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Rapid Ride’s adequacy a key issue in BRT debate

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

It’ll mimic light rail, only on rubber wheels.

Passengers could board every 10 minutes and take “bus rapid transit” up and down Central Avenue in new buses that communicate with traffic lights to smooth their way.

Sound familiar?

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That’s how then-Mayor Martin Chávez pitched the “Rapid Ride” bus system a dozen years ago. The red articulated buses are now a staple of mass transit in Albuquerque.

But now a new mayor is pushing bus rapid transit, or BRT.

Mayor Richard Berry has made bringing BRT to Central Avenue a centerpiece of his transportation strategy.

Opponents say Albuquerque already has it.

Berry, however, is pitching a whole new project – a $100 million, 10-mile redesign of Central Avenue that would provide a new bus system with its own dedicated lanes, bus stations in the middle of the roadway and expanded sidewalks and landscaping.

A rendering shows bus lanes and a passenger station in the middle of Central Avenue near Atrisco under a transit initiative pursued by Mayor Richard Berry

A rendering shows bus lanes and a passenger station in the middle of Central Avenue near Atrisco under a transit initiative pursued by Mayor Richard Berry. (Courtesy Of City Of Albuquerque)

What the city has now, his administration contends, isn’t full bus rapid transit.

“It’s what I would call old-school BRT,” said Dayna Crawford, deputy director of ABQ Ride, the city’s transit department. “Yes, it was remarkably successful, but it’s at capacity. It’s at standing-room only.

“What we’re moving toward is a modern transportation system to complete the growth of our community.”

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Critics, however, question whether the upgrades are worth the investment, given the presence of Rapid Ride.

Former Mayor Chávez, for example, says Albuquerque already has the components of BRT that make sense for the city. He always viewed BRT as an intermediate step on the way to a fancier form of mass transit, such as a modern streetcar or light rail, which he says would trigger broad private investment by developers.

“When bus rapid transit is fully built out, it’s very pretty, just like our Rapid Ride is very pretty,” Chávez said, “but it doesn’t necessarily attract more riders.”

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Rating Rapid Ride

National transportation groups offer different opinions on whether Rapid Ride qualifies as bus rapid transit.

Dennis Hinebaugh of the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute in Tampa, Fla., said his agency adopts a broad definition of BRT. Albuquerque’s Rapid Ride, he said, sounds like it would qualify, but at the lower end of the scale.

Chris Van Eyken at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York City said he wouldn’t consider Albuquerque’s Rapid Ride a BRT system.

Bus rapid transit must include dedicated lanes for buses only in the center of the roadway, boarding stations level with the floor of the bus, coordination with traffic lights and collection of bus fare before people enter the vehicle – all elements that allow the bus system to move passengers quickly, he said.

Albuquerque’s Rapid Ride buses don’t normally have their own dedicated lanes, and they allow passengers to pay bus fare after they get on. Bus stops are on the side of the road, not the center, and the buses don’t currently coordinate with traffic lights, according to the city.

But Berry’s proposal would meet the BRT requirements outlined by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

Van Eyken said his agency recommends bus rapid transit because it can be built relatively quickly and carry the same passenger loads as more expensive options.

“It’s very cost effective,” he said. “It costs a few times less than light rail.”

Seeking funding

Mayor Richard Berry

BERRY: Pitching a whole new project

Whether Berry will ever launch the new BRT system isn’t clear. The city is seeking about $80 million in federal funding to pay for it. The remainder would come from local sources, including $13 million already approved by the City Council.

Operating it would cost about $2 million a year, though the city could seek federal funding for that, too.

A decision on federal funding is expected by early next year.

If all goes well, city officials have said they hope people are boarding the new buses by September 2017.

The buses would have their own dedicated lanes along Central Avenue from Louisiana to Coors, though they’d actually travel farther out to Tramway and Unser during their rounds and up Louisiana to Uptown.


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