Does Anyone Oppose Bus Rapid Transit?
The idea is very unsexy, yet has gained amazingly wide support.
The most obvious place in town for some form of mass transit has always been the heavily trafficked, east-west corridor from downtown Milwaukee to Wauwatosa, parallel to I-94. Mayor John Norquist had envisioned light rail in that corridor but Waukesha County politicians adamantly and successfully opposed it. Now we have a proposal to create an nine-mile BRT or Bus Rapid Transit line, championed by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, and the response is radically different, suggesting this proposal could succeed.
Of course, a faster version of a bus isn’t as sexy as rail, but that also eliminates the usual protests of “choo-choo train” haters, as does the fact that the BRT wouldn’t go all the way to the county line, instead terminating in Wauwatosa near the Medical College of Wisconsin. Yet BRT can accomplish many of the goals of light rail, reducing travel times, attracting some automobile drivers and thereby reducing greenhouse gases and road fatalities, and encouraging development and increasing property values along the corridor. In all cases its impact is less than that of light rail, and it’s less permanent, but BRT is also much less expensive.
For politically polarized metro Milwaukee, perhaps the greatest virtue of BRT is that it sends up no red flags. Abele first announced plans to pursue creation of a BRT a year ago, and there have as yet been no politicians condemning it. Indeed, the policy has — gasp! — even united Abele and the county board. “The board strongly supported moving toward implementation of the BRT proposal last month when they approved significant additional funding commitments,” board chair Theo Lipscomb tells Urban Milwaukee. “Initial funding to deploy BRT features such as signal priority along the east west corridor was provided last year.”
Both Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Wauwatosa Mayor Kathleen Ehley have signaled their interest in BRT service within this corridor. Milwaukee Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton calls BRT “an important component of a regional transit system.” The suburban-dominated Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission has been an advocate for bus rapid transit since the 1960s. The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce is on record supporting the BRT proposal as “a flexible and cost efficient way to connect economic clusters,” as its president Tim Sheehy puts it.
The BRT has obvious benefits for the medical college, better connecting it to the city. Marquette University President Michael Lovell appears to be on board: Lovell’s spokesperson Brian Dorrington says this proposal “could potentially benefit members of our Marquette community who take the bus, including many students who currently utilize the UPASS.” I’m also told MU is looking into creating a new program, yet to be named, located near the medical college, which make a better transportation link very important. I’m even told that Waukesha Board Chair Paul Decker supports the plan, but he did not reply to requests for comment.
The metro area’s polarization has made it difficult to create any transportation links between workers living in the city and jobs located in outlying counties. But “a well-designed BRT system” as Abele has noted, “will efficiently and affordably connect more people to more jobs while helping create a climate that attracts new businesses and new workers to Milwaukee.” No, It won’t connect city workers to Waukesha County, but might provide an easy way for employers in that county to shuttle workers to their companies. And it will connect the 81,000 workers and 25,000 residents of downtown Milwaukee with the nearly 25,000 employees at the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center and Milwaukee County Research Park.
Globally, BRT has nearly quadrupled between 2004 and 2014, a recent study by the UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning found. That growth is also happening in the U.S. where “more than 30 U.S. regions in at least 24 states are either building or actively considering building new bus rapid transit lines.”
The obvious model for Milwaukee is the 7.1 mile BRT “Healthline” in Cleveland which connects that city to its medical complex. It opened in 2008 and has generated $6.3 billion in new development along the line, including 7,200 housing units.
Research on BRT lines has shown that on average, they have reduced travel time by 25 percent. As for development, areas within a half-mile of BRT corridors increased their share of new office space by one third from 2000-2007, while new multifamily apartment construction doubled and there was a rent premium for office space within a BRT corridor, one study found. In Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and other cities with high-quality BRT lines, real estate near the routes tends to be valued at a premium, research has found. And BRTs in Latin American have contributed to a 40 percent reduction in fatalities and injuries on the streets where they were implemented, while Pittsburgh’s BRT saw a 30 percent reduction.
A recent analysis by the Milwaukee County Transit System details the enormous potential of a BRT line in this east-west corridor. The MCTS envisions 19 bus stops or stations, with buses running every 10 minutes from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and every 30 minutes during the night and early morning. Its construction is expected to cost $42 to $48 million, and its annual operating cost would be $4.4 million. It would attract between 7,250 and 9,250 riders, increasing ridership within the corridor by 40 percent, and take some 6,700 cars off the road per day.
The analysis found there are 120,000 people working in station areas, who could consider using the BRT. But the benefits for residents along the line are particularly powerful:
-47,000 people live in station areas;
-25 percent of them are below the poverty line;
-40 percent are people of color;
-and 23 percent do not have a car.
These statistics should make it easier for the county to gain federal funding for the BRT. So should the apparent unanimity of area politicians and civic leaders. This seemingly dull idea could have dramatic benefits for Milwaukee.
Update 1:30 p.m. June 7: Waukesha County Board Chair Paul Decker has emailed me to say he now opposes the project: “When originally presented I liked the idea that it was utilizing buses vs rail to ‘test’ for a solution to get more workers to where the jobs are today. Now the time, cost and neighborhood disruption seem higher than first initiated, and so I’m disappointed.” Decker did not offer any details as to how the proposal had changed.