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Cities are turning to supercharged bus routes to more quickly and cheaply expand transit services

The plans reveal a debate about the role of transit investment: Should it aim to help people traverse urban sprawl or reshape it?

A CDTA bus navigates State Street, also known as Route 5, in Schenectady, N.Y., on July 15. Cities around the country are turning to bus rapid transit to offer high speed transportation to their communities. (Cindy Schultz for The Washington Post)

Cities looking to boost their transit options are giving special fast bus routes a fresh look — an effort buoyed by hundreds of millions of dollars in coronavirus relief funds that could get another boost if Congress passes an infrastructure package.

The Federal Transit Administration last year awarded $375 million to help build the lines, known as bus rapid transit (BRT) — the largest sum in a decade, according to agency records. In a pipeline of almost 50 transit projects seeking federal investment in the coming years, 34 are for the bus lines. Eighteen projects under construction or in planning phases shared $185 million in funds from the most recent coronavirus relief package.

The lines take the humblest form of public transit, the city bus, and supercharge it using a combination of technology, road redesigns and route planning tweaks. The bus projects are gaining steam as federal transportation officials prioritize modes of transportation seen as more friendly to the environment in a battle against climate change.

Some transportation experts are skeptical because many lines that are dubbed BRTs involve only limited upgrades to bus service. They say those kinds of lines are not likely to tame urban sprawl or lure suburban drivers out of their cars.

Many of the projects are in major cities and have costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars. But transit agency leaders say the advanced bus lines — with the prospect of driving local economic development in ways regular buses struggle to do — are particularly appealing in smaller urban areas and the less dense communities that dominate the American landscape where subways and light rails are hard to justify.

The Capital District Transportation Authority, which serves Albany and nearby cities in New York, opened its first BRT line in 2011, then another in November. It is aiming to have a third in service by 2023.

Carm Basile, the agency’s chief executive, said he faced calls for years to build a light rail system, an option he said was not feasible for the region. But as the agency rolled out its BRT lines, the calls for a rail system have disappeared.

“This is rail on wheels,” he said. “It’s a fraction of the cost, and it is much more suitable to smaller, midsized urban areas.”

Details of a $1 trillion infrastructure package being assembled by President Biden and a bipartisan group of senators have not been disclosed, but an outline calls for an additional $48.5 billion for transit — the largest federal transit investment ever, according to the White House. Much of the money would likely be dedicated to a maintenance backlog, but experts expect part of the money used for expansion to be directed at BRT projects.

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In practice, bus rapid transit has come to encompass a range of services. The most elaborate systems involve dedicated busways with stops that mimic a light-rail station and facilities to buy tickets on the street, as well as speeds that can rival rail. But many such bus lines in the United States are more basic, largely involving stops that are further apart and technology that changes stop lights to green as buses approach.

Some warn that betting on a form of transit well suited to America’s road-dominated cities and suburbs could be counterproductive: an unhappy middle way that offers modestly better service and does not promote the kind of denser communities that allow transit to thrive.

“The extent to which BRT is used for its flexibility and to conform to non-transit friendly surroundings, we’re wasting our money,” said Beth Osborne, director of advocacy group Transportation for America. “That’s where BRT gets us in trouble. It’s on the roadway, and the roadway is still being built for a spread-out transportation system.”

Legislation passed by the House this month would increase the size of projects that qualify for an FTA program often used to help build BRT systems and increase the amount of federal funds projects could receive. It also opens the door to new kinds of bus projects that use highway express lanes as a way of reaching regions poorly served by transit.

The provisions were supported by the Community Transportation Association of America, which represents smaller transit operators, and pitched by a bipartisan group of Georgia and Florida House members to boost transit in suburban districts.

Scott Bogren, executive director of CTAA, said the wider definition acknowledges the reality of American geography.

“Conceptually, the evangelists — the BRT purists — I know exactly where they’re coming from,” he said. “In a perfect world I might tend to agree with them, but so many communities are operating within landscapes that don’t fit that perfect world but could benefit from the operational improvements and service improvements that BRT can create.”

The idea for BRT was developed in Brazil in the 1970s and imported to the United States, with a line opening in Pittsburgh that decade. But despite the concept’s history, disputes remain about which systems truly qualify as BRT.

The Federal Transit Administration has adopted a broad definition that encompasses projects that upgrade a transportation corridor but do not necessarily have dedicated lanes or roads for the buses.

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Annie Weinstock, president of consulting firm BRT Planning International, said the label should apply only to lines that fit specific criteria: The buses have their own lanes or travel on dedicated roads; passengers pay their fare before they board; stations have raised platforms so there is no need to step up onto the bus; and intersections are designed to prioritize bus movement.

Some lines in the United States fit that narrower definition, including those in Eugene, Ore., and in Cleveland, where the HealthLine bus route has been used to spur revitalization in the city.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, officials hope to open a new BRT line every year to build a network of about 20. That region is mixing different kinds of BRT lines to help provide connections to a light-rail system.

“It’s not a blanket package that you have to do the same things every time,” said Charles Carlson, director of Bus Rapid Transit Projects at Metro Transit, which serves the Twin Cities. “Instead, it’s a toolbox where you can tailor the solution.”

The 21-station Gold Line, for example, would operate mostly in dedicated bus lanes following Interstate 94. The FTA recommended the project receive $100 million in federal funds in the coming budget year. But other projects largely rely on existing roads.

In the Albany region, BRT lines have spaced-out stations and technology to prioritize buses at intersections, but lack many advanced features. Basile said the agency cannot justify the costs.

Nonetheless, he said the lines are 25 percent faster than regular buses. Before the pandemic, ridership on the region’s first route reached 4 million passengers a year — 25 percent higher than the old bus line, the agency said.

“That’s what you promote to people,” Basile said. “The value to them is I can get them where they want to go a little quicker.”

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There are indications that BRT lines can promote some of the density long associated with rail routes. A new analysis of job and residential growth by researchers at the University of Arizona examined areas around BRT stations in 11 cities between 2013 and 2019. In each case, they found areas close to the stations accounted for a significant share of regional growth.

In Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, two-thirds of new jobs were located within about a block of a HealthLine station, although Arthur C. Nelson, who co-authored the analysis, said the region is an exceptional case. It is not clear whether the new lines spurred the growth or whether they were established in areas already primed to grow, but Nelson said experts generally have found that investments in transit promote density and growth.

“I suspect the level of private investment depends on the quality of the BRT,” Nelson said. “Cleveland’s is considered the nation’s best and probably most expensive, but others have made solid investments to build systems that attract development.”

Jacksonville, the largest city by land areas in the contiguous United States, has 45 miles of BRT lines serving 47 stations and is working on another 12-mile route. Nathaniel P. Ford Sr., chief executive of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, said the city has seen $1.6 billion in residential and commercial permit requests within a half-mile of its BRT lines, a sign they are attracting investment.

“We are seeing greater density around these corridors,” he said. “In the meantime, the bus rapid transit network is suitable for our community.”