Metro Transit bus garage

A row of Madison Metro buses parked at the bus garage at 1101 E. Washington Ave. The first phase of a bus rapid transit study kicks off Wednesday at an open house meeting at the Central Library from 6 to 8 p.m.

Madison is beginning to study how bus rapid transit could be implemented to accommodate the current and future transportation needs of residents.

City transportation director Thomas Lynch said Madison is unable to meet all of its transportation needs and increasing the opportunities for public transit and biking are needed.

“We are moving from a big little city to a little big city, so in order to do that, we need a high mobility transit background,” Lynch said.

Bus rapid transit, or BRT,  is a “key component” of Madison’s transportation plan for the next decade, Lynch said. The first phase of the study kicks off Wednesday at an open house meeting at the Central Library from 6 to 8 p.m.

Bus rapid transit is a transit system that offers fewer stops, faster and more direct service and larger vehicles to transport more riders. BRT systems feature separate lanes and traffic signal priority to increase efficiency, high capacity vehicles with amenities like wireless internet access and enhanced transit stations with pre-pay ticket machines.

The Madison Area Transportation Planning Board most recently studied BRT in a 2013 report, which found that ride times to the Capitol Square could be reduced by up to 35 percent with a BRT system. Lynch said the 2013 report is a “building block” for the city’s current BRT work.

“The momentum is growing for BRT and employees, residents and elected officials are seeing this needs to become our priority,” Lynch said.

If implemented in Madison, BRT would complement existing bus routes, help alleviate overcrowding and improve travel times. Routes are anticipated to run every 10 minutes during weekday peak periods, every 15 minutes midday and every 30 minutes in the evening.

“The goal is to provide more reliable and faster transit service particularly from the periphery of the city and through the city,” said David Trowbridge, BRT project manager.

Trowbridge said Madison plans to be aggressive in building out the city's transit capacity to avoid mistakes made by cities like Austin, Texas, which he said did not react swiftly to its growing population in the 1990s.

“We can’t build any more traffic capacity,” Trowbridge said. “We have to make transit the cornerstone.”

The study will be used to develop a plan and initial design for an east-west BRT route. Trowbridge said this route would likely use East Washington Avenue and University Avenue, Whitney Way and Mineral Point Road.

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However, he said navigating through downtown is more challenging.

“Getting through downtown is a big question mark for us because (Capitol Square) is slow and has so many events that 100 days a year, buses are kicked off,” Trowbridge said.

After the plan has been developed, the city will apply for federal funding to finish design and construct the route. City staff have estimated that an initial BRT line could have a capital cost of $50 to $85 million in addition to annual operating costs.

In the past, Madison has been unable to compete for federal funding with larger cities seeking commuter or light rail projects. Trowbridge said he is more confident that Madison would be able to acquire federal funding for BRT.

“BRT seems to really be a good fit for us,” Trowbridge said. “BRT is more for mid sized cities.”

In addition to federal funding, the project would need commitment form the city for local funding. 

The planning study is expected to wrap up in the fall of 2019 with construction of a route possible in 2024. The study will identify station locations, street routes and costs.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.