Brisbane Reality Check: The high cost of “cheap” busways – From the Light Rail Now Folks


The following is from the Light Rail now folks in the U.S.A. It certainly blows the lid off the BRT crowd, when it comes to the claim that BRT is cheaper than light-rail.

When one hears Kevin Falcon or other Valley Liberal MLA’s claim that BRT must come first because it is cheaper than LRT, remind them of this posting and the cost for BRT in Brisbane Australia!

The ultimate in bus rapid transit (BRT) guided bus or O-Bahn
The ultimate in bus rapid transit (BRT) guided bus or O-Bahn

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
5 June 2009

Brisbane Reality Check: The high cost of “cheap” busways

In the ongoing battle between backers of light rail transit (LRT) and the rather blurry concept dubbed “bus rapid transit” (“BRT” ), Brisbane (capital of Queensland, and Australia’s third-largest ciry, on the country’s eastern coast) is definitely one of the hottest flashpoints, with Queenslland Premier Anna Bligh touting “BRT” busways as costing about half as much to build as LRT, and Transport Minister John Mickel advancing the merits of a “tramway-style” LRT system.

First, some background on Brisbane’s public transport system…

The city’s pervasive and efficient light rail electric tramway (streetcar) network was scrapped in the 1960s during the worldwide Transit Devastation era (when most city officials and planners were doing all they could to “motorize” their local travel and promote public dependency on personal motor vehicles running on public roadways).

In this process, as the electric tramways were ripped out, they were replaced by motor buses running on petroleum fuel (believed to be forever cheap and abundant). Fortunately, Brisbane’s legacy regional passenger rail (RPR) transit system relained, to evolve into today’s efficient Citytrain system, reaching some 382 km (237 miles) of route throughout the metro area.

In recent years, the need for a more rapid, medium-capacity surface transit system has sparked a debate between advocates of light rail transit (LRT) – basically, a re-introduction of tramways and “BRT”, operating on both dedicated busways and streets. In 2000, “BRT” won the initial round, with the opening of the first of the region’s busways. Now 19.3 km (12 miles) of busway serve the Brisbane metro area, carrying some 100,000 weekday rider-trips. Promoters are claiming supposedly lower costs and greater “flexibility” as reasons to favor more “BRT” development rather than a light rail transit (LRT) system, proposed as an alternative by rail advocates.
One reason for the high cost of busways is the need for passing lanes at stations to enable capacity approaching that of rail but high ridership results in serious queuing of buses. Imagine your waiting time if you’re trying to catch your bus home after work, but it’s somewhere in that “conga line” of “BRT” buses trying to access the station!

In Brisbane as elsewhere, proponents of “BRT” typically mix-and-match design criteria and lowball investment estimates in their campaign to assert that “BRT” is “just like light rail, but cheaper”

The claim that busways are “cheaper” than light rail merits examining with considerable skepticism as Light Rail Now has done repeatedly, in numerous articles on this website.

See: “Bus Rapid Transit” Analyses and Articles

In terms of capital investment cost, our research of Brisbane’s busway projects hardly justify the claim of “low cost” compared with LRT.

Obtaining the costs of Brisbane’s busway projects is not particularly easy the public agencies involved don’t publicize them to facilitate access. However, thefollowing two documents (recently available) have proven to be an extremely helpful source of basic information needed:

Public Transport Mode Selection: A Review of International Practice

State of Queensland (Queensland Transport) 2009 Busways

Splicing together data from these two sources, we’ve been able to ascertain the actual cost, converted to current (2009) US dollars, of several of Brisbane’s major busway projects, as follows:

South East Busway (completed 2001):
15,6 km (9.7 mi), US$421 million
$27 million/km
$43 million/mile

 Inner Northern Busway (completed 2008):
4.7 km (2.9 mi), US$408 million
$87 million/km
$141 million/mile

Northern Busway Project (currently under way):
1.2 km (0.7 mile), US$158 million
$132 million/km
$214 million/mile

These unit capital costs seem staggering, and it leaves little wonder why they are not more readily publicized by the authorities and “BRT” promoters.

