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Bus Rapid Transit is muy verde (if not muy rapido) 

Queque ventured to one of VIA's three public meetings on the ballyhooed bus rapid transit systemto be launched between the Medical Center and the Westside down Fredericksburg Road, and came away impressed, just not with the whole "rapid" claim. The Thursday afternoon meeting at the Wonderland of the Americas (previously Crossroads Mall) was well attended by types who ride buses, and are available to discuss them at 1:30 p.m. on a weekday, i.e. senior citizens. Despite a large presence from VIA and URS engineering staff, the unveiling of the environmental assessment of the BRT plan failed to wow the old timers, even with VIA CEO Keith Parker's enthusiastic pitch that the BRT is "the most significant public transportation investment we've ever made." This BRT system would replace the current 91 route, which is already a limited stop line. The time the new BRT would save commuters traveling from the South Texas Medical Transit Center to the Westside Multimodal Transit Center is 10-12 minutes said Arturo Herrera, VIA's strategic planner. Not exactly awe-inspiring, but probably much appreciated by daily bus commuters.

At one time, VIA had grander plans for a faster BRT accomplished by dedicated bus lanes, but a combination of non-existent TXDOT funding (what a surprise) and public fear of what that might do to normal traffic squelched the notion. The current plan contends with buses operating in mixed traffic by providing service every 10 minutes from 5:30 a.m.-6:00 p.m. (with not-as-frequent service planned until 11:00 p.m.), smartcard fare entrances at each bus door, and a special transit signal buses running late may engage to extend or cause green lights. How much money would we pay for such traffic light control in our personal car? Too much, SONY/Garmin/TonTon, (are you listening?). We would pay way, way too much for that kind of power. These developments provide the added speed for BRT buses, though folks attending the meeting pointed out they would still be hampered with Fredericksburg's typical rush hour congestion. We heard two different claims from a URS rep and a VIA rep as to whether a dedicated lane would have made future light rail more or less possible. URS said a dedicated lane might have made it easier to retrofit for light rail. Herrera said not having a dedicated lane actually "left their options open," for a light rail future. Both said Fred Road would need a complete overhaul to accommodate those commuter trains.

That's not to say the $57 million price tag, 80 percent of which comes courtesy of federal funding and 20 percent through local sales tax, is for naught. In fact, it makes possible the Westside Multimodal Transit Center, which would not only service BRT and regular buses, but also sits pretty for future West-East streetcar service through downtown, Amtrak and/or the fabled Austin-San Antonio commuter rail service on the nearby Union Pacific rail lines. VIA also hopes to work with Greyhound and taxi services to get their services near the Westside station as well. The BRT has plans to extend from the Medical Center Transit Center up to UTSA's 1604 campus, though only every third bus stopping at Med Center would travel that northern route, which makes that commute seem almost bearable (almost, even with the free wireless internet onboard.) BRT buses are 50 percent longer than the current counterparts, and VIA is currently considering investing in models with overhead bins and comfy seats. And are we naive to hope that the station monitors will report accurately down to the minute how long the wait is for the next bus? We've never experienced 100 percent success with this technology in the other cities that feature it for subways, but San Antonio can dream, can't she?

The BRT also includes admirable nods to our brave new green world. The South Texas Transit center will meet LEED certifications (Westside is exempt due to historical preservation concerns) and stations may be powered by CPS windtricity and/or solar programs, the buses will run on diesel/electric hybrid, and our biker friends will be happy to see bike racks and lockers at the transit stations. VIA is still evaluating where and how to install onboard bike racks, but that's a definite consideration. The new BRT buses also allegedly cut their regular counterpart's noise pollution significantly.

We did hear one good suggestion from public commenters at the meeting, (not to say we didn't appreciate them, but mostly they were asking either for clarification or named Jack Finger), and that was to consider a slight route variation to incorporate service to the county's largest employer, USAA. Representatives did not respond to this suggestion publicly, but we discovered such a route was one of three alternatives considered by VIA, and tossed out because apparently, the route could serve South Texas Medical Center or USAA but not both. We put a call in to Herrera's office for further clarification and will update when we find out. UPDATE: Herrera says that the extension route to UTSA's 1604 campus will have a stop near the USAA headquarters pedestrian entrance.

This BRT plan is not yet a done deal, though it's moving ever closer. Interested citizens still have time to issue public comments before the final environmental analysis is issued. View the current draft here, and submit comments via the link on that page by June 10. Below I've posted a pdf of the proposed route and a sign detailing the Westside Multi Modal Transit Center (VIA refers to it as WSMMTC, BTW). If all goes as planned, the route could be up and running con stations by late 2012.

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