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Rochester 2020 — Rail vs. Fast Buses?

April 7th, 2009

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Bogota, Colombia - notice the separate lanes and enclosed shelters. A fixed guideway BRT system may one day serve Rochester.If I said Rochester may one day have a rapid transportation system linking RIT to downtown Rochester and beyond, you might automatically think ‘light rail’. Think again. RochesterSubway.com recently discussed the future of Rochester’s transportation infrastructure with Richard Perrin, Executive Director of the Genesee Transportation Council external link and an AICP certified city planner.

NOTE: If you’ve got a question that we didn’t ask in our interview, please leave a comment at the end of this post and we’ll pass it along to Mr. Perrin who will do his best to answer it as time permits.

ROCHESTERSUBWAY.COM: Do you feel our current system of highways, bus routes, etc. are adequate to serve the needs and growth of our community moving into the future?

MR. PERRIN: Based on the Long Range Transportation Plan for the Genesee-Finger Lakes Region: 2007-2027 Update external link, the capacity of the current highway and bridge network will continue to be adequate to support the travel of persons and freight associated with the increases in population and employment that are forecasted for the region (as determined by historical trends) over the next 20 years. Existing areas of congestion will gradually expand during the peak periods (i.e., the morning and evening rush hours) if nothing is done but much of this can be mitigated (or even eliminated) through highly cost-effective investments in Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) external link technologies and Travel Demand Management external link activities.

ROCHESTERSUBWAY.COM: What do you think mass-transit in Rochester NY should look like in 2020? Specifically, what would you like to see changed or upgraded?

MR. PERRIN: Public transportation in the region should not only provide mobility and accessibility for persons without the ability to operate or access a private automobile but also serve as an attractive option for the discretionary rider. The form this takes will be dictated by the demands placed on the system by future development patterns and the resources available to provide public transportation services. The Regional Transit Service (RTS) operated by the Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority (RGRTA) in Monroe County has seen significant increases in ridership (approximately 20 percent between October 2007 and October 2008). Ultimately, the decisions that shape the public transportation system over the next 10 to 12 years will be based on an on-going analysis of current and likely future development (both redevelopment and new development) and the associated needs and desires to utilize the services of this system.

ROCHESTERSUBWAY.COM: As the City of Rochester works to implement its long term vision for the center city, what are some lessons from our past that we can build on?

MR. PERRIN: There are a number of lessons that we can learn from not only the past but also the present. There are approximately 50,000 employees who work inside the Inner Loop external link (the Rochester Central Business District or CBD). This represents approximately one out of every 10 jobs in the 4,700-square mile nine-county region. The hub-and-spoke system employed by RTS provides a competitive advantage and reinforces the Rochester CBD as the geographical mainstay of the region. The City of Rochester, Monroe County, and RGRTA have carefully assessed these factors and incorporated them into future development in the Rochester CBD through Renaissance Square, the Broad Street Corridor Master Plan, and other activities.

ROCHESTERSUBWAY.COM: In your opinion, is there a future for local, rail-based transportation (i.e., trolleys, streetcars, light rail, subway, etc.) within Rochester and it’s suburbs?

MR. PERRIN: There are two key points here:

1. Assuming that rail-based public transportation is the best future option for Rochester and its suburbs is just that: an assumption. Numerous factors determine what the optimal facilities to comprise a regional transportation network are, and costs (both capital and operating) are a primary consideration. There is another “fixed guideway” option: Bus Rapid Transit external link which is less costly and more flexible than rail-based options. In addition, improving current bus operations through ITS via signal prioritization and advanced traveler information systems for RTS buses is being evaluated and implemented to varying degrees right now.

2. At present, the current programs of the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) typically allow for up to 80 percent of the total cost of a highway or bridge project (replacement of existing or construction of new) to be funded by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). FTA administers the New Starts program for fixed guideway systems. This program typically requires a non-federal (local/state) share of 50 percent of the project costs even though the enabling legislation allows for up to 80 percent to be federal – this is because funds from the New Starts program are awarded on a competitive basis and the amount allocated to the program is significantly less than the amount of interest from agencies across the nation (many of whom are expanding existing fixed guideway systems). As a note, this community supplements Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funding dedicated to RTS with FHWA external link funds in recognition that USDOT external link does not provide enough funds to sustain, much less improve, our existing system.

The introduction of light rail in this community is not financially feasible at this time given the multitude of issues facing the community that require public resources, the overall resistance to additional local and state taxes and fees, and the fact that the local/state share for the construction costs of a light rail system (not including the on-going operating and maintenance costs) would be, at a minimum, approximately $12.5 million per mile (50 percent of the total cost at $25 million per mile).

With that said, GTC continues to assess the potential of high-capacity corridors in the region to determine the viability of implementing cost-effective fixed guideway public transportation services in coordination with associated transit oriented development. We do this because opportunities may arise in the future that would make a fixed guideway system cost-effective such as changes in USDOT funding policies, current development patterns, and personal travel preferences.

ROCHESTERSUBWAY.COM: What would be an example of a corridor in our area that would be a candidate for a fixed guideway system? What destinations might be connected?

