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Madison may push Bus Rapid Transit system to center lanes

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Madison’s proposed $160 million Bus Rapid Transit system may run its special buses on dedicated center lanes with boarding stations on medians on some of the city’s main thoroughfares.

The city, in a move that would elevate the profile of the system, may use dedicated center lanes between Blair and Milwaukee streets and other stretches of East Washington Avenue on the East Side and on Whitney Way and Mineral Point Road on the West Side. The option means more consistent travel times and would better preserve bike lanes and street parking but would also eliminate left turns from center lanes at some intersections.

On the rest of the 15.5-mile, first-phase route, which essentially stretches from the East Towne to West Towne malls, buses would still run on side lanes amid other traffic with boarding stations on sidewalks.

“I’m really pleased with all the work that staff have done to improve plans for Madison’s BRT system,” Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said. “The improved designs, including expanding center-running service, will make the system easier to navigate and help balance our use of street space.”

Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, provides direct routes with fewer stops, frequent all-day service, bus-only lanes where feasible and traffic signal priority.

In March, the City Council and Greater Madison Area Metropolitan Planning Organization approved a preferred alternative route with 27 stations, service from 5 a.m. to midnight with bus service every five to 15 minutes weekdays, and from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. with bus service every 15 to 30 minutes on weekends. About 83,000 residents would live within a half-mile of stations, while about 110,000 jobs would be within that distance.

Now, city agencies are considering refinements to the preferred alternative as the city awaits word on expected federal funding. The $160 million project includes $107 million in federal money and $53 million in local borrowing. The system would cost $2.3 million a year to operate.

The changes were the result of a combination of factors, including the hiring of Justin Stuehrenberg, former vice president of planning and capital projects for the IndyGo bus system in Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana, as Metro Transit’s general manager; the impact of COVID-19 on traffic, transit use and the city budget; and concerns about losing bike lanes and parking.

In addition to moving buses to the center lanes, the changes include:

  • Delaying or removing the Rosa Road connection between Tokay and Research Park Boulevards.
  • Modifying the end point on East Washington Avenue near East Towne Mall.
  • Revising the location of some stations.
Bus Rapid Transit
  • Stuehrenberg suggested many of the ideas, which he had implemented in the recently constructed IndyGo BRT system, city transportation director Tom Lynch said.

“With these changes, we are well-positioned to compete for federal funding, which is critical for the success of this project,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I’m looking forward to bringing this project to the public and the council for input and approval in the coming weeks.”

Cheaper, efficient

The biggest change, by far, is moving to center lanes for roughly half of the route. Buses would be running in dedicated lanes in one form or another for about 75% of the system.

Center lane running provides more efficient BRT operations, eliminating delays associated with right-turning vehicles, delivery trucks and cyclists, Lynch said. Center lane running also can be less expensive, as only one structure with associated equipment is needed at station locations, instead of two — one on each side of the street — when buses run on the side lanes.

In Indianapolis, the BRT Red Line project used center-running lanes for roughly two-thirds and side running lanes for one-third of the project, Stuehrenberg said.

“In general, we found that the center-running lanes had fewer conflicts and enabled the buses to move more quickly,” he said. “They were easier to enforce because delivery trucks and Uber/Lyft weren’t using them to load. The stations themselves were substantially less expensive because we only had to do one instead of two, yet actually felt more premium and rail-like. And they needed less right-of-way and avoided direct impacts to property owners, such as being placed in front of entry doors or blocking visibility.”

For most locations, additional infrastructure will not be needed for median lanes, but at some station locations, Metro may need to adjust signals and add new lane marking signs over the lane, Lynch said.

One concept for a station shows a structure atop a platform with a marker that lights up at night and changes color as the bus gets nearer, security cameras, glass wind screen, seating, emergency telephone, next bus arrival sign, ticket vending and validation machines and a bike rack.

Safe alternative

Using the center lanes is safe, Lynch stressed.

“It has been implemented throughout the world and in American cities such as Cleveland and Indianapolis,” he said. “Every station will have a signalized crosswalk. And at some station locations, left turns will be removed, reducing conflicts.

“For East Washington Avenue, BRT riders will cross only half of East Washington for each trip,” he said. “The center running concept will reduce (traffic) capacity during non-rush hours and weekends, which may help reduce the speeding problem that is currently occurring.”

Shuttered shops, empty streets: Madison's silent spring amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But using the center lanes isn’t practical for the entire system, Lynch said.

“On one-way streets, such as Johnson, University and Gorham, there are no real advantages to center running over side running,” he said. “Other streets, such as State Street and Sheboygan Avenue, are narrow and difficult to install center stations.”

The Rosa Road connection between Tokay and Research Park boulevards was eliminated mainly due to cost, he said. Modifying the end point near East Towne simplifies the route and allows the system to better serve the homes north of East Washington Avenue. Adjustments to station locations will add a net four stations for a total of 31.

Although most left turns will merge through bus center lanes, city staff will continue to explore how to address concerns regarding the loss of some left turns on both East Washington Avenue and Mineral Point Road, he said.

The changes will be introduced to the City Council in December, referred to committees and return to the council for decisions at a later date. The city will have a public meeting on Dec. 3, with details on how to participate on Metro’s web page, The public will also be able to give testimony at the Transportation Planning and Policy Board meeting and City Council once the resolution has been introduced.

The city hopes to begin construction in 2023, with operations starting in 2024, but much will be contingent upon when federal funding becomes available, Lynch said.


"With these changes, we are well-positioned to compete for federal funding, which is critical for the success of this project."

Satya Rhodes-Conway, mayor of Madison

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