During his campaign for mayor, Bill de Blasio called for the creation of a citywide, “world-class” Bus Rapid Transit network consisting of at least 20 routes. These new routes would provide a crucial link for communities beyond the reach of subways and speed trips that are poorly served by the city’s Manhattan-centric rail system.
Now that he is mayor, de Blasio will have to build out new routes much more rapidly than his predecessor if he is to keep his campaign promise.
While de Blasio has not offered a timetable for completing the rapid bus network, it took the Bloomberg administration approximately six years to build the city’s first six Select Bus Service routes.
“It’s possible to pick up the pace,” said Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development. “The constraint is staffing.”
The Department of Transportation will likely need more planners and community liaisons in order to work on multiple projects at the same time.
“If you have one team working on planning for SBS, you can get one route done per year. If you have two teams you can get two routes done, and so on,” says Byron.
One key challenge for de Blasio and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg will be to accelerate the public engagement process while following through on his campaign language about “extending [outreach] beyond the community board.” As public advocate, de Blasio criticized Bloomberg and transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan for moving too fast on major street redesigns. Now that he’s mayor, he will likely have to contend with the opposition that has met previous SBS projects.
It’s not impossible to imagine that future Select Bus Service routes will encounter less friction than before. SBS is now up and running successfully in several neighborhoods, and the concept is no longer new and alien to residents and community boards. There is a clear record of success.
Byron points out that the planning team at the DOT has, by now, “developed a pretty robust community outreach model.” Complaints will still surely arise, but now that DOT has gone through the process several times, experience may leave the agency better equipped to work with local community boards and elected officials.
But past experience tells us that opposition and delays are part of the game, especially if de Blasio is to incorporate more ambitious design features to speed buses by turning traffic lanes into bus-only lanes.
Bloomberg ran up against this type of opposition, as in the case of plans for bus lanes across the width of 125th Street or the ambitious plans for a 34th Street bus transitway. In both instances the Bloomberg administration scaled back its plans.
Even if the de Blasio administration can speed the pace of its planning process, it will have to find the money for construction. Select Bus Service is relatively inexpensive, but implementation still needs to be budgeted for. So far costs have ranged from $6 million for the Hylan Boulevard line in Staten Island to about $30 million for the Nostrand Avenue SBS route in Brooklyn.
De Blasio will need to put up more city funds and push the MTA to devote money from its capital plan for SBS construction. On previous SBS routes the MTA covered the cost of new buses and the fare collection kiosks. In the future, de Blasio may want to push the MTA to cover more of the construction costs through its capital program. The mayor controls a vote on the MTA’s Capital Plan Review Board and could veto any funding plan that does not include funds for rapid bus transit.
Up to now federal dollars have funded the bulk of SBS construction, but there may not be enough federal dollars for a complete build out of the system. Federal transit funds are awarded on a competitive basis, and Congress only sets aside a certain amount for projects like bus rapid transit every year. If the city’s annual request goes up, there is no guarantee that the federal government will meet it.
To build out a complete “world-class” bus rapid transit network by the end of a hypothetical second term, de Blasio will have to devote considerable time and resources to the task. The question remains whether he’ll be more willing than Bloomberg to push for designs that will speed buses even in the face of opposition.