Public Policy Forum Blog

Midwest cities tapping into federal support for BRT

If local policymakers were to consider developing rapid bus services in the Milwaukee area, they could learn quite a lot from several of our nearest neighbors. Chicago recently began construction of a bus rapid transit (BRT) project in the Loop, Madison is actively working on plans for future BRT services, and Indianapolis has received federal support to develop its first BRT route.

Each of these projects offers lessons for Milwaukee, both with regard to planning and financing. For example, Madison, like Milwaukee, lacks both rapid transit services and dedicated local funding for public transit. Despite those limitations, Madison is planning for a future that could include BRT. After releasing an initial study last year that found great potential for BRT in the capitol city, the City of Madison acquired federal and state grants to move forward with a more detailed planning effort that will analyze environmental and logistical challenges to implementation. The City then can make an educated decision about whether to actually develop the system.

Indianapolis is a step or two ahead of Madison. Leaders there have developed a plan called Indy Connect that includes a vision for a regional network of five BRT routes. On April 23, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx visited Indianapolis, toured the first planned BRT route (the Red Line), and announced that Indianapolis was chosen as one of seven pilot cities to receive support through a new federal program. The funds will provide the City of Indianapolis with assistance from several area nonprofits as they work through the process of applying for a $40-50 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration’s “Small Starts” program for Red Line construction.

The Red Line initially will connect downtown Indianapolis with the University of Indianapolis to the south and a major cultural district to the north. Later, the City plans to extend the Red Line to northern and southern suburbs, and to develop four more BRT routes in the region.

The federal Small Starts program, which appears likely to provide a majority of the funding for Red Line construction, supports new transit capital projects costing up to $250 million. In our recent report, Picking Up the Pace, we identified several federal funding sources other metro areas have used to launch new BRT services, including Small Starts grants. Milwaukee has not obtained Small Starts funding in the past and could consider pursuing grants from that and other federal programs down the line.

Financial challenges are routinely cited by local leaders as rationale for not pursuing bus system improvements in the Milwaukee area. While concerns over MCTS finances are certainly justified, they should not prevent us from developing a vision for the future.

If Milwaukee-area leaders envision a future that includes rapid transit services, they first may wish to follow Madison’s lead. Having a detailed plan that shows the costs and benefits of developing a BRT system – and that takes into account environmental and logistical hurdles that may stand in the way – would move the region forward in deciding whether to take the next steps. And at that point, Indianapolis, Chicago, and plenty of other peer cities across the country could serve as excellent models to study moving forward.

Joe Peterangelo