Gainesville and Alachua County are betting heavily that a rapid transit bus system can reduce traffic congestion and meet the region’s transportation needs in the decades ahead. There’s a lot riding on whether they’re right.
To county and city officials, those three words represent a key part of handling traffic congestion and large new developments in Alachua County.
If all goes well, bus rapid transit will prevent gridlock on Archer Road, for example, when the proposed Celebration Pointe comes on line with up to 2,225 residential units and 896,000 square feet of commercial and office space.
If all goes well, bus rapid transit will save the city and county millions of dollars in roadway construction to handle ever increasing local traffic.
And, if all goes well, it will determine the face of Alachua County through the next quarter century. “What’s envisioned is as significant as was bringing the railroad to Gainesville in the mid-19th century and determining the path of I-75 in the 1960s,” says Gainesville Commissioner Thomas Hawkins.
But what if all doesn’t go well?
That question is one of many that need to be answered as local government moves toward its vision of bus rapid transit.
A Lofty Vision
City and county commissioners see bus rapid transit as an attractive, relatively speedy approach that has similarities to light rail.
Suburbanites would commute on sleek hybrid buses—some traveling in their own dedicated lanes. Travelers would board buses at covered stations, some of which would be air conditioned.
Many of the bus passengers would commute from four planned subdivisions that will have densities in between those of the current Town of Tioga and midtown Gainesville. Those subdivisions would be in undeveloped areas along I-75, between the Santa Fe College area and Archer Road, and could generate more than 7,000 residential units.
Other passengers would be faculty, staff and students of the University of Florida. Still other passengers would be affiliated with Santa Fe College, which is adding bus service for students, faculty and staff this fall. And, park-and-ride commuters who live outside the county are also part of the potential passenger pool.
City and county commissioners, who serve jointly on the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization, have agreed that, through 2035, $28 million in federal and state funding will be dedicated to bus rapid transit.
RTS also has received $675,000 in federal grants to develop plans for bus rapid transit, and it will hire a consultant to do the study soon. Yet as all the movement and money is pushing our region toward buses, there are three significant questions that must be addressed.
Question 1: Will workers give up their cars and commute by bus?
Workers will take the bus if it’s their best option.
“You have to look at how everything works together in a system,” Hawkins says. “If people have to walk a half mile from a parking lot to where they work, it may be more convenient to board a bus close to their home or at a park-and-ride station.”
Attorney David Coffey agrees. He represents three subdivisions that would be major contributors to the bus system, both in terms of funding and passengers.
“There’s an explosion of light rail, electric street cars and bus rapid transit around the world,” he says. “It’s a great way to reduce traffic congestion.”
Big cities from Las Vegas to Cleveland are operating successful bus rapid transit systems. Likewise, the smaller Eugene, Oregon, is the community that Alachua County officials look to as a model because Eugene is home to a major university and the area’s population of 300,000 is comparable to Alachua County’s.
The Eugene area launched its EmX (short for Emerald Express) in January 2007 along a four-mile stretch between the downtowns of Eugene and neighboring Springfield.
EmX replaced existing buses and led to nearly 50 percent more ridership, going from 2,700 riders daily to 4,700.
Travel is free, which helps attract riders. But what really makes the EmX work is that it’s appealing and convenient, Coffey says. Its advantages over an ordinary bus system include:
- Sixty percent of the route is on dedicated roadway, ribbons of pavements that run mostly in the medians of existing roads. This allows the buses to move faster than they would on crowded roads.
- It has attractive stations with raised platforms that allow for “near-level” boarding that is like getting on a subway.
- The buses are frequent, running every 10 minutes during weekdays and every 20 minutes on nights and weekends.
- The buses feature modern, sleek silhouettes with low floors and are articulated, meaning they can bend to better handle turns and curves.
“For people to give up cars for commuting, buses have to be convenient and comfortable,” Coffey says.
This region has many of the right elements for successful bus transit, Coffey asserts. He believes an expanded version of the Eugene model could work here for several reasons.
Foremost, many commuters work along the bus rapid transit line that is proposed here. In fact, 46,600 jobs are within a quarter mile of one route that RTS drafted, with employers including the University of Florida, Shands HealthCare, Santa Fe College, North Florida Regional Medical Center, SantaFe Healthcare, the City of Gainesville and Alachua County government.
Also, much of the traffic into Gainesville originates outside the county and includes commuters who would be good candidates for park-and-ride service.
Further, RTS’ experience serving UF students shows that improving bus service can drive up ridership, Coffey asserts. RTS went from about two million annual riders before the UF service began in 1998 to more than nine million today—giving RTS the top per capita ridership among Florida transit systems.
“The success of the UF system helps tremendously in making bus rapid transit acceptable,” Coffey says. “Being able to demonstrate its success will help secure federal funding.”
RTS’ ranking as the state’s most popular transit system is skewed by the service to UF students. UF’s student riders make up 75 percent of RTS’s total, accounting for seven million annual trips.
Most of the routes popular with students are within three miles of campus, and some are shuttles within campus.
Also, UF student fees provided $10.4 million, or 53 percent, of the total RTS budget.
Efforts to attract workers to RTS buses have had limited results. Although all UF faculty and staff and their spouses can ride the bus for free, thanks to a separate $85,000 annual payment the university makes to RTS, few do.
