The Myth of the Magic Bus: The Weird Politics and Persistently Strange Logic Behind the Orange Line

Despite the Fanfare, the Orange Line Was More Expensive Than Some Light Rail Projects. Photo: Roger Rudick

Despite the Fanfare, the Orange Line Was More Expensive Than Some Light Rail Projects. Photo: Roger Rudick

The other day I was reading about New York City’s proposal to build a north-south busway on Woodhaven Blvd., starting in my old ‘hood of Jackson Heights.

It’s a great plan—by making the center lanes bus-only and providing train-like amenities, such as pre-paid, multi-door boarding, New York will have an improved north-south bus route. It’ll take a predicted 45 minutes to ride clear across Queens, instead of the current 65. Since it’ll be running on existing roadway, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) upgrades can be built for a fraction of what it would cost to install light rail or subway.

As with most busway proposals, articles cite the Orange Line BRT in the San Fernando Valley as a model.

The Orange Line is celebrated as a transit success story in the press. Ridership exceeded expectations almost from the day it opened in 2005. It peaked around 29,000 daily passengers. At rush hour, demand exceeds capacity. This is something that busway supporters boast about.

They should stop boasting.

If you built a ship that carries 500 people but you found 1,000 people on the dock, you screwed up. Similarly, the higher-than-capacity demand on the Orange Line corridor just means Metro should have built a rail line.

Oops.

The Sprinter LRT was cheaper to build than the OrangeLine.

The Sprinter LRT, in North San Diego County, was cheaper to build than the Orange Line.

And what’s really disturbing is they actually spent enough money to build rail. The point of BRT is that by converting existing lanes into bus-only lanes, you get great transit improvements with minimal investments. But the Orange Line originally was a train line, leftover from Los Angeles’s historic transit system. Ripping out the old tracks on Chandler and paving it over for the original phase of the Orange Line cost $324 million, or $23 million per mile.

A decade ago, busway supporters claimed the BRT on Chandler would still be cheaper to construct than rail. But the Oceanside to Escondido Diesel Light Rail line, which opened in 2008, cost only $21.6 million per mile. Think that’s an unfair comparison? Look at the River Line in New Jersey or the O-train in Ottawa, and you find the same pattern: the Orange Line construction costs were on-par with rail.

So why the discrepancy between the claims and the realities? One reason is that busway advocates always compared construction costs of electrified light rail to diesel or compressed natural gas BRT instead of to the equivalent, electric-trolley buses. And electrification, while desirable, greatly increases the costs. In other words, they fudged the numbers.

I took a look at the history of the Orange Line in a radio story. (embedded above)

Meanwhile, back in Queens, a BRT service, using the existing lanes on Woodhaven Boulevard, may, indeed, be the most cost-effective way to address demand in the short term. That said, the existing buses already carry around 30,000 people a day–more than the Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley. Eventually, New York may have to take another look at reviving the nearby Rockaway Beach Branch, an abandoned rail line that partially parallels the proposed busway.

If that happens, it’ll be a new train service. Because the real lesson of the Orange Line is something that should have been obvious from jump:

A train track is not where you run a bus.