Don't give up on bus rapid transit

Don't give up on bus rapid transit

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Why does it take so long to get just about anywhere on city buses, which snake through neighborhoods making lots of stops, rather than taking direct routes?

“That’s Madison,” Mayor Paul Soglin knowingly responded.

Our editorial board asked about speeding up Metro Transit ride times during Soglin’s successful campaign for mayor. And we’re happy to report Soglin was — and still is — thinking big.

Three words: Bus rapid transit.

It has worked in other cities, such as Eugene, Oregon, and it can work here.

The idea is to create high-frequency, high-capacity, limited-stop bus service that can run on city streets, dedicated lanes or even a rail corridor. A city report last year suggested bus rapid transit, or BRT, would cut travel times and encourage economic development.

Soglin said the neighborhood around Williamson and Jenifer streets has resisted the idea, preferring a bus stop on most blocks. But doesn’t that increase the Near East Side’s carbon footprint? Can’t neighborhood residents get some fresh air and walk a few blocks to catch a ride? We thought Willy Street was environmentally friendly.

The rest of the city is more amenable to BRT, according to the mayor. So let’s do it.

Of course, the biggest deterrent is money. The system could cost more than $100 million for bigger and snazzier buses, a bus storage facility, passenger stations and street improvements — plus annual operating expenses.

Then again, Metro Transit isn’t cheap now. And a BRT system could reduce the number of routes needed to service the city.

BRT also could deliver Wi-Fi and technology to extend green lights. Passengers would pay for tickets at a kiosk and wouldn’t have to wait in line for fares to be scanned, which would speed loading times.

A city study has identified four corridors for fast routes to north, northeast, south and west Madison, with alternative routes and possible future extensions to Sun Prairie, Monona, Middleton, Fitchburg and southwest Madison and Verona.

Imagine jumping on a bus on the edge of the city and being shuttled quickly Downtown.

But Soglin may be right that a regional transit authority is needed to pay for the system. And that will require state approval, which is unlikely, given Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ opposition. Vos, R-Rochester, has told our editorial board on more than one occasion he’s highly skeptical of giving local governments the ability to raise a regional sales tax for transportation systems.

But Soglin says he concurs with Vos that any such tax should require a public vote of approval.

“I have told Robin Vos I am in complete agreement,” Soglin said last spring. “I will support a referendum.”

Madison’s mayor also is “in complete philosophical agreement” that only elected officials should be on any RTA board that can raise taxes and spend public money.

“Now the question is, Mr. Vos, will you give us the authority for the sales tax so we can pick up the revenues necessary to operate the system?” Soglin asked. “I am an eternal optimist that we are going ahead.”

In fact, Soglin predicted: “Robin Vos is going to cut the ribbon.”

We’ll believe it when we see it. We also hope it’s possible. Madison should keep pushing for a faster, more convenient bus system.

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