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Madison bus rapid transit questions answered — red lanes and more

24 Jun 2024 2:05 PM | WIPTA Admin (Administrator)

As Madison approaches the launch date for the east-west bus rapid transit line, the special stations and lanes already present a host of questions.

Can cars drive in the lanes with the paved red squares? Will we be able to turn left there? When will all this road work be finished? When can we ride the new bus route?

Mike Cechvala, the capital projects manager for Metro Transit, has overseen the work to implement bus rapid transit and has the answers.

Construction crews on East Washington Avenue, University Avenue and Mineral Point Road are in the final stages of completing stations and platforms for the new bus system after 18 months of road work. City leaders say bus rapid transit, or BRT, will provide faster and more reliable transit service to more people across the city with service every 15 minutes or less. The revamped system will use specialized lanes, dedicated boarding stations, off-board fare collection, and fast and frequent operations.

Those modernizations, however, require construction crews to update underground utilities and traffic signals and to remove the bump-outs at several intersections. That work is almost complete, but there are a handful of steps left before the buses are running, Cechvala said.

The initial east-west line will run roughly between East Towne and West Towne malls. Construction on that line began in the spring.

Meanwhile, the City Council on June 4 unanimously approved the north-south route, which will run from the north side of Madison, through the Downtown area, to Madison’s south side neighborhoods and end in Fitchburg.

For now, though, work continues at some of the east-west stations, like between East Towne Mall and Stoughton Road and at the intersection of East Washington Avenue and Milwaukee Street. Crews are starting to make finishing touches, installing benches, railings, ceiling tiles and glass panels.

The Cap Times spoke to Cechvala about those logistics and the timeline for the east-west route. 

Can cars drive in the lanes with red pavement?

Cechvala: We are in the middle of installing the bus-only lanes. This starts by putting down the red methyl methacrylate colorization people are seeing on East Washington Avenue and other streets. After that, we’ll add white lines, red lines and words that say “BUS ONLY” on top, in addition to signage. Once these are in place, people will not be able to drive in the bus lanes.

Can you get a ticket for driving in those lanes right now?

Cechvala: There’s not much that's really enforceable right now. Right now we’re in the awkward transition period where only the red colorization is in. Just red on its own doesn't mean anything. People can drive over them now, but when they see signs and markings that indicate the lane is bus only, they won’t be able to anymore. So for those who are seeing more red rectangles and they’re like, ‘What the heck is this?’ it’ll start making sense pretty soon. It’s very visible and kind of perplexing if you don't know what's going on. They’re basically just meaningless rectangles. When the BUS ONLY signs go in, it will be bus only and you can't drive in that lane.

How will boarding buses in the middle of the road work?

Cechvala: Buses will have doors on both sides of the bus. Riders will use the signalized crosswalk to cross from the curb to median like they normally would to cross the street. From there, they will walk up a short ramp to the platform, wait for the bus, and do the same thing in reverse when they get off the bus. On a typical journey, a rider does not have to cross the street any more than they do today. About two-thirds of the (east-west) route is center running. One-third is side-running still.

Are there any safety concerns about boarding in the median of a road?

Cechvala: Riders will have the same or better protection from traffic waiting at the platform compared to today waiting on the right side of the street. Having the bus in the left lane rather than the right lane eliminates many conflicts with right-turning vehicles, bikes and other vehicles stopping in the curb lane.

What is the timeline for the east-west line to open?

Cechvala: I hate to say it, but we just don't know it yet. We are still working on a launch date. It will be this fall, but we’re still not close enough to pick an actual date. We’re narrowing down a couple of dates but we don't want to set a date and then realize that it doesn't work. Besides the fact that we want everything to be basically done, there are events and football games, and we're looking to try not to open at the same time that traffic is a mess.

What is the status of construction? 

Cechvala: We have 31 stations. Because there are multiple platforms at some of the stations, there are 44 platforms. I have three major milestones that I keep track of: One is the platform being complete, so that’s the roadwork and concrete. Then there is the shelter structure being complete, and then, the last thing is the whole thing being complete. Nothing yet is totally finished but those numbers are growing and getting closer. Thirty-two out of 44 platforms are complete. For the shelters, 39 out of 44 are done. 

What else needs to be done?

We have a number of other things being built, odds and ends. People are starting to see pavement markings in the bus lanes. We’ve started painting the lines as well. You see the red first because the actual pavement markings go on top of that, and we put that off to closer to the end when the bus lanes will be actually open.

What else should people know as construction wraps up?

Cechvala: There are some other things to watch out for, like left turn restrictions. On East Wash, (once BRT starts), most of the time it will be two lanes of car traffic instead of three lanes. During rush hour, parking will be restricted and you will have the same three lanes. We hope going to two lanes will help manage traffic speeds and provide a more appropriate capacity, but we do need the capacity during rush hour for vehicles.

How many left turns will be removed on the route?

Cechvala: There are five total. One is the westbound left turn at University and Shorewood. That left turn didn't used to exist, and when the city rebuilt University Avenue a number of years ago, they squeezed in a very small left turn bay. We've removed that. There are four on East Washington. That would be:

  • The eastbound left at Paterson Street
  • The eastbound left at Baldwin Street
  • The westbound at Fourth Street
  • The eastbound toward Melvin Court

Was reducing the lanes on East Wash a purposeful change to address speeding?

It's not an intentional thing but it ties in well with some of the city’s other objectives to reduce speeds and reckless driving. It’s really all about BRT, but it's all connected.

Will fares go up when BRT starts?

Cechvala: No, fares are not going up, but we are instituting a new fare program and policy so it will be faster and easier to pay. There will be conveniences with that. There's going to be a combination of ways to pay. Right now, we have this antiquated magnetic stipe card. We're getting rid of that and we're using a combination of things, such as a smart card. At some point you'll be able to use your phone to pay with an app, with Apple Pay, Google Pay, debit and credit cards. That's not all going to come online at the same time, but that's the overall goal. It's a separate thing but it's tied to the BRT system — we'll be rolling that out ahead of the BRT launch sometime in the fall. 

Read the full article here.

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