The next big thing for local commuters will be “light rail without the rail.” That’s how one Milwaukee County Transit System official describes the enhanced bus service officially known as bus rapid transit (BRT). Starting in 2022, a BRT line will run between Downtown Milwaukee and Wauwatosa’s Milwaukee Regional Medical Center campus.
BRT comes with neither as steep a price tag nor partisan controversy as light rail. Republican opposition doomed proposals for a full-scale light rail system, shrinking it to the city streetcar line now called The Hop. But President Donald Trump personally announced approval of $40.9 million in federal funding for the $54.8 million BRT line, tweeting it would be “bringing modern transit to the region’s most critical corridor and [spurring] millions in economic development.”
What’s so special about BRT? “With the right features, BRT is able to avoid the causes of delay that typically slow regular bus service, like being stuck in traffic and queuing to pay on board,” explains the New York-based Institute for Transportation Development and Policy, which sets BRT standards.
Milwaukee County’s BRT line will use reserved lanes for more than half of its route, with traffic signals adjusted to minimize time at red lights, say David Locher, a transit system staffer; and Dan Basile, the system’s chief operations officer.
The route’s 17 stations will be half a mile apart – about twice as far as average bus stops – and will resemble larger versions of those used by The Hop, with ticket machines to pay in advance and platforms level with bus doors. Its buses will have the feel of light rail vehicles or modern streetcars, with passengers boarding at two doors.
Together, those changes will shorten travel time from the lakefront to Wauwatosa from 37 minutes to 29 minutes, Locher says. That eight-minute savings might not seem like a lot, but it could be the difference between taking the bus and driving for some commuters, he says. Driving between the route’s endpoints – Wisconsin Avenue at Van Buren Street and the Watertown Plank Park and Ride lot – at rush hour takes about 15 minutes using freeways.
But more important than BRT’s time savings will be its reliability, Basile says. He adds that by avoiding traffic delays, BRT features will help buses stay consistently on schedule, providing a dependability that’s crucial to commuters.
All that comes at a cost – more than regular buses, but less than rail transit. Building the 8.6-mile BRT route will cost less than half of the $128.1 million price tag for 2.1 miles of The Hop. Operating the BRT line will cost roughly $725,000 a year more than the GoldLine express route it will replace, Locher says. That includes the costs of expanding other bus lines to cover the GoldLine’s East Side and Brookfield stretches, which are outside the BRT route.
On the plus side, the BRT route is expected to attract more passengers – 9,500 on an average weekday, up from 7,200 for the GoldLine, Locher says. And, he says, because it operates more efficiently, the BRT will be able to run every 10 minutes in peak hours with just nine buses, compared with the 12 buses the GoldLine needs to run every 15 to 18 minutes.
The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission supports BRT on multiple routes to help attract commuters who might otherwise drive, Executive Director Kevin Muhs says. The Wisconsin Policy Forum cited the route as a reason it supports BRT, as it connects the region’s two biggest job centers, following the model of Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT, President Rob Henken says.
Still, some observers have warned of “BRT creep,” in which service is eventually downgraded because of cost considerations. Many previous Milwaukee County express routes were cut back or discontinued in budget cuts. Henken and Muhs agree that could be a future risk.
“The biggest threat to BRT is the threat to MCTS as a whole” – declining fare revenue, stagnant state aid and overall county fiscal pressures, Henken says. “I don’t think there’s any question this is a gamble.”
MILWAUKEE CAME CLOSE to bus rapid transit with its now defunct MetroLink service that carried workers from Downtown and the central city to the Northwest Side and southwest suburbs.
Using a $24 million federal grant, MetroLink debuted in 1992, sporting new transit stations on the Downtown lakefront and the Northwest Side, connecting shuttles and technology to speed express buses through stoplights.
Ridership fell short of expectations, and budget cuts ended the routes in the early 2000s.