Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Congestion pricing failure may delay BRT; Flatbush route not yet on the agenda

The failure of congestion pricing threw a bit of a wrench in the city's plans for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), suggested as one solution to congestion on Flatbush Avenue, but now apparently several years away.

Though Flatbush is an obvious candidate for such service--which would have a dedicated express lane, fewer stops, offsite payment and "honor system" entrance (subject to random check), staggered stoplights, and back boarding, according to the city's pilot in the Bronx--another obvious candidate, Nostrand Avenue, was selected in 2006 for one-per-borough pilot project. It looks to be about four years away, however.

(Here's the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's site on the service, though the map for a proposed Flatbush Avenue route, at right, is no longer available.)

The PlaNYC 2030 Progress Report issued last week explains the fate of BRT, now dubbed Special Bus Service (SBS):
The first SBS corridor, on Fordham Road in the Bronx, is set to begin service in June 2008. The remaining four SBS services had been planned to start over the next few years, but relied on federal funds contingent on congestion pricing. The City is now pursuing additional funding sources, but the SBS projects may be delayed by the loss of Federal funds.


(Nearly one-third of the $354 million in federal funds was to go to BRT, according to an essay last week in Gotham Gazette. Map from MTA's Project Update.)

A PlaNYC "scorecard" clarifies that the other four SBS services are planned to be introduced by 2011. That's likely too late to start up a Flatbush Avenue version by 2010, the unreliable official target date for opening the Atlantic Yards arena, or even 2011, which I consider the likely best-case scenario.

Brooklyn BRT in 2012?

In fact, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority contradicts the PlaNYC document, estimating on its SBS FAQ page that the Nostrand Avenue route would be implemented in 2012. Though that's subject to change, it's a good bet that a Flatbush Avenue route would be at least a year after that.

Would that be in time for an AY arena? Then again, developer Forest City Ratner has six years--after the close of litigation and the transfer of property via eminent domain--to build the arena without penalty.

(Slide at right and two similar slides below from Re-imagining Bus Service in New York: Select Bus Service and the Better Bus Program, by Janette Sadik- Khan, Commissioner, NYC DOT and Howard H. Roberts, Jr., President, MTA NYC.)

Funding available?

Is there money? The scorecard explains:
This program was previously funded through the Urban Partnership Agreement (UPA) between the City and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Since these funds were contingent on approval of congestion pricing by the State Legislature before April 7 2007, DOT and the MTA are now pursuing federal New Starts funding to implement these corridors.


Is it really rapid?

What's BRT? The Tri-State Transportation Campaign has a comprehensive web site that covers its implementation in several cities. Note that Curitiba, Brazil, and Bogotá, Colombia are among the leaders in this effort.

The city's use of the term Special Bus Service, which may be more accurate than Bus Rapid Transit, has been targeted by some critics; blogger Cap'n Transit points out that "the primary factor is right-of-way, and the single most important feature is physical separation of the right-of-way."

Also, the city and MTA are not yet ready to use buses with extra doors specifically designed for BRT.

BRT for Flatbush

Several commentators on the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement, including project supporters like Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, advocated that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) be implemented along Flatbush Avenue to help cope with the inevitable crowding further exacerbated by the Atlantic Yards project.

The Empire State Development Corporation, in response, pointed out that Nostrand Avenue, not Flatbush, had been selected for the Brooklyn pilot:
Though studied, there are no present plans to implement a pilot bus rapid transit program along Flatbush Avenue. The proposed project, including the proposed lay-by lanes adjacent to the arena block, is not expected to preclude the installation of bus rapid transit lanes or stops should they be considered in the future….

More routes needed

In a Gotham Gazette essay last week headlined Bridging New York's Transit Gap, Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development described an expanded version of BRT--including a Flatbush Avenue route--as an equity issue, helping poorer New Yorkers in areas not served by subways to lessen their lengthy commutes to work:
BRT will create an efficient no-transfer option for hundreds of thousands of people whose mobility is now limited to the radius a conventional bus can cover at a speed of 7.9 miles per hour.
(Click to enlarge map)

She adds:
Meanwhile, a small but growing number of transit advocates and riders who know what BRT is are clamoring for more routes. COMMUTE! (Communities United for Transportation Equity), a coalition of community groups coordinated by the Pratt Center for Community Development, wants the BRT routes to cross bridges and connect the boroughs, making buses a more serious complement to the subway system.


She concludes:
With both the one-time shot of federal funding and the projected $500 million per year in net revenues from congestion pricing off the table for the moment, BRT may be more important than ever. The MTA Capital Plan has, in words of Straphangers Campaign spokesman Gene Russianoff, "more hole than plan," with less than $12 billion of a five-year, $29 billion shopping list accounted for. As the rail and subway projects envisioned in that plan recede into the future, BRT makes more sense than ever. It will not prevent us from building light rail or subways in the future, but for now it makes intelligent use of the infrastructure we already have - our streets.

Indeed, COMMUTE! advocates a much more aggressive program, calling BRT "An Affordable Solution for Transit-Starved Communities":
Launch as many BRT routes as possible, as quickly as possible. Five routes are not enough, and neighborhoods with high concentrations of people with long commutes should be the priority for BRT.


And here's a critique of the COMMUTE! plan, from the blogger Cap'n Transit.

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