These costs are particularly striking in comparison with the costs of LRT lines on exclusive rights-of-way (comparable to busways). There is no project in Ausralia in such an alignment (the Adelaide LRT was an upgrade of an existing railway alignment), but two projects in US urban areas could be considered comparable:

 Charlotte Lynx LRT, South corridor (completed 2007):
9.6 mi (15.5 km), US$496 million
$32 million/km
$52 million/mile

Sacramento Folsom LRT extension (completed 2004):
7.4 mi (11.9 km)
$25 million/km
$41 million/mile

(Again, all costs above expressed in 2009 US dollars.)

These comparative costs would certainly seem to call into strong question the claim of “BRT” promoters in Brisbane and elsewhere that busways are significantly “lower-cost” investments than LRT lines.


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4 Responses to “Brisbane Reality Check: The high cost of “cheap” busways – From the Light Rail Now Folks”

  1. David Says:

    We have proof closer to home too. Ottawa’s busways are a failure that cost a lot of money and didn’t attract any drivers. In fact transit use went down after the busways opened and kept dropping. Ottawa has turned to LRT for their future transit needs.

    The “Rapid Bus” promoted by politicians in BC is simply an ordinary bus using ordinary HOV lanes. It’s rapid because it only stops once or twice per city. Fortunately for us “busways” and “guided bus” systems are not being seriously considered (at least that we know about).

    Zweisystem replies. The Ottawa busway saw an over 15% drop in ridership in the first 15 years (it has increased now) of operation, despite claims of the opposite by TransLink, when they started the 98-B Line Richmond service. TransLink was real ‘hot’ for GLT (Guided Light Transit or guided bus) until about 3 years ago, unfortunately GLT has been found to a) cost a little less than LRT to build; b) have far less capacity than LRT; c) did not attract new customers like LRT; d) has many teething problems with the various proprietary GLT systems!

  2. Richard Says:

    The LRT and BRT crowds are all really tiresome promoting their as the one solution for all situations cherry picking the best examples of their favourite solution and the worst examples of the other. To determine the best solution for a corridor requires doing analysis on that corridor.

    Ironically, converting the Ottawa BRT to LRT will require transfers from bus to LRT for many people who now have a no transfer trip to downtown, something that certain people claim, and perhaps correctly so, is a issue with SkyTrain and the Canada Line here.

    To simply say either LRT or BRT is always the best is ridiculous.

    Zweisystem responds: What is really tiresome is the SkyTrain lobby, with their phony figures, hidden costs and questionable studies promoting the obsolete light-metro.

  3. David Says:

    Analysis is a very good idea and an honest examination of the options is needed before we spend taxpayer money on large projects. However, the last time a corridor was analyzed (Evergreen Line) the report contained exaggerations, invalid assumptions and outright lies.

    In the past regional planners have produced LRT plans or rejected all forms of rail for corridors only to have the Provincial Government force a light metro line down our throats. So even though a British transportation planning company is studying the Broadway corridor and money has been earmarked for a Fraser Valley transit study, the results probably won’t make one bit of difference. Every Provincial government since 1980 has ignored the best advice available at the time and gone their own way. Why would that suddenly change?

  4. Peter Says:

    Well, I guess the experience, that guided busses are about 10% more expensive than LRT should be now made. Yes, a bus is cheaper to buy, but it will not live as long as a tram does. Do not underestimate the cost of right of way inlcuding the maintenance. It is about the same as an LRT track.

    Unless the planers from Brisbane can say what they changed on their BRT system that it does not repeat the experience from the other guided bus system in the world I do not believe that it is cheaper than a tramway.

    Zweisystem replies: It now seems that guided bus, the great transit panacea in the late 90’s, has sputtered like a deflating balloon. In British Columbia, the great transit philosophers stone is buy more buses and hire more drivers, while at the same time ignoring the reality of BRT. To get buses to compete effectively against LRT, they have to be guided; to use guided buses, drives up costs, so much so, that now BRT tends to be as expensive as, or a little more expensive than LRT. But then in BC, LRT is designed as a metro, with all its expenses, opening the door for BRT.

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