Transforming a BRT line into a high-performance network

Following the opening of a popular bus rapid transit (BRT) line, C-TRAN in Vancouver, Washington is preparing for the opening of a second line currently under construction. In addition, C-TRAN is ready to begin planning for its third line.

In Minneapolis, Metro Transit is building its third arterial BRT line, building on the success of its first two.

These two communities located in different regions share one thing: the desire to build on their success and create not a single BRT line, but a network. Both cities have partnered with transit industry consultant HDR to help plan and design these expansions.

The $50 million Mill Plain BRT, C-TRAN’s second BRT line, will run approximately 10 miles along Mill Plain Boulevard between historic downtown Vancouver and the growing Columbia Tech Center in East Vancouver, with 38 stations and a new nine-bay transit center.

The nine-mile METRO C line, which opened in 2019, connected north Minneapolis to jobs and opportunities in central Brooklyn in downtown Minneapolis. The line recorded its millionth passenger just five months after its opening. Currently under construction, the METRO D line is set to open later this year. This line features 77 platforms across four cities, providing a fast and frequent all-day upgrade to Minnesota’s busiest bus route.

“In the Twin Cities, we are building a network of fast, frequent, all-day BRT services to help residents and visitors to our area make all kinds of trips without the need for a car,” said Katie Roth, director of Metro Transit. Arterial BRT. “With each new link in this network, we expand access to opportunities and strengthen our entire system.”

With each new BRT line, the transit industry should challenge itself to improve. That’s exactly what these two communities have done – and they’ve succeeded by working in the concept phase to get feedback and focus improvement efforts on the areas that need it most.

They did this by running nearby projects to streamline costs, conducting outreach to improve the passenger experience, and soliciting feedback from staff. C-TRAN also designed the project at cost, exercising financial discipline to enable a community’s vision to become a reality.

Design at cost

C-TRAN’s first BRT line has received an overwhelmingly positive response from the community. The region wanted to quickly capitalize on this groundswell to build a second line.

“With the success of C-TRAN’s Fourth Plain BRT – the Vine – there was such support from our community partners, elected officials and our passengers to move as quickly as possible to extend the BRT to Mill Plain and to do so in a way that best suits the needs of this corridor,” said Randy Parker, C-TRAN Regional Planning and BRT Project Manager.

HDR, in partnership with C-TRAN, adhered to a rigid budgeting process, evaluating each item to determine if cost savings could be realized. The project used the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Capital Investment Grant (CIG) project justification warrants procedure to streamline the application and review process. This decision was made before planning even began to streamline delivery. This meant that the design team aimed for an exact project cost, $50 million, and had to design within budget.

The team remained focused on budget while making design decisions, keeping the project scope narrow enough to stay within budget while delivering a successful BRT project. These decisions included:

  • Strategic placement of stations to minimize impacts on public services and close to pre-existing protected and signalized pedestrian crossings.
  • Reduce fleet costs through C-TRAN’s use of a pre-existing state contract that offered a discount.
  • Reduce right-of-way costs by moving berthing at stations farther down the street. This also had the benefit of reducing the frequency of buses hitting curbs and damaging tires.
  • Focus improvements near stations to ensure budget was directly linked to BRT project costs.
  • Increased the average distance between stations from a third of a mile to a half mile. This was in response to passenger demands for faster service, but it also meant lower station costs.

Leveraging BRT investment for wider corridor improvements

In the Twin Cities, Lines A and C were built in coordination with major road improvements planned and funded by local partners. From the start of the design of the METRO D line, the team recognized the value of coordinating local priorities for improving pedestrians, safety, lighting and signaling in a construction project. focused on BRT stations. Construction cost savings and the ability to streamline design coordination and construction supervision supported this collaborative approach. This can add complexity, but allows for additional cost savings and reduced construction impacts on stakeholders.

For example, the project improved pedestrian safety along the corridor. The BRT line has been accompanied by a series of safety improvements around stations, including additional lights at pedestrian level, CCTV camera coverage and emergency telephones. Construction included ADA-compliant upgrades, including curb bumps. This approach also completed a critical missing link in the cycle network near one of the BRT stations.

With the project midway through construction, this approach has reduced costs and produced a better built environment for corridor users. The project is ahead of schedule and disruption to residents and businesses along the route has been minimized.

Solicit feedback to improve the passenger experience

Agencies can improve even the best-designed BRT lines. Community members can effectively use the first line as a test and, if agencies are listening, current riders can offer valuable input for the next BRT line.

C-TRAN has shown the importance of public awareness and customer feedback. The Washington State School for the Blind is located along the new Mill Plain BRT route. C-TRAN officials gave students and administrators a tour of the existing BRT route along Fourth Plain Boulevard. This has resulted in changes to how users navigate the station, wayfinding and security improvements, and other features that allow safer access to stations and bus gates.

C-TRAN has also listened to BRT frontline customers to make subtle but significant changes to amenities. The benches under the station canopies have been adjusted slightly to be better protected from the elements, especially in a location that gets a lot of rain.

Upstream community engagement allowed feedback to be incorporated into the design. Conducting meaningful, equity-conscious outreach takes time and effort, but it makes a project an integral part of the community. And proactively looking for opportunities to improve a second BRT line creates a stronger network that works for everyone.

Learn from operations and maintenance employees to improve constructability and maintenance

One of the main benefits of implementing a BRT line network is that lessons learned from operations and maintenance personnel can directly influence the design details of subsequent lines. In Minneapolis, Metro Transit held workshops and brought staff together to identify ways to improve or build on the success of the first two BRT lines. The project team then incorporated this feedback into station design revisions that remained compatible with the existing line and established brand. The key to success has been coordinated communication with stakeholders from the start; this allowed comments to shape the basis of the new line versus a copy-and-paste approach.

Improvements suggested by staff included:

  • Connect fiber to every station, eliminating the long-term costs of Internet service connections.
  • Locate resort amenities so that more snow can be cleared by machine, rather than by hand, over a larger portion of the resort site.
  • Eliminate extra cabinetry on platforms by modifying the aesthetics of the sign pylon in real time to allow communication components to integrate with the sign itself.
  • Plan for contingencies and position stations so that the most expensive equipment is out of traffic, mitigating potential failure in the event of a collision with a car or other vehicle.

Additionally, the team established thresholds for when a station should include certain elements, such as lighted handrails, trees, and seating walls. This ensured that the decision to add them in future stations would be fair.

Addressing these types of changes can help minimize ongoing operation and maintenance costs as a BRT line grows into a BRT program.

To assemble

These two agencies have challenged themselves – and succeeded – in constantly improving their BRT experience. Extending a BRT line to a network offers a wealth of opportunities to provide better service, improved efficiency and better profitability. When an agency seeks inspiration indoors and out, they can create a new BRT line that helps transform an entire community.


Tom Shook is Bus Rapid Transit Lead and Transit Project Manager for HDR. Ryan Bauman, PE, is HDR’s North Central BRT Manager and Minnesota/Wisconsin Transit Manager.

Melvin Z. Madore