By Roger Rudick, May 27, 2014
Despite the Fanfare, the Orange Line Was More Expensive Than Some Light Rail Projects. Photo: Roger Rudick
See website for a video.
The other day I was reading about New York City’s proposal to build
a north-south busway on Woodhaven Blvd., starting in my old ‘hood
of Jackson Heights.
It’s a great plan—by making the center lanes bus-only and
providing train-like amenities, such as pre-paid, multi-door boarding,
New York will have an improved north-south bus route. It’ll take a
predicted 45 minutes to ride clear across Queens, instead of the current
65. Since it’ll be running on existing roadway, the Bus Rapid Transit
(BRT) upgrades can be built for a fraction of what it would cost to
install light rail or subway.
As with most busway proposals, articles cite the Orange Line BRT in the San Fernando Valley as a model.
The Orange Line is celebrated as a transit success story in the press. Ridership
exceeded expectations almost from the day it opened in 2005. It peaked
around 29,000 daily passengers. At rush hour, demand exceeds capacity.
This is something that busway supporters boast about.
They should stop boasting.
If you built a ship that carries 500 people but you found 1,000
people on the dock, you screwed up.
higher-than-capacity demand on the Orange Line corridor just means Metro
should have built a rail line.
And what’s really disturbing is they actually spent enough money
to build rail. The point of BRT is that by converting existing lanes
into bus-only lanes, you get great transit improvements with
minimal investments. But the Orange Line originally was a train line,
leftover from Los Angeles’s historic transit system. Ripping out the old
tracks on Chandler and paving it over for the original phase of the
Orange Line cost $324 million, or $23 million per mile.
A decade ago, busway supporters claimed the BRT on Chandler
would still be cheaper to construct than rail. But the Oceanside
to Escondido Diesel Light Rail line, which opened in 2008, cost
only $21.6 million per mile. Think that’s an unfair comparison? Look at
the River Line in New Jersey or the O-train in Ottawa, and you find
the same pattern: the Orange Line construction costs were on-par
So why the discrepancy between the claims and the realities?
One reason is that busway advocates always compared construction costs
of electrified light rail to diesel or compressed natural gas BRT
instead of to the equivalent, electric-trolley buses. And
electrification, while desirable, greatly increases the costs. In other
words, they fudged the numbers.
I took a look at the history of the Orange Line in a radio story. (embedded above)
Meanwhile, back in Queens, a BRT service, using the existing lanes on
Woodhaven Boulevard, may, indeed, be the most cost-effective way to
address demand in the short term. That said, the existing buses already
carry around 30,000 people a day–more than the Orange Line in the San
Fernando Valley. Eventually, New York may have to take another look at
reviving the nearby Rockaway Beach Branch, an abandoned rail line that
partially parallels the proposed busway.
If that happens, it’ll be a new train service. Because the real
lesson of the Orange Line is something that should have been obvious
A train track is not where you run a bus.