Is Washtenaw County ready to embrace Bus Rapid Transit?

For most Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti residents, a proposed Detroit-to-Ann Arbor commuter rail line is the most exciting element of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan's (RTA) new transit master plan. But the RTA's other big plan for Washtenaw County is a form of transit that many haven't even heard of.

The master plan proposes a bus rapid transit (BRT) line along Washtenaw Avenue from downtown Ann Arbor to downtown Ypsilanti, following roughly the same path as the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority's (AAATA) existing Route 4. RTA planning manager Ben Stupka says BRT "stood out" as a cost-effective solution for the Washtenaw corridor that allows the RTA flexibility in scaling rapid transit service to the corridor's needs. The RTA projects a 30- to 35-minute BRT trip from Ann Arbor to Ypsi, becoming competitive with–or even slightly faster than–an auto trip at peak hours.

But what is BRT, exactly? Don't feel bad if you're not already in the know. While passenger rail has been around in one form or another for a few centuries now, BRT is a much more recent phenomenon. The basic idea is to speed up traditional bus service by a variety of means, including dedicated bus lanes, fare prepayment, routes with fewer stops, and systems that give buses more green lights or the ability to jump ahead of cars at a red light. The world's first BRT system was implemented in Curitiba, Brazil, in 1974, and America's first BRT system arrived in Pittsburgh three years later. There are currently major BRT systems running in the Washington DC, Seattle, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Las Vegas areas. More comparably, Eugene, Oregon established the Emerald Express in 2007 -ten stops along a 4-mile route- and saw ridership double in its first year. It has since launched a second route BRT route.

Elisabeth Gerber, who represents Washtenaw County on the RTA board of directors, says BRT is a "newer conversation" for Washtenaw County and not something that county residents have been "clamoring for."

"Folks haven't been calling it BRT and thinking about BRT and envisioning BRT the same way they have with commuter rail," Gerber says. "I do think that all of the public input and all of the visioning sessions we've had here in Washtenaw County suggest that people are very positively predisposed to it. But again we're just sort of behind in the development of that conversation, simply because it's sort of a newer concept for the region."

The nitty-gritty

So what would BRT actually consist of here on Washtenaw? Perhaps the most important fact to note is that, unlike most BRT systems (including those the RTA has proposed for the Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan Avenue corridors in Detroit and its suburbs), the Washtenaw BRT would not have a dedicated lane.

"The Washtenaw corridor is quite congested, so we know we can't at this point take away a lane of traffic," Stupka says. "But we do know there are several elements of bus rapid transit that we can institute along the corridor that will provide travel-time benefits."

One of those elements is a queue jump, which would allow buses to move ahead of other traffic at a red light. In some BRT systems that's accomplished by creating a short additional lane similar to a right-turn lane. Buses wait at the red light, then get their own green light that precedes the regular traffic signal. On Washtenaw, Stupka says the construction of queue jump lanes is a possibility, but buses might also be able to go around other traffic in existing right-hand turn lanes.

The Washtenaw BRT would also benefit from a transit signal priority system, which would use a detection system in Washtenaw's traffic signals to extend a green light or shorten a red one if a BRT bus approaches. Stupka describes it as a "lighter touch" than the signal preemption systems sometimes used to give emergency vehicles a constant string of green lights.

"You don't necessarily want to back the traffic up on large crossing streets," he says. "You have to have some kind of synchronization of the whole system, but it does allow for holding green. It does trip the light to change a little more quickly when the bus comes."

The system would also include large station-like bus stops with vending machines for riders to prepay their fares. The stops would be built so that passengers board at the level of the bus floor, speeding up passenger entry and exit, particularly for disabled passengers.

Between procurement of eight to 10 buses, construction of the new BRT stations, signal upgrades and other expenses, the RTA estimates capital costs of $56 million over a three- to four-year development phase. Once it's up and running, the system's annual operating costs would be about $7 million. Funding would come from the RTA's proposed 1.2 mill property tax for voters in Washtenaw, Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties, which will be decided on this November's ballot. Stupka says the agency also considers the project "very competitive" for Federal Transportation Administration grant funding.

Although RTA would provide all funding for the system, it probably won't operate the system. While AAATA will continue to operate Route 4 as usual alongside BRT service, Stupka says the RTA is in "early discussions" with AAATA about operating the BRT system. Gerber says the RTA is working hard to make BRT a "big win" for AAATA.

"Even if you're not likely to ride the BRT yourself, this is going to be beneficial to all transit riders and all people who rely on transit in various ways," she says. "It is going to enhance the existing service in ways that AAATA doesn't really have the capacity to do on its own."

A sterling example

For some perspective on how BRT has played out in a similar community, we needn't look far. The Rapid, the Grand Rapids area's transit system, debuted Michigan's first BRT line just under two years ago. The Silver Line covers busy Division Avenue, which connects downtown Grand Rapids to the southern suburb of Kentwood. As in the case of the proposed Washtenaw BRT and AAATA's existing Route 4, the Rapid also provides traditional bus service to Division with its Route 1.

Jennifer Kalczuk, external relations manager for the Rapid, says riders have begun using the two services for distinct purposes, treating Route 1 as a "local" service to cover shorter distances and the Silver Line as an "express" service for long-haul commutes. Combining ridership numbers on the two lines, Kalczuk says ridership along the Division corridor has increased by 40 percent since the Silver Line's introduction.

"While we have seen some erosion of ridership on Route 1, it's still very strong in its own right," Kalczuk says. "It's not just that people were riding Route 1 and now they've all just transferred over to the Silver Line. The ridership base in the corridor is growing and the BRT is attracting new riders."

However, getting the Silver Line up and running was a decade-long process for the Rapid. After a lengthy early development phase, voters rejected a 2009 millage to fund the line. In 2011, however, they approved a higher millage that funded the Silver Line and a variety of other transit service expansions. Kalczuk says the Rapid had to do considerable education work in explaining the BRT concept to the public. That included creating educational tools like a video to explain how the Silver Line would interact with ordinary traffic.

"We tried to look for ways to really help the public understand what this was and what it was going to mean and how some of these really specific things were going to work, because they were brand new," Kalczuk says.

Gerber says the RTA is well aware of the similar challenge that awaits between now and November's vote. In addition to raising awareness of the basic concept of BRT, she says it will also be particularly important for the RTA to communicate to voters that the BRT will not disrupt Washtenaw's already problematic traffic patterns, and to emphasize that the service will complement, rather than replace, AAATA's service.

If the millage succeeds, Stupka says the RTA's current plan is to implement regional rail first in Washtenaw County, with a 2022 target completion date for that project. BRT comes second, with a 2026 target completion date. Although rail is the more ambitious project, Stupka says community feedback on RTA plans has clearly communicated that rail is area residents' priority. There's an awfully short period of time to make the case for BRT, but if it succeeds it'll still likely be a full decade before BRT hits the road on Washtenaw Avenue.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate andMetromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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