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Corridor plans could yield new traffic law, but buses might not benefit as promised

Tuesday, December 13, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Mayor Steve Adler’s sales pitch for his successful $720 million transportation bond promised the creation of new bus pullouts along major city corridors so that, in his words, “cars can keep on going when the bus pulls over.”

Transit advocates and the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority countered that notion with concerns that endless platoons of zooming vehicles would pin buses inside the pullouts, thus kneecapping City Council’s directive to staff to use the bond money both to ease congestion and improve transit operations.

According to a key post-election document, one answer to those anxieties could come in the form of a new city ordinance, or possibly even a state law, that would require drivers to yield to buses attempting to re-enter the flow of traffic.

In the corridor improvement program’s request for qualifications from consultant firms, the official scope of services notes that the job could potentially entail “develop(ing) a City ordinance and/or pursu(ing) a Texas state law assigning right-of-way to buses/transit vehicles at bus pullout locations comparable to legislation in other cities, states, and/or any other locations.”

That charge is listed as part of an optional fifth set of services that city staff may ask the consultant to assist them with, only after the first four phases have been delivered. Those phases include developing the corridor construction program, figuring out a road map for completing the massive public works project in under eight years, plotting the public involvement plan and ensuring that minority- and women-owned contracting firms have a seat at the table.

Austin Transportation Department Assistant Director Gordon Derr told the Austin Monitor that the proposed yield-to-bus rule is one of several options under consideration to help buses ease out of pullouts after loading and unloading passengers.

“We could put supplemental traffic signals at those locations and actually stop the traffic with a signal to let the bus back in. But that’s a pretty expensive option,” said Derr.

As the RFQ notes, other states and cities have laws on their books that reserve the right-of-way for transit vehicles leaving pullouts. However, the implementation of those laws has varied, and the details have at times been tricky.

In 2011, a study of Florida’s yield-to-bus law, published in the Journal of Public Transportation, observed that the configuration of the infrastructure can have unanticipated results. Three of the seven corridor studies that form the bedrock of Austin’s corridor improvement program envision bus pullouts being installed on the far side of certain intersections, thus allowing buses to clear traffic signals before hitting the stops.

However, the researchers in Florida found that “far-side bus stop locations had the unique problem of being located where drivers would have to yield in the physical area of the intersection to allow buses to enter. Motorists, therefore, never yielded to the bus at a far-side stop unless the bus did not use the pull-out bay, forcing traffic to accumulate behind the bus.”

Derr told the Monitor that city staff will consider a number of existing factors at each potential bus pullout site, including proximity to the intersection, the location of nearby destinations and traffic flow.

“I don’t think we’re going to have one cookie-cutter solution in every case. The outcome that we want is to do what we can to minimize delays for the transit vehicles,” Derr said.

However, a federally funded study in 2003 found no “quantitative data” to prove that existing yield-to-bus laws helped speed up transit operations. The researchers in that endeavor concluded, “A majority of the transit agencies reported some time savings improvements; however, all of their perceptions were anecdotal, primarily from their bus operators.”

Both the 2011 and the 2003 studies concurred that enforcement of the laws appeared to be lacking.

A spokesman for Denver’s Regional Transit District echoed those observations last week, telling the Monitor that enforcement of Colorado’s yield-to-bus law has been “less than robust.” But, he added that “we do not ourselves track or have direct access to numbers of citations issued by the 30-plus law enforcement jurisdictions within the RTD District.”

The Seattle Department of Transportation’s Sue Romero said that enforcement of the state law in her jurisdiction – which calls for a $124 fine for violators – has not been an issue. Instead, she noted, city officials have prioritized keeping unauthorized vehicles out of transit-only lanes and clearing blocked intersections.

As for the utility of a yield-to-bus law, Romero said, “The legal protection helps immensely with bus drivers willing to pull out into traffic in more assertive fashion, while still maintaining safety for the traveling public.”

Despite that bullishness, SDOT has in fact adopted a policy of reducing the number of bus pullouts along city streets. Romero explained the decision as a matter of prioritizing transit over other modes. A recent project that created in-lane stops along one major street helped increase bus ridership on that stretch by 40 percent in just one year, Romero said.

“This project improved safety, increased people throughput and is carrying more vehicle traffic than before,” she explained to the Monitor. “This type of prioritizing transit leads to improved bus reliability and ultimately ridership.”

Faced with their own declining ridership, Capital Metro officials have voiced skepticism of the city’s plans to create new bus pullouts without measures – such as a yield-to-bus law – that would ensure that traffic won’t keep transit vehicles hemmed in.

“As many other jurisdictions at the state and local level have such regulatory provisions, we would be supportive of the same here,” agency spokeswoman Mariette Hummel said. “More broadly, however, we support the guidance and best practices as defined in the (National Association of City Transportation Officials) Transit Street Design Guide, including a preference for ‘in-line’ stops.”

The deadline for consultant firms to respond to the city’s RFQ is this Thursday.

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