistence on rail.

To the elected officials who may be reading this: Grow a backbone! Transit expansion is overwhelmingly popular, and there are hundreds if not thousands of polls and studies to demonstrate this. Across party lines, people like it when the government does stuff that benefits them. I am on my knees begging you (trust me I totally am) to please not give into the whims of a few people who are particularly good at shouting and writing strongly worded letters. They’re the same people who ask for the manager when they’re told they can’t use a coupon that expired two years ago, and they are not to be trusted. You don’t necessarily need to listen to the traffic engineers either. When left to their own devices, they will always design New Jersey.

iii. Turn on the Money Printer

There’s been a longstanding, informal agreement at the federal level that for every dollar spent on transit, highways get four dollars. This is insane. It’s mind-boggling not just because of the current climate crisis, health impacts from driving, capacity constraints or poor land use, but in a pure economic sense. Transit projects always get a higher return on investment. Low-density sprawl just plain doesn’t pay. Historically it’s been heavily subsidized, and more and more cities are wising up to the lack of return on that investment.

The key word here, of course, is “cities”. As our federal government is only able to pass one major piece of legislation every 10-15 years (and that’s being generous with the definition of “major), something as earth-shattering as “give highways less money” is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Rock the Boat (don’t rock the boat, baby)

There are, of course, subtler and easier ways to implement change. One of these is to simply lower our expectations. After all, the aBRT and Highway BRT systems are still an improvement over the previous local services, with some more than doubling their previous ridership. Who’s to say this isn’t good enough? Besides, as I said a few paragraphs ago, not every route will benefit from getting the best of the best.

I can put aside my axe grinding for a second to admit that most of these routes are objective improvements over previous service. Are they that good, though? I’ll elaborate on this at a later date, but the way they are shown on Metro Transit’s maps, and the way they are often talked about, portrays them as close or equal to the light rail. Can anyone honestly say the Red and Orange Lines offer the same service as the Blue and Green Lines? I certainly don’t think so, and I think the difference in ridership bears that out. That said, I do have a few other, easier suggestions.

i. More Carrots, More Sticks

The way funding streams for these projects are set up often encourages transit organizations to chase trends. The George W. Bush administration shelled out big bucks for commuter and light rail systems, aiming to appease the suburbanite commuters in his base. Northstar, UTA’s FrontRunner, and New Mexico’s RoadRunner are all great examples of this. We even have the term “Obama Streetcar” to describe the streetcar construction boom under his presidency, until the funding stream (TIGER grants) was turned into yet another highway fund. Obviously, restructuring is necessary to achieve the results we want, but past experience shows that this is easier said than done. The difficulty is more in striking the right balance than the changes themselves. So long as the amount of money is roughly the same, Congress tends to overlook formula adjustments like this.

ii. Share the Love

I suspect part of the reason BRT gets watered down like this is because a lot of transit agencies aren’t actually all that interested in building it. They’d much rather just put money into existing bus infrastructure, but lack the funding to do so. Following the letter but not the spirit of the law gives them an opportunity to do that, and even add a little extra. Perhaps creating some sort of “extra small starts” program, or some other federal grant aimed at local bus service would help fix this. Another option is to increase the divide between what is a “Small” vs “New” start. The latter has been tried before with limited success.

iii. Let the Transit People Do the Transit Planning

This is a vast oversimplification, but the aBRT program is the only rapid transit program that Metro Transit has any real control over. Even then, they frequently require the approval of other governing bodies to build the required infrastructure. All other rapid transit projects — the colored lines on Metro Transit maps — are the work of some consortium or another of cities and/or counties. These maps get handed off to the Met Council when they reach the development phase. While the council gets to choose what projects they take on, the end result still ends up somewhat disjointed, as the other municipalities don’t necessarily make an effort to plan the system holistically. They often are more concerned about the immediate project area and securing federal funding.

Due to the Metropolitan Council’s unusual status as a regional planning authority, we actually have a somewhat straightforward solution to this problem that most other metro areas lack. The Met Council already has some power to plan the regional transportation system, and other parts like wastewater services have the authority to build facilities in the public right-of-way without first acquiring a local franchise. Put simply: They can pretty much build whatever, wherever, so long as it’s sewage related and doesn’t violate any local building codes. Furthermore, Metro Transit has the right to run buses on any street in the metro area except the Minneapolis Parkways, so allowing them to build fixed-guideway transit without local approval still isn’t much of a stretch. Doing so would give Metro Transit actual power during the design phase to implement the features they want, as opposed to the current system where they kindly ask the parties involved and hope they get it.

