Huntsville focusing on bus rapid transit system, not light rail

Huntsville focusing on bus rapid transit system, not light rail

The Huntsville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has contracted with a transit planning firm to complete a high capacity corridor study that is due out by the end of the year.
September 7, 2022

By Scott Turner |

The city of Huntsville, Ala., is focusing on bringing a bus rapid transit system to town in the near future.

City Public Transportation Manager John Autry said the Huntsville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has contracted with a transit planning firm to complete a high capacity corridor study that is due out by the end of the year.

While a rapid bus system is under discussion, Autry said that the transit staff has not discussed bringing a high-speed rail service to the city, contrary to published reports. That possibility remains far in the future, according to city officials.

While the study is not complete, Autry said the consultant team has identified a rapid transit bus corridor that runs from Huntsville Hospital on Gallatin Road through downtown Huntsville on Church to University Drive west all the way out to near County Line Road.

“A presentation was provided by [City Planner] James Vandiver in a recent MPO meeting that shows transit oriented development along the University Drive corridor with a connection to Providence,” he said.

The next steps to bringing a bus rapid transit (BRT) system to Huntsville include receiving the final report from HDR, which is conducting the MPO study, Autry said, and a report from the firm Nelson Nygaard on short-term improvements to existing fixed route and paratransit service. Also included is revising the route service alignment along Church and University, or other alignments to correspond with the plan recommendations and increasing bus service along Church Street and University Drive, along with bus stop improvements to achieve significant ridership increases.

“Based on the FTA grant awards for similar projects in the past, Huntsville will need to achieve 3,000 – 5,000 riders per day along this corridor to have a reasonable chance of federal funding,” Autry said.

HDR project manager Marc Soronson and lead planner Becky Santiago told the MPO earlier this year that such an expansion project would be eligible for up to $150 million in Federal Transportation Authority funding through its Small Starts program.

According to city Communications Director Kelly Schrimsher, an average of 2,300 riders are currently using Huntsville Transit’s Orbit bus system a day.

Autry said bus rapid transit systems typically include raised platform bus stops with canopies that look similar to light rail stations.

“The difference is that BRT is rubber-tired 60-foot-high capacity buses instead of rail cars on a fixed guideway,” he said. “BRT is much less expensive to construct and operate than light rail. "

In its draft study report to the MPO, HDR said bus lines are coming in at a tenth of the cost of light rail lines, and light rail costs are rising “exponentially.”

“In Portland and Phoenix that’s about $230 million a mile,” Santiago told the MPO.

Bus projects, on the other hand, range from $3 million a to $50 million, depending on infrastructure put in.

Autry said the BRT service “operates much faster than regular bus service.”

“Higher speeds are achieved through technology such as ‘que jumping’ at intersections where BRT vehicles don’t have to wait in a line of traffic at intersections,” he said. “The service is also high frequency and high capacity. Service typically operates with service at least every 10-15 minutes from all stops along the line.”

In its report to the MPO, HDR also recommended an express bus service connecting with Huntsville International Airport.

“HDR has indicated that a route that spans downtown to Clinton Avenue to Campus 805-Stovehouse to the airport is their potential No. 2 route corridor,” Autry said. “The Nelson Nygaard planning team has recently seen early indicators of employment growth east of the airport. Keep in mind that the development evolution includes, over time, successful fixed route bus service coming before BRT; then successful high ridership BRT before development of light rail. … We are currently focused on incremental improvements to fixed route bus service over the next five years.”

“So far, we’re hearing from existing riders that would like to see buses operate more frequently along existing routes, bus service later in the evening, and a few comments regarding adding Sunday service,” Autry said. “There have also been comments from surveys about improvements to bus stops. We’re also very interested to hear from citizens at community meetings about destinations they’d like to see.”

Preliminary results will be presented to the city council later this year, while a final report will be finalized in early 2023.

Scott Turner reports from Huntsville for the Lede.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC


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