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"The Federal Transit Administration wants to reinvent bus service in this country," says Gordon Linton, FTA administrator.

What the FTA has in mind is something called BRT, or Bus Rapid Transit, an approach to public transportation that is gaining credence in Buffalo-area transit circles as a possible alternative to extension of the Metro Rail system.

It's "a visionary approach," says Linton, that combines planning and new technology to allow buses "to operate with the speed, reliability and efficiency of light-rail vehicles at a fraction of the cost." He envisions a "world-class subway service on tires" in cities across the country. (Linton appears to use "subway" as a metaphor -- BRT systems are usually, though not always, above ground.)

The New York State Department of Transportation, in a newsletter this year, listed an "exclusive busway" as one of the options for a Southtowns Corridor from downtown Buffalo.

Gary Gottlieb, regional director of high priority projects for NYSDOT, said the busway could be a buses-only roadway constructed, at least in part, on an old railroad bed, or one or two lanes reserved for buses on a freeway or arterial into the Southtowns.

There's also been speculation about constructing a busway along rail beds that extend into the Tonawandas from the vicinity of the LaSalle Metro Rail station in Buffalo. A state study on Intelligent Transportation Systems recommended as a "mid-term" project a "bus priority system ... along a 5-mile arterial corridor in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls region."

As envisioned for the Buffalo area, busway drivers could have the same power to pre-empt traffic signals as Metro Rail operators. Innovations in fare collection (with possible use of "Smart Cards"), boarding procedures and information booths with real-time displays of bus routing are foreseen down the road.

"Since Bus Rapid Transit is often less expensive to construct and operate than rail transit, it may be a more appropriate investment in areas where the demand for rail cannot quite justify its costs," concludes an FTA report.

Studies have shown that there are potential traffic problems with exclusive bus lanes, and careful planning is necessary. "One can expect in the short term an increase in congestion" in heavily urbanized areas, one analyst concludes.

This isn't the first time busways have been suggested for this area. Gordon J. Thompson, a transportation consultant and member of Citizens Committee for Rapid Transit, notes that a "Southeast Busway" from downtown Buffalo to West Seneca was recommended in the early '70s, when he was a planner with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

But, Thompson says, the "Southeast Busway" "failed to capture the attention of transportation policy-makers or the public in the way that light rail did in the other corridors." He says studies by transportation agencies across the country have found light-rail extensions to be more economically feasible in the long term.

Nevertheless, FTA reports consistently find that busways are significantly cheaper to build and to operate. And buses can be moved to other routes, whereas rail cars often cannot, if ridership fails to materialize, analysts note.

A study published by the Transportation Research Board in 1989 found that "in nearly all areas of comparison," including ridership, "busways appear to offer advantages over light-rail systems." That study, by Allen Biehler, compared busways in Pittsburgh with light-rail systems in Buffalo; Portland, Ore.; San Diego and Sacramento.

On the other hand, a more recent report by Jonathan Richmond at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, concluded from a study of light-rail systems in 11 cities, including Buffalo, that a rail line at San Diego was the only "worthwhile investment attracting a high percentage of new transit users." However, figures used in the study are disputed by transit agencies in some of the cities.

Although busways in Pittsburgh have been described as "highly successful," Thompson says their overall record across the nation is a mixed one. "Seattle is about to convert its busway to light rail," he says, and Chicago, Detroit, Kitchener, Philadelphia and Providence "gave up busways."

He added that "truly useful" busways operate in Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Ottawa, Seattle and Washington, as well as Pittsburgh.

As part of its Bus Rapid Transit Initiative, the FTA this summer selected 10 communities across the nation for BRT demonstration projects, backed by technical support from the federal government. Selected were Boston, Mass.; Cleveland, Ohio; Charlotte, N.C.; Dulles Corridor, Va.; Eugene-Springfield, Ore.; Hartford-New Britain, Conn.; Honolulu, Hawaii; Miami, Fla.; San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Santa Clara County, Calif.

Cleveland proposes to use electric trolley buses in exclusive BRT lanes along a 5-mile section of Euclid Avenue connecting the city's two largest employment centers -- downtown Public Square and University Circle.

In New York State, Albany is developing a BRT proposal for Route 5 between downtown Albany and Schenectady, with "new technology to improve travel speeds and reduce wait times."

The FTA has launched a study and workshops to develop guidelines for BRT. The strategy is to develop an economically feasible public transit system that can get people to work as fast as, or even faster than, their cars do.

That's important, government transportation planners say, because the burgeoning number of cars, many of them transporting only one person, puts a growing strain on roadway and land resources, and, some say, on Mother Earth.

BOB WAGNER, retired editor of The News Viewpoints section, works for the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council.

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