As with anything involving the Met Council, there’s concern about such measures being anti-democratic, as they’re being forced on us by unelected officials. Some will also argue that this kind of standoffish attitude will do more harm than good, that antagonizing local authorities will eventually backfire and cause even more setbacks. I disagree on both counts.

First, this kind of my-way-or-the-highway attitude is what causes these cuts to begin with. Let’s go back to Hennepin Avenue. The Legislature, governor, county, Met Council and almost two thirds of the Minneapolis City Council all approved of having permanent bus lanes, but in the end the mayor and a handful of councilors got their way. They voted the way they did because they valued the opinions and sought the votes of (generally) white, well-off folks, who are both more likely to vote in off-year elections and to drive. This sort of political triangulation doesn’t work if some higher body can invalidate said veto. In that case, they risk angering both their desired demographic, who ultimately didn’t get what they want, and everyone else whose interests they voted against. Obviously, it would be better for everyone to cooperate from the start, but simply having that threat available may be enough to encourage cooperation.

A Rendering of the original plan for Hennepin Avenue South. Image credit Hennepin for People

There’s certainly an argument to be made against giving the Met Council more power in its current form. In this specific case, however, I would argue that it’s actually more democratic to give the unelected (though appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate) body more power. It took just one flipped vote in the White Bear Lake city council to throw the Purple Line into disarray, despite support from St. Paul, Maplewood, Gem Lake, Vadnais Heights, Ramsey County, the state, the Met Council and even White Bear Lake itself previously. Is it really fair for one individual elected by just 722 people to have so much say over a project affecting hundreds of thousands? Can we still call this majority rule?

Like it or not, the Met Council is the only agency that is — or at least can be — equipped to consider the needs of the entire region. It makes sense that they, or Metro Transit itself, should have more control over planning and building the regional transit system. I’m partial to the latter, as they’re the ones with a vested interest in making transit work.

The Gold Standard?

There’s one project I’ve failed to talk about, one that’s managed to slip through the cracks while all others have gotten stuck. The Gold Line BRT project is one of the few projects being delivered more or less as promised: a true BRT line with dedicated right-of-way for about 70% of its length. Sure, it’s had some cost overruns and is about four years overdue, but this is (sadly) pretty normal for large transit projects in the U.S.. Despite the setbacks, it’s leapfrogged both LRT extensions with an opening date set for 2025. How’d this happen?

A rendering of the Maplewood Gold Line station. Credit: Metro Transit

No seriously, what did they do differently?

As best as I can tell, the usual suspects just didn’t show up this time. Everyone from local residents to real estate developers, businesses large and small, and all the various governing bodies seem pretty happy with the project, with a few exceptions. Opposition seems limited to the town of Lake Elmo and a few scattered individuals. Granted, I haven’t kept close tabs on it, but I wasn’t able to find any real, organized opposition to this project.

Maybe it was just in the right place at the right time. BRT was the new hotness when this project got underway, garnering the praise of politicians and journalists the world over. Even transit planners and geeks were singing its praises as a cheap alternative to rail. It had all the hallmarks of a gadgetbahn, except it actually worked. Factors like the nearby SWLRT fiasco generating resistance to rail and high gas prices and unemployment driving increased transit demand may have also played a role in stymieing opposition. Maybe the politicians of yesteryear were just much more amenable to transit that today, or more willing to dream big and think outside the box.

Since Gold Line planning started, the first BRT lines in South America have declined. They are suffering partially from their own success, but also from a lack of investment. Overcrowding, decreased reliability, and longer trip times accompanied the growth of ridership without increased maintenance. It’s started to fall out of favor here too, with opposition groups regurgitating the same arguments used against other forms of transit. Unlike the Gold Line, the Purple Line is seeing plenty of accusations of spreading crime, environmental harm and community destruction.

Flipping the Script

Theories and thought experiments are all well and good, but the best way for people to understand the difference between BRT and things that merely claim to be BRT is for them to experience the difference themselves. This is, in my opinion, the greatest benefit of the Gold Line: it will give regular Minnesotans a chance to do just that, and to decide for themselves whether or not the extra time and money is worth it. While I know I’ll be on the first bus, I think I’ve already made up my mind.

Ian Gaida

About Ian Gaida

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