Officials look to bring bus rapid transit to Madison

Officials look to bring bus rapid transit to Madison

Madison’s Plan Commission met Monday night to discuss bringing bus rapid transit, a form of public transit promising a light-rail-type system at a fraction of the cost to the city.

The city is planning for its first phase of the project.

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin is backing the proposal. He said the city’s Metro bus system doesn’t have enough capacity to handle the demand of its most popular routes.

“Our problem is capacity,” Soglin said.

Soglin said bus rapid transit is “designed to imitate the experience of rail” and is used in cities across the globe, including in Tacoma, Washington and Cleveland.

Like light rail, BRT includes fewer stops but higher frequencies. For example, a stop might see service every 15 minutes instead of every 30 on a regular city bus.

To make boarding quicker, passengers pay their fares before getting on the bus; fares are checked through random inspection, as they are on trains.

Bus drivers would be able to get a wave of green lights to avoid stop-and-go traffic and, in some cases, the city would plan to have dedicated lanes for the buses in order to avoid traffic entirely, Soglin said.

Buses would be larger than normal city buses and would be designed for use at special station platforms, where passengers could board and exit the as they would a train.

What makes BRT different from light rail and attractive to city leaders is its cost, which is exponentially lower than light rail, the mayor said.

“It’s much, much cheaper than light rail, by a factor of at least five to 10, perhaps a factor of 20,” Soglin said.

Soglin said, initially, BRT would run on three high-traffic corridors: along East Washington Avenue, along University Avenue down to Mineral Point and Odana roads and along Park Street through the south side, down to Fish Hatchery Road into Fitchburg.

Soglin said, at this stage, estimating the cost of light rail is difficult, but implementing it would likely cost $70 to $100 million. He said some costs that could benefit BRT use will need to be incurred anyway.

“We know there’s certain features that we need anyway,” he said. “Even if we didn’t do BRT, we still need a new garage for our buses, which has a price tag of $35 million.”

Soglin said implementing BRT in Madison is contingent upon cooperation with the state and federal governments. He said Madison would need to partner with the federal government for funding and the state would have to allow the city to set up a regional transit authority to run the BRT system.

Soglin said despite a state and federal government that may not be favorable to spending, he remains optimistic that both entities will see the need for BRT in Madison.

“The day will come where the need for mass transit, the need for rapid mass transit, is so great that we need viable partners at both the federal and state levels,” he said.

Soglin said, in a best-case scenario, BRT could arrive in Madison in three to five years.

To learn more about bus rapid transit, visit the Madison Area Transportation Planning Board’s website.