Mayoral hopeful and vocal anti-rail candidate Ben Cayetano said at a University of Hawaii forum on Sept. 9 that bus rapid transit, not rail, is the new transportation trend in the U.S.

“BRT — bus rapid transit — is the new thing sweeping the country, OK?” Cayetano said in response to a question about the proposed Honolulu rail project. “Basically, imagine a giant Prius, an electric car with rubber tires on a dedicated lane. That’s sweeping the country today, OK? No city (except Honolulu) is building or is planning to build heavy rail of the kind that the city proposes.”

Is that true?

Bus rapid transit (BRT) is a bus system that’s faster and more efficient than a regular bus line. Often the systems run on a single, dedicated lane and collect fares before people board.

BRT systems are becoming increasingly prevalent in U.S. cities. The Federal Transit Administration awarded grants for BRT systems to a growing number of states this year including Washington, Colorado, and Nevada.

“There is a trend in the U.S.,” said Jeff Hiott, a senior program manager at the American Public Transit Association, a nonprofit organization that advocates for advancing public transportation in the U.S. “Cities are looking more at BRT compared to light rail.”

Hiott noted that while some see BRT as a permanent transportation solution, others are implementing it as a temporary fix for transit woes.

The cost of rail is a key reason that BRT is starting to pick up steam.

“Generally speaking, BRT is a less expensive alternative to light rail,” Hiott said.

“Basically with the fiscal crisis that’s hitting the country, no city can afford heavy rail,” said Annie Weinstock, U.S. country director at the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, which advocates for bus rapid transit systems. “We’re seeing almost no heavy rail projects coming up.”

One exception is the California high speed rail project that would link San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The Honolulu rail project has elements of both light and heavy rail systems, according to Dan Grabauskas, executive director of the Honolulu Rail Transit Authority. Grabauskas told Civil Beat that the steel-on-steel technology seeks to emulate Seattle’s rail service that opened in 2009. Honolulu’s system is projected to cost $5.26 billion.

According to Weinstock, bus rapid transit is a cheaper alternative.

“Bus rapid transit can have all of the benefits of light rail — and in certain cases can have more benefits — at a fraction of the cost,” Weinstock said.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood agreed.

“Bus Rapid Transit provides the benefits of rail transit — faster trips, fewer stops — at lower project costs, and it’s a great solution for many communities,” LaHood wrote in a blog post on June 4.

But that’s not to say bus rapid transit doesn’t have its drawbacks.

“The service will generally be quicker in light rail [if there’s no dedicated bus lane],” Hiott said.

BRT systems can also have more ridership constraints than rail, Hiott added. Some cities are finding that a mix of bus and rail lines is the answer.

Cities that currently have BRT systems include Cleveland, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Eugene and Pittsburg, Weinstock said.

Chicago, New York City and San Francisco have been developing BRT systems, and other cities are in the planning stages.

The U.S. lags behind a global trend toward bus rapid transit systems led by cities like Beijing and Sao Paulo.

BOTTOM LINE: Many cities are adopting bus rapid transit systems in the U.S. But there are still some heavy and light rail projects that are in the mix. Civil Beat finds Cayetano’s statement to be MOSTLY TRUE.

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