City, county explore options for bus rapid transit system

Funding


Published: Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 1:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 1:50 p.m.

The lessons that Jaime Lerner - the innovative former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil - learned while trying to implement an effective public transportation system in a developing nation could assist city and county commissioners as public transit becomes a priority in Gainesville in these tight fiscal years.

"I used to say always about the car - the car is like our mothers-in-law. We have to have a good relationship with her, but we wouldn't like if she conducted our lives," Lerner said during a workshop Wednesday hosted by the Gainesville Regional Transit System.

"In other words, if your mother-in-law is the only woman in your life, you have problems."

In this auto-centric nation, millions of Americans are perfectly satisfied with their one-woman transportation options.

However, both city and county officials are looking to change that relationship by implementing a single-arterial bus route that uses a combination of dedicated bus traffic lanes, off-bus money-collecting machines and specialized stations - all designed to create a highly efficient and fast bus route.

Known as bus rapid transit, this method of public transportation revolutionized Curitiba, said Lerner, who watched the city's system go from 25,000 riders a day to 2.3 million riders a day.

"People, if they see it's a better alternative, they will use public transportation," said Lerner, who was brought to Gainesville on an unrelated matter by the University of Florida.

RTS received a $400,000 federal earmark, compliments of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, to conduct a bus rapid transit feasibility study on highly used bus corridors in Gainesville.

With RTS exceeding 9 million riders in 2008, Doug Robinson, chief transit planner for RTS, said he is confident a rapid-transit program could work.

"If you look at our services today and how frequent our services are, this is probably the direct next step in terms of main line services," Robinson said.

Comparatively, Tampa's system had 11 million riders and Jacksonville had 10 million.

Robinson said a bus rapid transit line would serve as the spine or tree trunk of the RTS system.

"All local routes ... might be reconnected to this trunk to create more direct services, more efficient services. It's really rethinking how you get into neighborhoods and how you get people to their jobs," he said.

As fuel prices soared in 2008, RTS was forced to reduce route frequency and eliminate other routes entirely. Investing millions in a fossil-fuel dependent system may raise concerns for some citizens.

Lerner, addressed the issue from the contention that one diesel bus is better than 10 fuel-efficient cars.

Eight corridors were selected for the RTS study - each with existing ridership of 3,000 trips or more daily.

"Once the study is done, what we hope to have is a prioritized list of the corridors and most likely the number one (corridor) will be the project we apply for a federal grant," Robinson said.

The grant, known as "Very Small Starts," would match up to $25 million of a transit system's expense, but experts caution as much as 70 percent of the funding would have to be provided locally for Gainesville to be competitive in the grant application.

Eugene, Ore., constructed four miles of bus rapid transit in 2007 for approximately $24 million.

The SW 20th Avenue corridor in Gainesville, which serves more than 7,500 riders a day, is approximately 3.3 miles.

Some are skeptical that public transportation can draw enough riders in Gainesville to alleviate traffic on the congested arterial roads.

City Commissioner Thomas Hawkins concedes that single-family subdivisions likely will never buy into a public transportation mode; however, he sees bus rapid transportation as a way to encourage less sprawl.

"If we have a good transit solution to get people in and out of downtown Gainesville and allow a family to live in the urban core with only one car or no car ... I think we're really going to see a demand in the private sector to give us more dense development in the University Avenue corridor," Hawkins said.

Meanwhile, Alachua County is exploring funding options for its own bus rapid transit routes that would force developments to pay for a bus rapid transit system.

If the proposed Newberry Village development, with about 900 residences and 240,000 square feet of office and retail space, ever gets off the ground, the South Florida firm that is in charge of the project will be responsible for providing a third of the cost of a bus rapid transit system from NW 39th Avenue to Santa Fe College to The Oaks Mall.

Another development, Santa Fe HealthCare, may also be required to pitch in transit funds as part of its development agreement.

"This would create a transit service that's very effective, very frequent with minimum 15-minute headways," said local land-use attorney David Coffey, who represents the developers of both Newberry Square and the Santa Fe HealthCare project. "It is less expensive than trying to maintain the acceptable level of service for autos on all the roadways. It would be a radical, fundamental shift."

While the location of bus rapid transit seems to be focused on the congested west side of Gainesville, the concept was borne out of the Plan East Gainesville Study, Robinson said.

However, the University of Florida student population traveling from the west onto campus is a very safe bet to be the focus of bus rapid transit.

The county's method of securing bus rapid transit depends on private development as a funding mechanism.

"I don't know what the ... study is going to recommend," Hawkins said. "(If it) does not recommend taking a line at least as far east as the Five Points area (the point where Hawthorne Road and E. University Avenue meet), I'm going to think the ... study is fundamentally flawed. We've got really great undervalued communities in east Gainesville that need transportation."

Lerner left the community members who attended the workshop with these thoughts: "What they don't know is how easy it is to make it happen and my only testimony to you is, it is possible."

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