LAN Brings Sun Metro Brio System to El Paso
Aiming to more efficiently move people from downtown El Paso, Texas, to the surrounding communities, the city created Sun Metro Brio, a new bus rapid transit system with help from Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (LAN) of Houston.
"Bus rapid transit is like a rubber tire version of light rail," says Margaret Schroeder, PE, MASCE, Engineering Division Manager for the city of El Paso. "It's usually about a fifth of the cost of light rail. The focus is on providing fast, efficient service."
The infrastructure for bus rapid transit differs from traditional bus stops, added Chris Masters, PE, Vice President of LAN and the transit leader in the firm's transportation business group, which designed the system. Bus rapid transit uses platforms, longer than the length of the bus and lanes for buses to pull into and out of the platform area. "The facility accommodates fast movement," Masters says.
The first bus rapid transit system was built in Curitiba, Brazil, in 1974, according to a 2011 report from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York. Systems now exist in countries around the world. A similar system operates in Mexico City.
The idea in El Paso began in 2008, with a goal to make the city one of the least car-dependent municipalities in the Southwest. In addition to cost, Masters explains that bus rapid transit allows the roads to be used for more than one mode of transportation. Light rail requires building track.
Schroeder hopes the corridors will serve as catalysts for economic development. Some transit-oriented development (TOD) is under way on the Mesa Corridor: Montecillo is half built out and located midway through the corridor. There are proposed TODs for the Alameda, Dyer and Montana corridors.
"There are some businesses present in the vicinity of these stations areas today, but with patrons traveling back and forth, these businesses can grow," Masters says. "It helps them with business opportunities."
Planning the Brio
The word "brio" means excitement, verve and energy in Spanish. It was selected as the name of the bus rapid transit system through a community survey.
The Brio will contain four corridors when built out. The first one, the $27 million Mesa corridor, has been built. Two are designed and in bidding for construction, and the last one will start design this fall. All of the corridors begin at the Downtown Transfer Center. Buses travel on existing roads carrying other traffic in addition to the 60-foot long, high-capacity bus. Rapid transit buses stop at each station about every 10 minutes during peak hours, every 15 minutes at off-peak times and every 20 minutes on Saturdays.
Part of the system includes traffic signal prioritization, lengthening the green light for enhanced traffic flow.
LAN designed the 8.6-mile, 22-station Mesa Corridor, which received $13.5 million in Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funds. It opened in October 2014 and currently carries 52,000 people per month. The city has set a goal of 60,000. "It's been working well," Schroeder says. "It's been very well received."
Students at the University of Texas El Paso and El Paso Community College ride the rapid transit buses on the Mesa Corridor, as well as families and workers.
The second corridor to be built is Alameda, a 15-mile, 28-station route to the Mission Valley Transfer Center. The local government will completely fund the $35.5 million project. It will connect a couple of medical centers and parks to downtown. "It is the one with the highest volume of transit passengers," Schroeder says.
The $35.7 million, 12-mile Dyer corridor heads toward the northeast and the Ft. Bliss Army Post, and received $20.4 million in FTA funding. The route terminates at the Northgate Transfer Center, which is currently under construction, and is part of a $125 million TOD project.
El Paso's planned $47 million Montana corridor, now in design, has been granted $27.7 million in FTA support.
Design support for this project was provided to LAN by Carl Daniels Architects, Moreno Cardenas, Sites Southwest, all located in El Paso, and LTK Engineering Services of Ambler, Pennsylvania.
"A big aspect of the project is designing the stations," Masters says. Depending on the location, LAN designed three different length stations, each with two different widths to best fit in with their specific locations. El Paso had to acquire some right of way for the stations, which affected some available parking. Initially, some business owners were concerned about having the large station outside their businesses, but Schroeder reports it has worked well on the Mesa Corridor.
El Paso highlighted the benefit to businesses, which include enhanced lighting and landscaping. Passengers board and exit the buses at branded and landscaped Brio stations, which are about a mile apart. Fixed-route buses do not stop at Brio stations, although the bus stops are in close vicinity to make transfers easier. All of the stations comply with American Disabilities Act requirements.
"You have to assure there is an accessible path to the station," Masters says. "You have to consider how much modification you do to adjacent infrastructure. You have to make the experience acceptable to the customer. It's a process at each individual location."
Passengers purchase Brio tickets from vending machines at the stations and can board through three bus doors from an elevated platform of about 10-inches, the approximate height of the bus, to walk onto the bus. All of the stations have public art.
"The stations provide a place for people to wait for the bus and be protected from the sun, a major concern for El Paso," Masters says.
LAN designed the stations with a translucent, polycarbonate panels on the top and sides with aluminum egg-crate type material that dissipates heat and provides shade. It is cool to the touch and allows visibility on both sides of the panel. At night, the light shines through the panels and creates a sense of place.
"We are proud that we helped the city bring this service to the community," Masters says. "It makes it easier for a lot of people in a very economical way."