Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway really wants Madison residents to ride the bus, and on Wednesday she announced a more than $200 million initiative to make public transportation a better option for more people.
Named Metro Forward, the initiative includes a number of investments in Madison’s transit system, including greater weekend service, more routes to south side educational institutions, additional subsidized bus passes, electric vehicles and improved bus garages.
It also includes Bus Rapid Transit, a hallmark of the mayor’s campaign and a stated priority of her administration.
“We can’t have a superhighway through the isthmus and gridlock through the rest of the city.” Rhodes-Conway said. “We need to get ahead of this growth now and build a modern, rapid infrastructure that lifts our growing economy.”
Bus Rapid Transit is a system that uses dedicated lanes, modern platforms and pre-paid ticketing systems to get people reliable to their destination faster. It is also expensive.
At a public input session Aug. 29, officials announced that Madison’s BRT options have an estimated cost of between $120 and $130 million for initial capital building costs. The city is pursuing several funding sources for the project’s local share of the cost.
Sun Prairie Mayor Paul Esser supports the project. Madison Metro just began serving the city of Sun Prairie three weeks ago.
“Sun Prairie is totally supportive of the BRT system, and we want to be a partner in that as it develops,” Esser said.
Madison will also be pursuing a federal grant called Small Starts in the fall to fund BRT. The Small Starts grant is is a requirement of the Federal Transit Administration to continue planning for BRT. Rhodes-Conway said the federal grant is “critical” to the success of BRT and she is “hopeful” Madison will be successful.
“This is a top priority for my administration,” Rhodes-Conway said. “Metro Forward is a critical investment in our transportation, our economy and most importantly, in our community.”
In the coming years, Dane County will be expanding the Dane County Regional Airport. Executive Joe Parisi said the expansion will provide an opportunity to be a part of BRT infrastructure.
“We’re committed to multimodal transportation,” Parisi said.
Partnerships will be critical to the success of Metro Forward, Parisi said. A number of leaders from local schools, businesses, environmental and social justice communities joined Rhodes-Conway and Parisi.
“It’s really great to see all of the people here who are coming together to do the hard work that we need to do to ensure that as our community grows and thrives that we don’t spend more and more of our time sitting on University Avenue, Odana Road, the Beltline, you name it,” Parisi said.
Improving transportation will help address racial and economic inequalities in Madison, leaders said. Currently, people of color and those who are low-income experience longer travel times and transfer more.
Vanessa McDowell, CEO of YWCA Madison, said the organization has been operating its own ride system to pick up where Metro ended, but many people have been on waiting lists for the program.
“This is an opportunity to meet those needs,” McDowell said.
Faster, efficient and reliable transportation will also improve the ability of Madison residents to get to their jobs and school, leaders said.
Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon said BRT has been a priority for the past two legislative agendas because of its ability to connect more people with jobs and education opportunities, increase weekend and evening service and reduce ride times.
“We’ve been spending a lot of time talking about it, and now we’re starting to see action from it,” Brandon said.
Madison College President Jack Daniels spoke on behalf of students who face challenges meeting their class schedule due to the city’s transit system.
“This solution allows us to really move these students along the way they can meet their schedules,” Daniels said. “Because many of them have families, they can get back to their families in a timely manner, even when the sun is up.”
Improving public transit can also address climate change-related challenges. Cassie Steiner, Campaign Coordinator for the Sierra Club’s John Muir Chapter said 83% of carbon emissions can be attributed to single passenger vehicles.
“If we want to get really serious about the climate crisis, that means finding other modes to get people around and that means mass transit, walking and biking and connectivity between the three,” Steiner said.