How to Make Bay Area Bus Transit More Competitive with Driving

Virtual exclusive busways are a win-win concept

Despite two decades of public investment in mass transit, the 2000 U.S. Census figures showed that only 9.5 percent of Bay Area commuters used transit to get to work, little changed from 10 years before. One of the biggest reasons Northern California commuters resist transit is that buses are caught up in the same congestion as cars, so the overall door-to-door travel time is actually shorter if you drive.

But what if buses had their own lanes everywhere on the freeway system? They could make that portion of their journey at the speed limit, in many cases bettering the door-to-door travel time of drivers stuck in traffic. But adding nearly 600 lane-miles of bus-only lanes to the freeway system would cost from $6 billion to $10 billion, according to a Reason Foundation study from 2003. Where would transit officials get that kind of money?

A new project in Houston offers a breakthrough solution. Instead of building exclusive busways, transportation officials there are developing the virtual equivalent of exclusive busways. Houston’s project is part of a major reconstruction and widening of the Katy Freeway (I-10), a chief commuter route from the western suburbs to downtown. The local toll agency is adding four value-priced (toll) lanes in the median. Under a memorandum of understanding with the local transit agency, 25 percent of the capacity will always be reserved for buses and other high-occupancy vehicles — which means 75 percent can be sold to congestion-weary drivers willing to buy their way out of traffic. The toll revenues from those drivers will pay for most of the cost of adding the new lanes. The toll agency agrees to keep the prices high enough to preserve free-flowing conditions during rush hours, so the buses (and the paying motorists) can always have a speedy trip.

The transit agency wins big from this deal. It gets the virtual equivalent of an exclusive busway without having to shell out any money for this new infrastructure. Instead of its 40 express buses per hour having to take their chances in the increasingly congested high-occupancy vehicle (carpool) lane, they are guaranteed uncongested trips, on a sustainable, long-term basis.

Houston planners are studying the feasibility of moving beyond that initial project to a complete network of priced lanes. Were Bay Area planners to do likewise, they would have a huge head start, with more than 285 miles of carpool lanes already in place (as data from Bay Area transportation agencies show) that could form the core of a 580-lane-mile network. Adding the missing links and numerous flyover connectors to make the network seamless would cost about $6 billion. Pricing all 580 lane-miles (similar to what exists today on the high-occupancy toll lanes on State Route 91 in Orange County) would generate more than $370 million per year in toll revenues. That would be sufficient to issue toll-revenue bonds, at no cost to taxpayers, to pay for the large majority of that $6.1 billion.

Think what it would mean to have this kind of network in place on the entire Bay Area freeway system. If you are a motorist, you would have the peace of mind of knowing that no matter how bad the congestion, on those days when you really have to get somewhere on time (to catch a flight, to pick up your child from day care) you’d have the alternative of paying and getting a fast, on-time trip. (Some call this “congestion insurance.”) On the other hand, if you are already a bus rider, you would now have high-speed, regionwide bus service available, opening up a much greater portion of the area’s job market to you, while also reducing the time of your trip. If you commute by car and hate congestion, you might seriously consider the new alternative of reliable, regionwide, high-speed bus service. Vanpools, too, might make a real comeback in the Bay Area, with this kind of high-quality infrastructure available.

It’s often said that we “can’t build our way out of congestion.” That may be true if that means simply doing more of the same – building more traditional freeways. But here is an opportunity to think outside the box and build something different, and much more valuable. What other approach can simultaneously offer every motorist congestion insurance, improve bus transit for riders and even lure some motorists from their cars – all while raising billions in new money for transportation infrastructure?

Robert W. Poole Jr. is director of transportation studies and founder of the Reason Foundation. He has advised the last four presidential administrations on transportation and policy issues.