WASHINGTON — A new Government Accountability Office study examining bus rapid transit concludes that cities with limited funding sources and no major congestion issues may find high-cost features worthwhile only if economic development is a major goal of the bus line.

Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and the committee’s top Republican, Richard Shelby of Alaska, asked the GAO to look into the features of BRT projects recommended for funding by the Federal Transit Administration and examine how such projects compare to rail transit.

Bus rapid transit distinguishes itself from standard bus service through features and amenities such as more developed stations, dedicated lanes for BRT vehicles, stylized buses and electronic fare collection systems.

Though regional bus projects often receive FTA funding under grant programs such as New Starts, there is also a local funding commitment, sometimes paid out of the proceeds of bonds issued by cities or by state transit administrations.

The report finds that cost is the primary factor affecting choices about BRT features, even to the point of causing changes in a project’s plan.

“Officials in four of our five site-visit locations described instances in which costs or financial constraints factored into their decision making or resulted in a change of plans regarding the project’s physical features,” the report states. “For example, Kansas City [Area Transportation Authority] officials told us that a dedicated [lane] was not acquired for the Troost MAX in part because this feature would have added costs without providing substantial travel time savings benefits, given Troost Avenue’s minimal traffic congestion.”

Many BRT lines make use of semi-dedicated lanes, sharing lanes with high-occupancy toll lanes along part of their routes.

“In Seattle,” the report said, “King County Metro officials told us that several common BRT features, including level or raised boarding and off-board ticket or fare card vending machines, were not incorporated into the RapidRide system because of costs.”

Whatever form the BRT projects took, though, they have generally outperformed the systems they replaced, the report shows.

“For systems where changes in ridership could be calculated, almost all BRT project sponsors reported increased ridership over the previous transit service — typically a standard bus service — according to results from our questionnaires,” it states.

Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy at the American Public Transportation Association, said BRT buses perform well because they offer a “more attractive” trip.

BRT systems usually have lower ridership than rail transit systems, the report concludes, but also have lower capital costs. Some of the costlier BRT features may provide their biggest benefits in a broader way, according to the report.

“While most local officials believe that rail transit has a greater economic development potential than BRT, they agreed that certain factors can enhance BRT’s ability to contribute to economic development, including physical BRT features that relay a sense of permanence to developers,” the report states.

Guzzetti said any number of BRT features could help a bus line improve.

“Even if you’re doing three, you’re making the bus trip better,” he said.

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