Opinion: Bus rapid transit can work on Long Island

"With Long Island still in the midst of

"With Long Island still in the midst of an economic recovery, the region can't move fast enough on projects that put people to work -- and get them there," write Sam Handle and Ryan Lynch. (Credit: Sara Schwartz)

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While Suffolk County considers taking another look at its bus service, there's another transit story gaining speed on Long Island. Bus rapid transit, also known as BRT, is an increasingly popular public transportation solution in an era of growing congestion and tight budgets, and it could arrive on Long Island soon.

The technology is simple and every facet saves commuters time: comfortable, modern vehicles travel in dedicated bus lanes, providing a smooth and pleasant ride. Instead of paying on board, riders buy tickets at station kiosks, eliminating the time bus drivers spend idling while they wait for customers to find exact change. Advanced signal technology allows drivers to hold green lights for their buses and reduces wait times at reds. Real-time bus tracking lets commuters know if they've got a minute to pack a lunch before they head to their stop.

When you add all of this together, BRT is both a drastic improvement for existing bus riders and a reason for car drivers to start taking transit. After a BRT line in Eugene, Ore., went into service, average vehicle speeds rose by more than 30 percent, and ridership went up by 74 percent over four years. On Long Island, where traffic is a fact of life, there's no telling how many hours of aggravation a well-planned BRT system could prevent.

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Just as bus rapid transit saves commuters time, it can save taxpayers money. Building a new rail line can be expensive, but BRT can be installed at a relatively low cost. Across the country, basic systems have been built for as little as $135,000 per mile, and state-of-the-art ones have been built for around $7 million per mile.

Early estimates for a BRT system on Long Island's Route 110, running about 12 miles from Copiague to Huntington Station, pegged the cost at $37 million. By comparison, when a 12.1-mile light rail line in Denver finishes construction in 2013, it will have cost $707 million. It's important to note the federal government often helps foot the bill for these transit projects; BRT systems have received more than a billion dollars in federal grants since the 2005 fiscal year.

BRT networks create jobs and spur economic development, even after the builders' contracts are gone. While system construction brings thousands of jobs, the real story is that BRT stops can become mixed-use development hubs for people who want to live, work and shop in areas that are accessible without automobiles. Even before Connecticut's CTfastrak BRT line began construction, millions of dollars of investment poured into areas near its future stations. Cleveland's BRT system helped attract more than $4 billion in investment in residential, commercial and retail development along route.

Finally, bus rapid transit systems are flexible. Attractive, permanent BRT stations let business owners and home buyers know that the investment is there to stay, but the system can easily adapt to changing development patterns, since it's not locked into a set of railroad tracks. If a mixed-use development turns out to need transit service, it's easy to add the site to the existing line or add a high-speed feeder route. Both can be accomplished by turning an existing traffic lane into one for buses, or having buses run in general traffic for a short stretch. Particularly on Long Island, where a north-south transit connection would present a wide range of development opportunities, such adaptability is an asset.

Tomorrow morning, Tri-State Transportation Campaign will host a symposium on bus rapid transit at Suffolk County's H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge. In collaboration with local and state politicians and numerous local advocacy groups, we are bringing together regional and national experts to discuss BRT's power to move people, attract investment and create jobs. With Long Island still in the midst of an economic recovery, the region can't move fast enough on projects that put people to work -- and get them there.

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