Wondering about Madison’s newly painted red streets? – Isthmus

For the past two years construction has proceeded along Madison’s populous bus Route A, which connects East Washington Avenue to downtown Madison and UW-Madison before heading out to Mineral Point Road. Workers have been building the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, which promises an unprecedented overhaul in the city’s public transportation.

According to Mike Cechvala, Metro Transit’s capital projects manager, plans for Bus Rapid Transit have been discussed since 2012, with studies done on two potential routes — one running north-south, the other going east-west. In 2017, the city council approved plans for the latter proposal, given its popularity. 

“Route A has really emerged as a high ridership and well-performing route,” Cechvala says. According to city data, 12,000 people use the route every year and officials expect ridership to increase with the new BRT route.

It will cover 15 miles with 31 stations that Cechvala says are “More like rail stations than your typical bus stop.” They will all have full shelter, real-time information, and platforms at the level of the bus floor.

Mick Rusch, Madison’s chief development officer, says “It will be comfortable to wait.”

The buses will be electric and are paid for through President Biden’s infrastructure plan. Rusch calls them the “coolest part” of the overhaul. They are bigger, ADA accessible, and open on both sides, with doors also in the back. A new smartcard system is being introduced, with further details to be announced in coming weeks. While it will start with a physical card, Rusch quickly expects to transition to a QR code and, by early 2025, passengers will be able to board with a credit card or tap to pay.

What makes it a “rapid” transit system is how the buses travel, through red bus-only lanes that cover two-thirds of the route. Cars will not be allowed in this lane with hopes the buses can move unencumbered.

Weather could prove a challenge though. According to a fact sheet provided by the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, electric school buses performed best with temperatures in the high 50s. When the temperature dipped to 25°F, their range decreased by 33%. With average winter days in Madison hovering around that level, it remains to be seen how these buses will hold up.

Rusch calls the weather “a very real concern.” He stresses the city is adding 62 of these buses to their fleet, which will give officials the ability to switch them out if one is having problems. “We’ll just have to get creative and learn the new technology,” he says.

The city is currently in the process of installing three new charging stations along the route and is holding off on announcing an official BRT launch date until they are done. Both men expect the line to open in the early fall, with Rusch anticipating a September start.

Cechvala describes the reaction from the community as “interest and excitement,” but acknowledges there are some naysayers and concerns about safety. With the BRT lane on the left side of the road, and the stations in the medians, some worry the combination could be a dangerous situation for pedestrians getting on and off buses.

Cechvala promises plenty of precautions have been taken. Thirty of the stations are at traffic-controlled intersections and the other is on a four-way stop. The platforms have been installed with railings and concrete knee-high walls to offer protection against traffic. He also cites Cleveland, Indianapolis and Albuquerque as examples of cities with successful BRT routes utilizing the median.

Discussions about improving Madison’s public transportation infrastructure have gone on since at least the 1980s, with light-rail, commuter rail and street cars all having their advocates. But in the end, Cechvala says BRT was the model that made the most sense for a city of Madison’s size.

“These are big projects,” Cechvala says. “They take a long time to come to fruition.”

They aren’t done either. Transit’s preliminary community plan for the north-south route was recently approved by the city council, and Rusch says funding has been included in President Biden’s 2025 budget. He’s hopeful Madison’s second BRT line will open in 2027 or 2028.

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