DALLAS — As other Texas cities struggle to finance light-rail lines, El Paso is planning a much less costly bus rapid-transit system with vehicles that look like rail cars but travel on dedicated paved pathways.
At a meeting yesterday, the City Council, acting as El Paso’s Sun Metro mass transit board, discussed funding options and other contingencies for the 50-mile system that may cost up to $330 million.
While the price tag might sound daunting in today’s economy, particularly for a border city with pockets of poverty, it is a pittance compared to the cost of light rail. While the bus system is expected to cost $6.6 million per mile, light rail would cost nearly 10 times as much at $60 million per mile, officials estimate.
El Paso’s system, designed to resemble light rail, would use specially made buses to bring passengers into downtown much more quickly than the current bus system.
At yesterday’s meeting, the City Council considered resolutions for nearly $120 million of certificates of obligation and other sources to fund the transit capital improvement program. Finance officials outlined funding options and requested a time line that would provide enough money to service debt for four bus corridors over the next six or seven years.
In addition to locally issued debt, El Paso would depend on federal funding for the program. The El Paso system is expected to qualify for funding under the New Starts program included in the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users.
With a bus rapid transit, or BRT, system, El Paso would join a number of cities that have adopted versions of the transit system. The Federal Transit Administration is studying similar systems in Honolulu, Pittsburgh, Miami, and Orlando, Fla., to identify the most effective features.
While BRT can be designed to resemble rail in ride quality, station amenities, and other aspects at dramatically reduced costs, the systems still suffer an image problem, according to the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute, an advocacy organization in Washington.
“If bus transit is to be perceived as more than just a social service, it must be able to perform at a level comparable to the private automobile, and convey the high-quality image typically associated with rail,” a report from the institute notes. “Bus rapid transit aims to do just that: emulate rail, but at a lower capital cost.”
Despite the cost advantages, Texas’ largest cities are sticking with rail. Houston, which already has a BRT system, is facing protests over its plan to issue $2.6 billion of bonds to finance a light-rail expansion that is more costly than what voters approved. The city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority says the additional debt is authorized under state law and is backed by system revenue, and therefore does not require voter authorization.
Houston switched to rail lines from its previously planned BRT expansion.
In Austin, where voters narrowly defeated a light-rail plan in 2000, officials are seeking to bring another proposal to the ballot, but recently withdrew plans to seek a vote in November, citing several funding and management challenges.
In Dallas, where Dallas Area Rapid Transit operates the state’s largest light-rail system, officials recently announced they may have to curtail expansion plans that are already underway. A long-sought connection to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport faces a likely delay.