New report from GAO details bus rapid transit's contributions to local economic development

An summary of bus rapid transit features. Image from the Government Accountability Office.

In a new report released this week, the Government Accountability Office explores bus rapid transit (BRT) as a less costly way for communities to meet their transit needs and spur economic development.

“Bus Rapid Transit Projects Improve Transit Service and Can Contribute to Economic Development” surveyed 20 BRT projects regarding their features, design, performance, ridership, cost, and effect on the community. Faster than regular bus service and cheaper to create than street cars or subways, BRT can improve transportation choices at a relatively low cost.

In general, BRT projects include improvements to seven features: running ways, stations, vehicles, intelligent transportation systems, fare collection, branding, and service. These improvements make the service more attractive to riders and help to identify BRT as premium service. The majority of projects included in the study had increases in ridership after one year of service, and half of those increases were over 30%. On average, travel times were reduced 10 to 35% over previous bus services. This has allowed places across the country to improve transit service with respect to their own needs, and demonstrate investment in their communities.

Several of the projects surveyed identified the BRT projects as catalysts for economic development. Officials in Cleveland, OH credit the Healthline BRT project, associated with major hospitals and universities, with attracting $4 and $5 billion of new investment to the corridor. In Seattle, several developers are interested in the corridor along the RapidRide A Line, and noted that other BRT corridors in the region are attracting transit-oriented development.

Project sponsors, local officials, and other stakeholders surveyed “emphasized the importance of BRT projects’ physical features particularly those that are perceived as permanent—in helping to spur economic development.” Sponsors went on to explain that “BRTs with dedicated running ways, substantial stations with enhanced amenities, and other fixed assets represent a larger investment in the corridor by the public sector and assure developers that the transit service and infrastructure will be maintained for decades into the future.”

BRT projects are eligible for funding under the Small Start and Very Small Starts programs within the Federal Transportation Administration’s Capital Investment Grants Program, as well as the Congestion Mitigation Air Quality Improvement grants, Urbanized Area Formula grants and TIGER grants.

Since fiscal year 2005, only 9% of Total New Starts, Small Starts, and Very Small Starts Committed Funding has been used for BRT, yet this funding has produced 30 BRT projects across the country. By contrast, 40% of the same funding has gone to develop just 15 light rail projects. This difference is mostly due to the high level of capital investment needed for rail projects, but also reflects the efficient use of funds for BRT projects.

Download the full report: “Bus Rapid Transit Projects Improve Transit Service and Can Contribute to Economic Development” (PDF)