Life in the Fast Lane: Fixed-Guideway Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail

In a recent post, A Tale of Two Modes, we discussed why gondolas and heavy rail aren’t being considered for future high-capacity transit service as part of Project Connect’s regional transit system plan.

Now, we want to talk about two types of transit we ARE considering for Project Connect.

“What is Fixed-Guideway Bus Rapid Transit?”

A step up from Capital Metro’s MetroRapid service, Fixed-guideway Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is designed to operate much like a rail service, travelling in its own lanes and providing frequent service – every 10-30 minutes. It’s faster than traditional and rapid bus service both because the stops are placed approximately ½ to 2 miles apart, so it makes fewer stops, and because it operates in dedicated lanes, uninterrupted by other traffic. Yes, you read that right: No getting stuck in traffic! Because fixed-guideway BRT moves a lot of people, at a greater frequency in its own lanes, it is considered a high-capacity transit mode.International standards are different and designate bronze, silver or gold status to a BRT service depending on the percentage of the dedicated lane it uses.

HealthLine-Cleveland
International standards are different and designate bronze, silver or gold status to a BRT service depending on the percentage of the dedicated lane it uses. Cleveland’s Healthline is the highest-rated BRT in the U.S. according to international standards. (photo courtesy of nacto.org)

To develop this type of service, however, Capital Metro must first secure right-of-way to locate and install the definitive dedicated lanes. What seems simple – changing a lane of an existing road into a dedicated transit lane – takes more than just a new coat of paint. Just as we did to construct transit-priority lanes for MetroRapid, Capital Metro would need to work with regional transportation partners like the city of Austin and TxDOT to develop inter-agency plans to secure the right-of-way, all while ensuring that other forms of transportation still have safe and efficient use of surrounding lanes.

Fixed-guideway BRT stations can be designed and built to include safe drop-off/pickup and waiting zones for riders. Stations on major roadways can be built above road-level.

“Why are you considering Fixed-guideway BRT instead of Light Rail?”

A lot of you want to see Capital Metro add sleek, innovative modes to its transit mix and feel that BRT buses don’t fit the bill.

Fixed-guideway BRT and Light Rail share some of the same qualities: Both operate in dedicated lanes, connect local activity centers and feature stops approximately ½ to 2 miles apart.

While BRT buses are flexible and can easily travel on winding roadways, light rail trains demand straighter tracking. Other key differences are the building and maintenance costs. Light rail requires performing major excavation, building an electrified track, having a constant electrical supply, constructing sub-stations, installing overhead wires and buying and maintaining more expensive vehicles. Cha-ching! Fixed-guideway BRT is a lot less expensive.

Green Line UtahTransit Authority TRAX
Utah Transit Authority’s TRAX Green Line train at Gallivan Plaza. (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Even so, light rail can carry many more passengers than BRT. So, if all the required resources are available – the corridor has enough demand (read: LOTS of people in densely developed areas) and is a “straight shot” between activity centers, land can be dedicated and converted to tracking, electricity is in constant supply, ample funding is available and the public has voted to support the project (see Texas Transportation Code Section 451.3625) – light rail can be part of Project Connect’s regional high-capacity transit system.

The bottom line: The Project Connect team is considering fixed-guideway BRT and light rail where appropriate.

11 thoughts on “Life in the Fast Lane: Fixed-Guideway Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail

  1. mdahmus

    When BRT is built to the same standard as LRT, i.e., with a fully dedicated lane running in the median, it performs 80% as well but costs 90% as much in capital cost and 110-150% as much in operating cost.

    That’s why that’s not really being proposed here. What’s being floated instead, in the hopes you won’t notice the difference, is an extension of downtown’s “right turns + transit only” lanes up the Drag and maybe further. Those really WOULD be cheap, at least in capital costs, but arguably aren’t enough to qualify as BRT; and aren’t anywhere near 80% as good as LRT.

