PHOTOS BY NICK CHRISTENSEN / METRO NEWS
Last week, a Portland Tribune editorial hailed bus rapid transit, or BRT, as a rising option for future commutes.
It's been pushed by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., as an alternative mass transit mode for the Columbia River Crossing. And recently, Metro launched two studies of BRT to see if it could work as a transit line along two corridors.
What's the fuss about this bus? Last month, Metro News took a ride around on one of the country's most extensive BRT systems, operated by RTC Transit in Las Vegas. Its eight BRT lines, all launched in the last decade, run the gamut of what planners describe when they talk about bus rapid transit.
At the boarding point
On the northeast edge of the city, near Nellis Air Force Base, the start of this desert city's MAX line – a BRT bus along Las Vegas Boulevard – would look familiar to most rail-riding Portlanders.
A raised curb allows for easy, quick boarding of the bus. The platform's shelter features a curved look that hardly resembles a typical bus stop.
The station has its own ticket vending machine, taking cash and credit cards and offering short-term and long-term transit passes.
Really, the only things that makes this bus stop look different from a stop on Portland's MAX are the ashtray and the bright, warm rays of sunshine beating down on in it in November. Both are ubiquitous in Southern Nevada.
When the bus pulls in at 8:35 a.m., about a half-dozen people board. If any of them didn't have a transit pass, they're in luck – the bus has a ticket machine on board, so riders can pay their fare if they board at a stop that doesn't have a ticket machine.
This saves time: The bus driver doesn't have to serve as a fare enforcement officer and can focus on keeping the bus moving, and riders don’t queue at the entrance waiting for everyone to buy a ticket.
A few stops into its run into downtown Las Vegas, a fare inspector comes aboard. One of the dozen-or-so riders has to go buy a ticket at the on-board ticket machine, with the fare inspector booting one couple for not paying their fare.
Along the line
The ride is smoother than a typical local-service bus, and somewhat quieter. But it's clearly not light rail – riders can still feel some of the bumps in the road, and the realities of navigating city streets – sharp right turns, dips in the road, drivers cutting off the bus – keep this particular BRT line from having the same level of riding comfort as rail.
Inside, sunlights on the roof add to a more airy feel on the bus. An automated voice reads out stops and nearby destinations. Seats face forwards, backwards and sideways, including on top of wheel wells.
The bus stops about every half-mile on the northern two-thirds of the line, a six-mile stretch of strip malls and desert lots on the city's older northeast side. Through most of this, it runs in its own lane, converted from the shoulder of four-lane Las Vegas Boulevard.
After its stop at the Jerry's Nugget casino, it runs nonstop for the next two miles to downtown Las Vegas, picking up riders at Fremont Street before rolling into the Bonneville Transit Center.
Heavy investment, heavy use
Las Vegas' Bonneville Transit Center is the equivalent of Portland's transit mall, all in one stop. The city's local service buses mostly operate in a grid, one mile apart, but most of the city's eight BRT lines converge here.
The transit center was built to LEED-Platinum standards, was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and features bike lockers and a bike repair station for downtown residents looking to connect to destinations outside the city core.
The most heavily-used BRT line connecting to the Bonneville Transit Center is the Strip-Downtown Express, or SDX, which connects through the city's resort and business district.
In downtown, the SDX features what one might call Cadillac BRT – a dedicated lane separated from regular traffic by a median, traffic lights along the line that change to let buses through quickly, plus all of the features already seen on the MAX line like raised boarding platforms and widely-spaced stops.
The SDX bus that pulls into Bonneville is jam-packed, with riders standing in the aisles and in the extended bus' "accordion" section. It's 72 degrees outside on Nov. 23, and the air conditioning is blasting refreshingly cold air onto riders.
If the Bonneville Transit Center is Las Vegas' equivalent of Portland's transit mall, the SDX might be compared to Portland's light rail Blue Line. It connects with 21 of the city's 32 local-service bus lines, plus all of the BRT lines and the Las Vegas Monorail, a privately-funded transit line that connects some of the hotels on the Strip.
