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Capital Metro plans for larger, faster bus system

Friday, September 12, 2008 by Mark Richardson

With rail service scheduled to begin in the near future and high fuel prices driving up ridership, Capital Metro is poised to introduce its next big thing in transportation — bus rapid transit service. Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s Vice President of Planning, outlined the Metro Rapid plan for the Council’s Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee last week.


The system, part of Cap Metro’s All Systems Go! Program, utilizes larger buses making fewer stops on runs on major traffic arteries. Initial service will be on the city’s two most heavily traveled corridors: North Lamar/South Congress and Burnet Road/South Lamar. Plans are to eventually have about 10 routes in the MetroRapid system.


“It’s designed to fill the gap between fixed rail service and regular bus service,” Hemingson said. “It has fewer stops and shorter travel times. In some cases, it may have dedicated lanes; in other situations, it will have signal priority at intersections. We will engineer those intersections as the text dictates.”


One of the complaints heard from bus riders, he said, is that they get stuck in heavy traffic and do not run on a reliable schedule. Bus rapid transit solves that by using technology to keep buses moving even when traffic is backed up.


“These buses will have sensors that link up with traffic signals that will allow a few extra seconds of green light to get a bus through, or will signal the bus in a special lane to go before the rest of the traffic,” he said. “Keeping to a schedule is the key.”


These large capacity, articulated buses will use either low-sulphur diesel or a diesel/electric hybrid propulsion system. Buses will have seating for between 40 and 60 passengers. These buses will have low floor-level boarding platforms and specially designed seating.


Hemingson said the system would be designed so that MetroRapid buses run every 10 minutes during peak times and every 15 minutes the rest of the day. MetroRapid stations will be designed to shelter more people at one time, and will have real-time arrival information based on a GPS system that monitors the buses.


He said Capital Metro plans to have MetroRapid service up and running on its first two routes by early 2011. The North Lamar/South Congress route will have 21 stations or stops over a 21-mile route, while the Burnet Road/South Lamar route will have 18 stops over a 16.5-mile route. He said both routes will be at least 20 percent faster than a normal bus route.


Hemingson said Cap Metro planners are working with city officials to determine the best way to route the buses. In some portions of the route, certain lanes – either the outside lanes or lanes running along the median – could be set aside for MetroRapid buses. In other spots, queue jump lanes could allow buses to bypass traffic backups.


“With all the advantages of bus rapid transit, we do have some challenges to overcome,” he said. “Frankly, the public perception of buses is sometimes not very good. There is a concern that dedicated lanes will affect the overall flow of traffic. And building stations that are easy to access can be problematic.”


Funding is another challenge, he said. Capital costs for the initial system, in 2008 dollars, is $47 million. About 80 percent, almost $38 million, would come from federal transportation grants and the rest locally. Operations and maintenance would cost about $9 million a year.

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