Why BRT is right for Rochester
If you had asked me 10 years ago whether bus rapid transit (BRT) or streetcars were right for Rochester; I would have insisted on a streetcar. After 10 years of learning and data, I am convinced that BRT is both the correct and only feasible solution.
Staff analysis of both BRT and street cars demonstrated that they achieve the same results. Both can meet the transportation demands of places along the 4 mile route. Both can sufficiently increase the amount of people using transit to get in and around downtown. Both options move at about the same speed. Ridership and adjacent development is projected to be the same in both cases. Really the only difference between how the two modes would perform is more about perception than reality.
A street car runs on fixed steel rails with steel wheels. BRT typically runs on a paved surface, often dedicated to just transit. Both can have cars that look identical to each other. Both would have accessible stations. Both can run on electric batteries without guide wires. Both would likely work with traffic signals. The only real physical difference is steel vs. rubber.
BRT is the only realistic option that we have. The streetcar line would cost almost $400 million and those projects are notorious for coming in over budget. A BRT line can be completed for $90 - $100 million and involves far less risk.
In order to build a transit line we must compete for and win a federal transit grant. There are two programs which can be used: “Small Starts” which is for projects up to $300 million and “New Starts” which is for projects over $300 million. “Small Starts” projects usually take about 5 years to complete, while “New Starts” projects will take 7 to 10 years. Based on scoring criteria, we have a good chance of securing a Small Starts grant, but no realistic chance to secure a New Starts grant. The streetcar option would not qualify for the Small Starts grant and would probably never be funded.
Federal funding will cover 49 percent of the project and various DMC funds will likely cover the rest. Even in the unlikely scenario that we received a “New Starts” grant; the local share would significantly drain the DMC capital available for other basic infrastructure projects. In addition to the significant difference in upfront costs, the BRT option will be less costly to operate annually.
One of the myths surrounding BRT is that developers are less willing to invest in proximity to a BRT line than a rail line. This has now been debunked. Places like Minneapolis, Cleveland, San Francisco, Seattle and Indianapolis have shown that it is reliability and fixed nature, not rails that make transit successful. In Rochester; the Mayo Clinic, St. Marys campus, and future transit villages are not going to move. We have never had an issue attracting development in proximity to our medical centers and will not in the future.
There are some critical shortcomings of a streetcar project which haven’t received much consideration. First, steel wheels create significant noise and vibration. Rubber tired vehicles are quieter in neighborhoods. Vibration is a significant issue and can interfere with sensitive scientific equipment which may be found at Mayo Clinic, UMR, and Discovery Square. Steel rails can create problems for this with mobility impairments. BRT vehicles are about half the price but replaced twice as often. As such, newer technologies can be more quickly integrated into the system.
BRT is the feasible, fiscally responsible, and smart choice for Rochester. BRT can be delivered at a lower price, on a faster timeline and will achieve the outcomes as streetcars. Most importantly BRT can be funded and built, where streetcars remain unrealistic at best.
Michael Wojcik represents Ward 2 on the Rochester City Council.
Editor’s note: Council Member Wojcik has challenged Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, an advocate of streetcars, to submit an opposing viewpoint. Norton, however, told me this weekend she is “not interested in the concept of ‘dueling’ a City Council Member” (Wojcik used the word ‘duel’ in a challenge posted to social media). “There are many reasons why I prefer a tram or fixed rail option and perhaps I will put them into writing one day soon, but this is not that day,” Norton wrote in an email. We remain willing to publish any thoughts the mayor has on the topic. That same rule applies to you, our readers. You can review guidelines for opinion submissions here.