Bus rapid transit is like trains, but without the rails and at a much lower cost.
The city of Madison just completed study on bus rapid transit, or "BRT." This type of transit uses longer buses that make limited stops on long routes, and may sometimes travel in their own special lanes. This approach, along with amenities on the buses and at the stops, makes the riding experience much more like a commuter train. However, the cost-per-mile is probably much less than half of what it would cost to build rail lines.
According to a story in this morning's State Journal, the full build-out plan would cover about 21 miles, with lines running out from the city center. It would increase capacity on the most used routes by 60% to 300% and cut travel times in some instances by as much as 42%.
I am a frequent user of Madison Metro. The buses I ride at rush hour from the UW campus to the near west side are always full, but not uncomfortably so. Still, Metro has achieved record ridership at around fourteen million rides a year and the service won't get much above that unless it moves to the next level.
The mayor has said that this can't happen without a regional transportation authority (RTA) to pay the hefty $138 million to $192 million price tag. We had an RTA in Dane County briefly in 2010 before the Republicans taking control of the Wisconsin Legislature repealed it for no apparent reason other than their disdain for both public transit and Madison.
So, while I agree with the mayor on this, it seems to me that the city is going to have to find a way around the Legislature, at least initially. The city could, for example, use revenues generated from the new development that would occur along the lines, though it's not clear if that would generate anywhere near enough. Meanwhile, President Obama has announced a new infrastructure plan. Maybe a Madison BRT system could be partially funded in that way. And in a perfect world, suburban municipal governments would recognize the benefits of a BRT system for their commuting residents and help pick up some of the costs.
Whatever Madison does can't exist in a vacuum. The city needs to coordinate this with its policies on price and supply of parking, bicycle commuter networks and services, and land use decisions.
There are plenty of hurdles here, but they're barriers worth getting over. BRT in Madison is an exciting idea.