    1. Capital Metro

      Hi Mike,
      As noted in the article, fixed-guideway BRT, by definition, would have fully-dedicated lanes. We’re aiming for a connected high-capacity system with fully-dedicated lanes or guideways, and not segments of “priority” lanes as are in use with MetroRapid. ^AP

      1. mdahmus

        Then it is misleading to assert substantial cost savings on the capital side for BRT. By far, the largest expense in either center-running BRT or center-running LRT will be digging up the roadbed and rebuilding it to support the weight of the vehicles and to reorganize the lanes. A BRT vehicle requires a new roadbed to the same depth that an LRT vehicle does; the addition of rails on top and catenary wires is a small additional expense once you have to do that digging anyways.

        1. Capital Metro

          There are several recent light rail and fixed-guideway BRT examples for us to use when developing cost estimates. Don’t forget to factor in the costs associated with running each service (like electricity), maintaining each service and vehicle costs for each. ^AP

  2. Susan Pantell

    The conclusion does not reflect the rest of the article, which argues for BRT over light rail. A comparison of the two modes should include the benefits of each, not only the costs.

    1. Capital Metro

      Hi Susan,
      As the article states, we’re actually considering BOTH light rail and fixed-guideway BRT, where appropriate. Soon, we’ll be asking the public to weigh in on what types of transit they’d like to see along particular corridors. We’d be remiss, though, if we didn’t present the general benefits, costs, limitations, etc. of each, or remind people that any rail projects must be supported by public vote. ^AP

  3. If it’s center-running and fully dedicated (no turns) it’s certainly a start!

    If you mean right-hand bus lanes that are also turn lanes, that’s a nonstarter. I think and hope you’ll hear that loud and clear from the MCAC tomorrow.

    1. Capital Metro

      As noted in the article, fixed-guideway BRT, by definition, would have fully-dedicated lanes. We’re aiming for a connected high-capacity system with dedicated (not “priority”) lanes or guideways. ^AP

  4. If light rail, in dedicated running center lanes, isn’t being planned (not just considered) for Guadalupe and North Lamar (from Republic Square to Crestview Station, and further north – to Interstate 35 at some point), where we’ve known for 40-years it needs to go, and there is the necessary population and jobs densities; then I have to say, somewhat boldly and in warning – Capital Metro planners haven’t been listening to light rail advocates and risk failure in their planning efforts and defeat in any necessary referendums for public monies.

  5. Capital Metro

    Hi Andrew,
    You may want to check out ProjectConnect.com to understand the planning process we are currently engaged in, with the goal of developing a connected high-capacity transit system for the region. The plan we are in the process of developing is not for just one corridor — it will be a plan for a transit system.

    Instead of starting this project with yet another transit study, we began by taking 30 recent regional transit corridor studies, completed by a variety of fellow transportation agencies, and asked the public to tell us where they’d like to see future transit. This helped us focus on a specific set of corridors for further consideration. (Kind of like the “American Idol” of transit)

    Currently, we’re determining what types of transit are possible (per considerations like environmental concerns, land-use, etc.) for each of the prioritized corridors. We’ll soon ask the public to tell us what kinds of transit they’d prefer for each corridor. As noted in the article and in the response above, we’re aiming for a connected high-capacity system with dedicated (not “priority”) lanes or guideways.

    We’ll then determine how much the preferred modes on the preferred corridors will cost. This will help us determine what resources exist to pay for each element of the Project Connect transit plan.

    But, as you may be aware, any rail projects must be approved by voters. Public support will be crucial to determining whether or not the future transit system includes rail. ^AP

  6. Novacek

    So what happens with the remaining (non-RT) buses?

    Would they also be using the dedicated transit lanes, either BRT or LRT (even if they’re center running)?

    Today I can ride the 803 from north of downtown, through campus, to south of downtown. If dedicated transit lanes are (for instance) added to Guadalupe, does that now become a 3-seat ride?

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