When former Gov. Larry Hogan canceled the proposed Red Line in 2015, he gave up roughly $900 million in federal funds that would have helped construct a light rail line from western Baltimore County to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Southeast Baltimore.
Transportation planners knew decades before that there was a massive need in Baltimore’s east-west corridor for easy, reliable transit. So when Gov. Wes Moore rekindled the Red Line soon after taking office in January, some thought it would be just a matter of time before commuters were boarding light rail trains and zipping along the corridor.
Or would it?
Though Light Rail (LRT) was selected over Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in the last Record of Decision that Hogan ultimately eliminated, BRT is back on the table again. Some longtime transit advocates bristle at the sheer mention of the word “bus” in the same sentence as the Red Line. But some transportation planners believe that BRT has become sophisticated enough to run just as quickly and reliably as a light rail train.
The next round of Maryland Transit Administration public meetings on the Red Line kicks off Thursday. MTA officials will share the results of data modeling for six potential options — three routes, each with two mode choices — that compare variables like cost, ridership and travel times. The data will all factor into their decisions on a route and mode for the Red Line.
But what exactly is BRT?
With dedicated lanes and guideways, signal priority, and enhanced stations, BRT tries to take the benefits of both rail and bus and mesh them together. Trains worry less about traffic, but are completely fixed routes. Bus routes can be adjusted with ridership demands, but are only as quick as the traffic flow around them.
BRT aims for somewhere in the middle.
Joana Conklin, who leads Montgomery County’s BRT program, said, “We try to get it in its own lane and out of traffic. We’re building nice stations so that you get that kind … train station — or light rail station — feeling even though it’s a bus. We’re speeding up the payment process.”
“The whole experience is really simulating what you might get on a light rail … except at a much, much lower cost,” Conklin added.
Montgomery County’s Flash service is one of dozens of BRT systems across the country. It now has just one line that runs along Route 29 between Columbia Mall and Silver Spring, but the county has plans for a much vaster network.
Some of the lower cost comes from relying on infrastructure that’s already built, Conklin said. Though BRT requires new signaling and curbs or lane walls to section off its dedicated right of way, it saves money by not requiring the laying and welding of steel. Also, Montgomery County is running out of space to build new roads.
“There was a realization that if we’re going to add capacity, we’re going to have to try to do it to the extent possible within the infrastructure that we already have,” said Conklin. “And if we want to support the growth [of the county], we really have … to find ways to entice people to take transit because we can’t accommodate more and more cars as the county continues to develop.”
Finding one definition of BRT can be difficult, because not all BRT systems have the same features, said Corey Pitts, a planner who works alongside Conklin. Though dedicated lanes and signal priority are two of the most common features, Pitts said, systems vary depending on the full menu of features and just how much buses must compete with other traffic.
Pitts noted that “context always matters” — different transportation corridors call for different transit solutions. Pitts and Conklin think BRT works in Montgomery County because its lower cost will allow for construction of a roughly 100-mile network that connects outer suburbs with Washington’s subway system and the future Purple Line light rail.
But would it work in Baltimore? Some local community leaders and transit advocates aren’t buying the arguments in favor of rapid bus lines.
“Said plainly, there is no such thing as bus rapid [emphasis added] transit in the downtown of an older Northeastern city,” Jonathan Sacks of HUB West Baltimore wrote in an email to The Baltimore Banner. “It doesn’t work in cities like ours — lights can’t be timed, buses can’t be properly segregated. And even if you partially segregate them, you then lose the flexibility needed in a busy city to maneuver around unforeseen obstacles.”
There’s also the risk of ‘BRT Creep’, Sacks argued. When systems cut corners and skimp on the menu of features that Pitts referenced, it can lead to subpar service.
Sacks is one of the minds behind Smart Line, a proposal to expand Baltimore’s Metro subway tunnel. He believes connecting the West Baltimore MARC station to Bayview Medical Center by extending the existing Metro tunnel would cost less than building an entirely new one to handle light rail or BRT. And BRT could extend out in a network from the western and eastern edges of the new Metro lines where there’s far less density, he said.
Given its estimated $3 billion price tag, Sacks thinks that a new tunnel will be a non-starter for federal officials whose support will be needed to fund the Red Line. He thinks MTA officials know that.
And he’s not the only one who thinks the MTA is being disingenuous with its six proposed Red Line alternatives. The Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition (BTEC) sent representatives to every summer open house meeting that the MTA conducted along the Red Line corridor — and coalition president Samuel Jordan felt that the open house format allowed false notions about both BRT and LRT to circulate and prevented all attendees from getting the same information. At one meeting, he said, he witnessed an MTA contractor fail to correct one attendee’s assertion that light rail construction would require the state to seize properties through eminent domain.
“The choice will determine whether Baltimore will languish economically adrift [and] hobbled by a largely dysfunctional, unreliable bus-dominant transit system or make the bold, but wisest decision to complete the Red Line LRT project with investments at every level of government,” Jordan wrote in an emailed statement.
In 2005, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority scrapped talk about a subway line in East Cleveland, citing its high price tag. A bus rapid transit line opened in 2008 in its place.
“They call it the granddaddy of them all — it’s ranked silver in the world,” Maribeth Feke, the authority’s director of programming and planning, said of the nearly 7-mile-long HealthLine. The BRT moves east out of downtown Cleveland, utilizing stations along the median of a major thoroughfare and dedicated bus lanes on either side. It ferries riders past Cleveland State University and serves many essential workers employed by the Cleveland Clinic, Feke said.
“It has all the signal priority and preemption that you can muster,” said Feke.
Part of why BRT works along the corridor is the intentional design, Feke said — by making the bus move faster than traffic along the corridor, it encourages people not to drive and to take transit instead, boosting fare box revenue and reducing road congestion.
It also encourages Transit-Oriented Development, or TOD, she said. Though proponents of rail systems often tout TOD as a huge advantage of rail over bus, Feke and Pitts think that when done right, Bus Rapid Transit can foster TOD, too. Feke said that developers have invested $9.5 billion in the Euclid Avenue corridor since the HealthLine opened, including new housing units and additional buildings at the Cleveland Clinic.
“Everyone looks at [TOD] as a way to help support a more urban, walkable, compact style of development around the stations. It’s just instead of metal wheels and rails, we have rubber tires and asphalt,” said Pitts.
In Feke’s eyes, riders are mostly satisfied with HealthLine service and three other BRT lines that her agency added in 2014. But she conceded that more riders in recent years have asked for faster speeds and reliability. Advocacy organization Clevelanders for Public Transit has sounded the alarm on long travel times for years, saying that declining revenue led to service cuts, which led to fewer riders, and in turn more service cuts.
For Sacks, Jordan and others pushing for the Red Line to run on steel instead of asphalt, speed and reliability are synonymous with trains, not buses.
Jordan argues that from a cost/benefit perspective, Light Rail makes more sense than Bus Rapid Transit in the long term. Though BRT vehicles cost much less than light rail cars, they have roughly half the shelf life and are smaller, requiring more operators to carry the same number of passengers.
And though heavy rail is seemingly off the table as an option, Sacks points to MTA’s coming $500 million investment in new rail cars for the Baltimore Metro subway as one more reason to reconsider the Smart Line proposal.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.