UF faculty and staff trips totaled 145,000 a year, according to RTS reports. Actual participation may be somewhat higher because bus drivers may miss recording some UF faculty and staff riders, says RTS spokesman Chip Skinner.
Although employers can buy annual bus passes for their employees at a cost of $6.75 per employee (with a minimum of $675 per employer), the program has only attracted a small number of participants. The employers who do participate are Shands HealthCare; the Malcolm Randall VA Medical Center; the City of Gainesville, including GRU; FloridaWorks; the Gainesville Job Corps; and as of this fall Santa Fe College faculty and staff.
However, Alachua County Government dropped out this year due to budget cuts, and some other large employers, including North Florida Regional Medical Center, have turned down the opportunity to participate, Skinner says.
Question 2: Can local government find the money to build a bus rapid transit system?
Developers will cover a large portion. Under county policies, developers of the four proposed “transit-oriented” subdivisions would pay much of the cost of building and operating the planned bus rapid transit system during four peak hours of the day for 15 years. The four projects are:
- Springhills, located northeast of the intersection of I-75 and 39th Avenue, which would include 2,500 residential units and one million square feet of commercial and office space.
- Santa Fe Village, located directly east of Springhills, with a potential of 1,400 residential units and 690,000 square feet of retail and office space.
- Newberry Village, located between Fort Clarke Boulevard and I-75, which would include 900 residential units, and 240,000 square feet of commercial and office space.
- Celebration Pointe, located northwest of the intersection of I-75 and Archer Road, which would include 2,225 residential units and 896,000 square feet of commercial and office space.
In addition, the county commission is creating an optional mechanism for the subdivisions to fund additional bus rapid transit operating costs to the UF campus on an ongoing basis.
That mechanism is tax increment financing (TIF). If a subdivision creates a TIF district, a portion of the property tax growth the subdivision generates will be devoted to bus rapid transit.
This approach is a good deal for the county, Coffey says. “[Transit-oriented developments] will generate at least four times the amount of taxes per acre that traditional development of the same land would,” he asserts.
Even with developer support, a rapid transit system would need additional funding, which will be hard to attract. This will especially be a concern if the bus rapid transit system is extended to East Gainesville and up to the Gainesville Regional Airport, as local officials propose.
Federal funds are a possibility. Uncle Sam paid 80 percent of the cost of the Eugene system. But that level of support is unlikely today. The federal Fresh Starts program, which funds new transit construction, is now paying an average of 49 percent, according to the Reconnecting America website. And Congress has cut next year’s funding for New Starts to $400 million below last year’s level, the Boston Globe reported.
Land acquisition will be costly. Bus rapid transit is particularly attractive because, under the best scenario, buses would travel in dedicated lanes that cut commute times. But buying land for the dedicated lanes would be expensive, says RTS planner Doug Robinson. The busier the area (think Butler Plaza), the less land is available, and the higher the cost.
On the other hand, some land for dedicated lanes could be readily available at relatively low cost. That could include portions of Old Archer Road between SW 34th Street and campus and abandoned rail lines, including one that parallels Waldo Road, county planner Jeff Hays says.
Accurate costs are hard to figure. Even without budgeting for land, nailing down the projected expense of a bus rapid system is difficult.
RTS estimates the cost as $3 million a mile for a low-scale bus system featuring simple stations, traffic signal priority for buses, modified intersections and the possible conversion of some existing lanes to bus lanes, Robinson says. This figure doesn’t include new buses.
The upcoming federally funded RTS study will compare the feasibility of building dedicated bus rapid transit lanes with two other options—running the system without dedicated lanes and not developing the system at all, Robinson says.
Question 3: Are transit-oriented developments realistic options?
Yes, and they’ll dramatically reduce traffic. The county projects that a transit-oriented development will generate 40 percent less traffic than a typical suburban development, Hays says.
The experience of the Town of Tioga and Haile Village Center sheds light on how much traditional neighborhood developments, with shopping incorporated into them, reduce traffic on major roads. The dense mixed-use nature of the two developments and the shopping available has resulted in residents doing a relatively large amount of their shopping and dining close to home, Coffey asserts.
He lives in Haile Village Center, and his office is in the center. “I walk to the post office, the bank, the dentist and the pet groomer,” he says. “My wife and I often walk to the restaurants here. I enjoy the benefit of having things here.”
There’s no alternative for Gainesville. The city has no choice but to reduce its dependence on cars, City Commissioner Hawkins argues. If people continue their heavy reliance on cars, projected growth eventually would create a need for expanding 39th Avenue to six lanes, which isn’t practical, he says.
People won’t embrace such significant changes in the way they travel. Gainesville civil engineer Rory Causseaux is skeptical about the community embracing the far-reaching shift away from larger lot sizes.
“There’s a lot of change in the county’s plans,” he says. “Some people accept change, and some people resist change. It’s going to be interesting to see how well the changes are accepted.”
Rolling the Dice
Clearly, Gainesville and Alachua County are on the leading edge in trying to shift the region to mass transit. And it may take years to determine whether the gamble will pay off.
Even Commissioner Hawkins, who supports bus rapid transit, says its success isn’t guaranteed. “I think lots of people will use it, but the worst-case scenario would be to build it, and everyone would stay in their cars,” he says.