Its ridership reflects its utility: In September, the SDX carried nearly 16,000 riders daily, 9.2 percent of RTC Transit's overall ridership.
New line rises
Las Vegas' newest BRT line is the Sahara Express, a $40.4 million project pitched as an expansion of a rapid transit service designed with speed in mind. The bus project included new shelters, landscaping and conversion of the six-lane boulevard's shoulders into dedicated bus lanes.
The SX line travels the length of the city, about 15 miles from a $1 billion "locals casino" near Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area on the west to the working-class suburb of Sunrise Manor on the east.
The Sahara Express had some of the features of BRT, but lacked many of the amenities that put the "rapid" in bus rapid transit. Sure, the ride is a bit more comfortable, it runs in its own lane, and the views from the double-decker bus' top level are nice.
But RTC Transit only reduced the Sahara Express' stops from four per mile to three per mile, and while transit signal priority was part of the upgrades, bus riders often sat alongside car drivers at red lights.
Plus, with the bus traveling in what had once been a breakdown and right turn lane, drivers turning right or stopping in the lane for no apparent reason slowed down the commute.
The lack of improvement over regular service wasn't lost on Dennis Drake, who was on his way to the end of the line, at the Red Rock Resort.
"This ain't express, this is the regular Sahara route. They just call it express," he said. "An express bus has limited stops."
Tabatha Thomas was on her way from the UNLV area, near the Resort Corridor, to the far western suburbs, about 12 miles away. She said it was inconvenient, and usually carpools with friends to get where she's going.
"I don't like how long it takes to get from place to place," she said. "I pay good money to ride this bus."
What would it take for her to use it more often?
"Maybe if they had it running more often," she said.
Rod Horsley didn't mind the waits, but said the line wasn't for everyone. He said there are things that he likes better about the new BRT service, particularly boarding.
"If you've got a ticket, you don't have to swipe it – you just jump on," Horsley said. "I'm happy. This is the best route in the city, as far as I'm concerned."
He said the buses are on time more often during the day, and run more frequently than they used to at night. (Las Vegas offers 24-hour transit service, and the SX runs every hour in the pre-dawn hours.)
Still, he said the system wasn't perfect.
"If you've got to make it every day, unless you live – if you work right off Sahara, like 100 yards or a quarter mile, it'd be great," Horsley said. But, he said, if a rider has to transfer or travel along distance, they "might as well get two jobs and buy a car" because of the length of time it takes to get around.
Applying to Portland
Las Vegas' eight BRT lines run the gamut of what can be called BRT service. They vary based on the type of communities they serve, the type of services they offer, and what destinations they connect to.
Their ridership numbers also vary widely. A route that connects to the suburb of Henderson and two colleges carries about 3,700 passengers a day; two of the suburban lines average fewer than 1,000 riders daily.
The Sahara Express has more than 10,000 riders a day, an increase of 2,500 per day from the non-BRT service that predated it – but comparable to the ridership on regular-service buses that run on parallel routes connecting the suburbs to the Las Vegas Strip.
By comparison, TriMet's 4-Division Street bus from downtown Portland to Gresham carries about 9,100 passengers daily. TriMet's MAX Yellow Line averaged 16,400 riders daily last October, the lowest ridership of the Portland region's four light rail lines.
TriMet reports about 208,000 bus boardings daily and another 125,600 light rail riders.
BRT has enabled Las Vegas to build the bones of a relatively comprehensive transit network in just eight years. About one-fifth of Las Vegas' transit ridership is on those BRT lines.
The lines are also less expensive to build – Las Vegas' MAX line cost an inflation-adjusted $3.18 million per mile, and the Sahara Express, which featured miles of landscaping improvements, came in at about $3.75 million per mile.
By comparison, the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail line costs about $180 million per mile, not including the costs of building the new bridge over the Willamette.
That low cost and flexibility is why Metro planners are cautiously optimistic as they get set for transit studies of the Powell-Division Corridor from downtown Portland to Gresham, and the Southwest Corridor from Portland to Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood.
A preliminary look at BRT on the Powell-Division corridor is expected to start in 2013. Early studies of BRT and light rail for the Southwest Corridor are underway.