Commentary by Tom Farmer

You have no doubt heard opponents of the Durham Orange Light Rail Transit line (DOLRT) claim that bus rapid transit (BRT) could provide the same service at a small fraction of the cost of light rail.

First, what is BRT? It takes many of the things that make riding light rail transit (LRT) attractive, but uses buses in dedicated exclusive roadways. A true BRT system has stations with shelters and raised platforms like LRT.  Fares are paid in advance to speed loading and buses come at regular intervals.  Most importantly, a true BRT system has its own exclusive roadway.  If the bus is stuck in the same traffic with cars, it’s not really BRT.  It’s just a bus.

It is indeed true that BRT lines can cost less to construct than LRT if you already have road lanes you can take away from cars.  The cheapest proposed option for Chapel HIll’s planned North South BRT system costs around $12 million per mile.  However, that plan would save money on construction costs by taking away two travel lanes for motorists along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to create a BRT exclusive roadway.

So why is it wrong to claim we can replace DOLRT for only $200 million with bus rapid transit?  The big reason is that using existing road lanes is not an option for the Durham Orange transit corridor.  Take a drive during rush hour and decide for yourself if we can lose two lanes on NC-54 or 15-501.  Building new roadway for BRT significantly increases the cost. According to the Federal Transit Administration approved alternatives analysis, building BRT along the Durham Orange corridor instead of a light rail train would only be about 30% cheaper.

Once the Bus Rapid Transit system is up and running, those 30% savings on construction costs can vanish quickly.  BRT is less expensive to operate only up to about 2,000 riders per hour.  At that point, light rail becomes cheaper to operate and this cost savings increases with more passengers.  Then come the maintenance costs.  Buses typically wear out after 12 years, but light rail train cars typically last for 30 years.  BRT costs also don’t include dedicated maintenance facilities like LRT.  Factor in the potential for rising diesel fuel costs and the BRT system can easily become more expensive than the train after only a few years of service.

There is yet another financial benefit of choosing light rail that is not factored into the construction and operating costs.  Light rail lines have a proven track record of spurring tax-paying private investment, typically generating 4 times the economic development than the original construction cost.  Visit Charlotte, where they are doubling their light rail investment, to see the new development for yourself.  Unfortunately, BRT doesn’t spur the same kind of economic growth as light rail. The meager construction cost savings in building BRT is easily lost in the diminished economic growth and tax revenue light rail generates.

BRT can only approach the capacity of light rail by increasing the frequency of service which impacts other traffic with increased at grade crossings. Even so, BRT also has lower peak capacity than light rail. Further, solving the capacity overload can prove more expensive than building light rail in the first place.  Consider the cautionary tale of Los Angeles’ Metro Orange line, the 18-mile BRT line that opened in 2005 along an abandoned railroad corridor for its dedicated roadway. With over 28,000 boardings each weekday, the Orange Line BRT has reached its capacity and is now considering a $1.7 billion conversion to LRT, a cost far higher than simply building LRT in the first place.

There is a role to play for BRT in our regional transit plan.  However, as the anchor of a transit corridor that links 3 major medical centers, 55,000 university students, 100,000 jobs, and two fast growing urban environments, a system based on buses isn’t up to the job.

So, can we really replace the efficiency and capacity of Durham Orange Light Rail with $200 million of BRT?  Sit in traffic on NC 54 or 15-501 and you will realize that it’s not even close.