Mayor Richard Berry is reluctant to use the B-word when discussing his next big transit priority.
Buses, it’s true, would carry passengers up and down Central Avenue, but the mayor says “bus rapid transit” is more than just a bus.
He and other supporters describe it as a system akin to a subway or light rail, but far cheaper and on rubber wheels. The idea is gathering momentum, with City Hall and the Mid-Region Council of Governments mapping out potential routes.
“It’s time for Albuquerque to take the next logical step in public transportation,” Berry said in a recent interview, “and I think the smart money is on BRT.”
The concept is in its earliest stages. Neither the city nor Council of Governments would provide cost estimates yet, though each said it would seek federal funding, which could cover half to 80 percent of the construction cost.
Bus rapid transit involves creating a dedicated lane for express buses, allowing them to bypass traffic congestion and move at a constant speed. They could run down the middle of the road – replacing the median – or along the side of the street.
Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins said she loves the concept, especially as a way to relieve congestion in the university area.
“It has most of the benefits of light rail but about a quarter of the cost,” she said.
Under Berry, the city is designing a 17-mile route that would provide bus rapid transit along Central Avenue from Tramway, at the eastern edge of the city, to 98th Street, on the West Side. Berry said he hopes to open the first segment before his term ends in 2017.
One possibility would be to start with a five- or six-mile route from Nob Hill through Downtown and up to Atrisco Drive, just west of the river.
The Mid-Region Council of Governments is studying the possibility of a route that runs from the airport to Menaul, with stops near the University of New Mexico, Central New Mexico Community College, Isotopes Park and UNM health centers. There’s no timeline for that project yet, but the council is seeking public comment on a study it completed.
The COG and city routes would be linked.
“You have a lot of assets that are important not just to local residents but to the state as a whole” in that corridor, said Tony Sylvester, project manager for the Council of Governments. “… This is the largest activity center in the city of Albuquerque, the region and, in all likelihood, the state.”
The idea appears to have some bipartisan appeal, both from Berry, a Republican, and Democrats on the City Council and County Commission, who are involved in the Council of Governments.
Hart Stebbins, a Democrat, said bus rapid transit holds promise as a strategy to accommodate growth in the university area.
“There’s not much more capacity for getting more cars in there,” she said, “but BRT is a cost-effective way of getting people in and out conveniently.”
Berry views it as a way to boost Downtown, improve access to higher education and promote development in the city core. The city has already changed land-use regulations to allow for denser development along mass-transit routes, he said.
“People will invest around where these stops are,” Berry said.
Berry won election in 2009 after campaigning against the idea of a modern streetcar system down Central, but that idea was far more expensive, he said.
Bus rapid transit costs “pennies on the dollar” compared with light rail, Berry said. It’s a “75 percent off sale,” he said.
It’s unclear how much bus rapid transit would cost in Albuquerque or how it would be paid for. The most expensive estimates are about $25 million a mile, though some cost far less, according to a transit district in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Berry said the city could bring in tens of millions of dollars from the federal government to help. The Federal Transit Administration has authorized the city to move forward with the next step of the project – the development phase, essentially designing where the lanes would fit on Central.
City consultants, paid for with federal funds, will spend the next year on that work, which will make it clearer how much the construction would cost and provide a recommended alignment within Central, city officials said.
The city’s share of the construction cost could come from special revenue bonds, Berry said, similar to how Albuquerque contributed to the reconstruction of the interchange at Paseo del Norte and Interstate 25. In that case, the city set aside $3 million in its operating budget, allowing it to make annual payments on the $50 million debt.
There would also be a cost to operate the bus rapid transit system.
City Councilor Isaac Benton said the operating cost in the university area might be absorbed or offset by contributions from UNM, CNM and the city’s regular bus system. Existing city bus routes or shuttles operated by the university might be supplanted, freeing up money, he said.
“I think it’d be a good investment,” Benton said.