After less troublesome route launches in the suburbs, two new King County Metro RapidRide routes in Seattle have caused no small number of headaches in the wake of their September launch. While the West Seattle-downtown C Line's problems have mostly been ironed out, the companion D Line, between the city center and Ballard, continues to be less than rapid. It has contended with everything from dubiously indirect routing via Queen Anne to high technology that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.
“They have no integration with Google Transit,” Ballard resident Dennis Galvin said, by way of example. Even Metro's own trip planner, he added, hasn't caught up with the new bus. In the case of two recent routine morning-commute itineraries, Galvin was right: in neither case was RapidRide presented as an option. One query elicited an itinerary for the Ballard-to-downtown Route15 express bus instead. That's helpful, since the 15 express is faster in any event, taking 18-21 minutes to get the morning commuter from NW Market and 15th Ave. to Third and Pike. The D line takes 23 minutes for the same trip, according to Metro’s own published schedule.
Even that may be a bit optimistic. Both Galvin and Ballard District Council chairwoman Catherine Weatbrook have put the D Line's actual time much higher, at about 40 minutes.
Over in West Seattle, according to neighborhood activist Chas Redmond, the C Line RapidRide's birthing pains, which included a range of technology lapses, have “settled down,” and the bus is now providing service generally faster than its predecessors.
Metro has listened to the neighborhood's dissatisfactions, he said, and “West Seattle has been very insistent.”
The pity is that the shaky start in West Seattle,and the shakier launch in Ballard, have taken the sheen off bus rapid transit (BRT) in the Emerald City, when in fact BRT may a very good idea.
To begin with, RapidRide is arguably not true BRT, whose premise is elegance itself: to re-engineer every element of urban bus travel to get travelers to their destinations faster. The bus assumes as many characteristics as possible of an urban metro train or subway. In particular, true BRT uses a dedicated, exclusive lane or a completely separate right-of-way, or busway. Running on existing arterials, as RapidRide largely does, dilutes the idea's potential.
Without the cost of adding exclusive RapidRide lanes, the implementation of the service was cheap by transit standards — about $4 million a mile to launch.True BRT is orders of magnitude more expensive. The most comparable estimate, for BRT originating in Bellevue’s central business district, put the cost at $107.5 to $147.5 million per mile, according to a 2005 Sound Transit study. Along the I-405 corridor from Lynnwood to SeaTac Airport, a 2003 WSDOT study estimated that BRT would cost between $13 and $33 million per mile.
The implementation costs of light rail over the same Bellevue route came in at $135 to $185 million per mile, according to the same ST study, and would attract an estimated additional 2,000 daily riders.
Higher capital costs often go hand-in-hand with substantially lower operating costs, however: Pay more and you get something better. The limited federal data available on BRT indicate that it costs $1.20 per passenger-mile, on average, to operate, as compared with $0.80 per passenger-mile for light-rail. Generally, Seattle's operating numbers for transit fall slightly below national averages.
The speed factor may be a different story. A 2001 national survey from the General Accounting Office, “Bus Rapid Transit Shows Promise,” found that BRT was faster than light rail in Denver and four of five other metropolitan areas that offered both modes of transit. In Denver the BRT line in question ran in a dedicated lane down I-25 and achieved a scheduled speed, the study stated, more than three times that of the light-rail line run by the same agency, the Regional Transportation District (RTD).
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