Bus Is The New Train — At Least The Affordable One

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Behold the future, South Florida.

Commuter Mary Hammett rides a transport module that zips down what many call “I-95.” It moves faster than most cars. Hammett relaxes in the back and pulls out her iPhone, which automatically logs in to the module’s WiFi network.

She taps open the Pandora app and gives the James Fortune station a thumbs up — a ‘like’ button on the little screen. As Hammett travels to her downtown Miami office, it’s all smooth sailing and silky gospel vocals.

And a word of advice from the future: Bring a sweater. “You see how cold it is?” Hammett asks.

Mary Hammett is part of a growing group of 95 Express bus riders in Miami-Dade and Broward counties who, transportation authorities say, are experiencing the fledgling stage of South Florida’s future bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

Express buses are not a new concept. They provide routes with the fewest possible stops for passengers. What’s new is the 95 Express buses using the 95 Express lanes.

“We’ve always had an express bus service,” says Gus Pego, head of the Florida Department of Transportation in Miami-Dade. “What the managed lanes allows us to do — the express lanes — is build a backbone for bus rapid transit.”

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Mary Hammett’s route is a sort of case study.

Five days a week, Hammett, a Miami-Dade County procurement officer, leaves her car at the Golden Glades park-and-ride and takes the 95 Express downtown. This route has been around for sometime.

“It had been flat at about 1,700 riders … for about five to 10 years,” says Jeff Weidner, Strategic Development Manager for the Florida Department of Transportation. “So it was a success but it had plateaued because the congestion was so severe.”

Historically there wasn’t much advantage to taking a bus into the I-95 congestion.

Yes, you got access to the old high-occupancy vehicle lanes. But it turned out those were just as slow as the rest of traffic.

In 2008, the northbound express lanes opened, providing a more consistently speedy trip for drivers willing to pay a toll. But also, for free, to registered hybrid vehicles and high-occupancy vehicles — including buses.

“There definitely has been a sharp increase in the past couple of years due to the creation of the express lanes,” says Miami-Dade Transit spokeswoman Irene Ferradaz.

In the last few years Mary Hammett’s route has seen a nearly 50-percent increase in ridership. Miami-Dade and Broward transit agencies have added four inter-county 95 Express buses.

All told, the average weekday ridership of 95 Express buses was 5,321 last October, the month for which the most recent data is available. 

One of the new buses, from Miramar to Miami, has become so popular, the park-and-ride lot is being moved to accommodate all the traffic. 

The routes are attracting what transit officials call “choice riders.”

“These are people who have vehicles or have access to vehicles,” says Ferradaz, “but choose to use public transportation.”

Jan Smith, a federal public defender, lived in Pembroke Pines and was working downtown when the inter-county routes first started running. Smith had a car, but had switched to Metrorail after getting fed up with traffic on I-95 and surface streets. He ditched Metrorail for the 95 Express bus due to rail service delays — and because he wouldn’t have to pay tolls to access the 95 Express lanes.

“At the time, not very many people were riding it,” Smith says. It was just him and “a whole bunch of federal court personnel. We’d run into each other, chat and then spread out.”

Love them or hate them, the express lanes — and likely the express bus service — is spreading across South Florida.

During a recent interview with former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré, he pulled out a map of planned express-lane projects, showing a network of highlighted roads spreading farther north on I-95, onto I-595 and I-75 and 826. (Full map below.)

“So now, all of a sudden,” he said, “you have a new kind of a train system but instead of being steel on steel it’s on rubber tires.”

Ferré now serves on the Florida Transportation Commission and heads the Miami Expressway Authority and says this is the future of realistic mass transit in Miami: Buses that act like trains while they’re in the express lanes, but that can drop you off closer to your destination.

“These are systems that are affordable,” Ferré said, “Yeah, it requires tolls on roads. There’s a price for these things.”

"A NEW KIND OF TRAIN SYSTEM"

Here are the current, future and potential express lane projects from FDOT. The way Maurice Ferré put it, the airport provides the runways but the airlines have to provide the planes. Miami-Dade and Broward Transit would have to provide the express buses to utilize the express lanes in place.image

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