MR. PERRIN: GTC has identified Commuter Corridors for the Rochester Transportation Management Area (see CommuterCorridors.pdf external link ), which includes all of Monroe County and the surrounding areas to the south and east in Livingston, Ontario, and Wayne Counties. The most prominent one at present would be a subset of Commuter Corridor 8 from, at a minimum, the University of Rochester to Downtown Rochester with consideration of extending the line south through portions of Brighton to the Rochester Institute of Technology and potentially north to the Port of Rochester/Charlotte.

It cannot be stressed enough that a single fixed guideway corridor would not be a sufficient investment. If the community were to commit to implementing fixed guideway transit, it would have to be a commitment to a system that would connect our multiple activity centers, including [points downtown, GRI Airport, Charlotte, etc.].

ROCHESTERSUBWAY.COM: If Rochester were to implement RBT, what are some other cities that might serve as a role model for that system?

Bus stop of the Rede Integrada de Transporte (RIT) in Curitiba, Brazil.Perrin: Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is still a fairly new fixed guideway option but a few examples offer some insights as to its effectiveness and, potentially, its pitfalls. The two most extensively cited examples are in South America: the Transmilenio in Bogota, Columbiaexternal link and the Curitiba, Brazil BRT system external link. However, there are marked differences between factors affecting transportation mode choice in these areas and Rochester, New York – namely, private vehicle ownership.

Metro Bus Tunnel in Seattle, Washington. Mr. Perrin doesn't mention Seattle's Rapid Bus system (probably because it's mostly underground and not comparable to anything we'd see here in Rochester) but it's one of the coolest things I've ever ridden on that didn't glide along a track.In the U.S., Albany NY external link, Hartford CT external link, and Eugene OR external link, are some of the projects that may be suitable comparisons. However, every area is unique and success or failure in another part of the country may not be indicative of the benefits/impacts of implementing BRT (or any other fixed guideway system) here.

Also, it is extremely important to note that BRT proponents/advocates often state that BRT is Light Rail Transit (LRT), only cheaper. It is my opinion that this is not entirely accurate. Even with off-board fare collection, next-stop bus technology, dedicated rights-of-way, level boarding platforms, and signal preemption, there are two distinct differences: 1.) BRT does not provide the same level of physical permanence as LRT for surrounding development and 2.) the actual BRT ride itself is not of the same experience as LRT.

This is not to say that one is superior to the other, only that they are not the exact same and should not be viewed as such. They are two options on a spectrum ranging from demand-responsive bus service to heavy commuter rail. Cost (both capital and operating) is obviously a consideration when making decisions with public funds (i.e., taxpayers’ money) and the differences need to be recognized and accounted for in the evaluation of alternatives.

ROCHESTERSUBWAY.COM: Finally, what would you say to the Rochesterian with an “if you build it they will come” mindset? Those who say that a subway/light-rail system connecting the brightest spots in Rochester (East End, Cornhill, Park Ave, etc.) together with key points in our region (Pittsford, Canandaigua, GRI Airport, etc.) would jumpstart growth, and in the long run pay for itself?

MR. PERRIN: My response would be the same as to those that claim that new highways do not effectively improve mobility in the long-term and induce additional single-occupancy vehicle demand: transportation planning and the resulting investments are most effective and yield the largest benefits when they are coordinated with land use planning.

Why build it and hope they will come when you can implement the transportation investment(s) in concert with land use regulation changes and development incentives that secure private development commitments (to the greatest extent possible) simultaneously?

As for paying for itself, any form of transportation that does this (or comes reasonably close) would be provided for by private entities. The fact is that all forms of transportation require some level and form of public subsidy because they provide a public good. The consideration that needs to be continually reviewed is what level and form of public subsidy is appropriate, and much of this is dictated by policy directives at the federal level.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 7th, 2009 at 11:18 am and is filed under Interviews, Rochester News, Transit + Infrastructure, Urban Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

18 Responses to “Rochester 2020 — Rail vs. Fast Buses?”

  1. Peter Sigrist says:

    Great interview! It would be ideal if we could still have some form of rail transportation, but BRT sounds like a good supplement. I hope the buses can be made as attractive, comfortable, dependable, and ecologically friendly as streetcars.

  2. admin says:

    Sounds to me like BRT would be inherently more eco-friendly than traditional bus service given the dedicated right-of-ways, platforms for quicker boarding, etc. BUT compared to an electric streetcar? We’d have to be talking about some very low emission buses. Maybe Mr. Perrin could shed some light on the green question.

  3. Robert J.Hall says:

    There in lies the problem with Rochester.The people here think they know all the answers and the rest of the cities in the contry are wrong.This city does everything without thinking first about is it going to work.Whos going to come downtown on a bus that dosent allready do so.Who is going to wait at a Terminal where they will get mugged or god forbid shot for nothing.
    The whole infrasture was here and in place.The mentality of the people who are in charge seen fit to tear it all out.What does that tell you about the people of Rochester.

  4. admin says:

    Robert – I’m not sure I get your point. Are you saying you’d rather keep things as they are now because the city is not worth investing in? I agree that Rochester once had a breathtaking rail infrastructure — unfortunately we can’t bring back the past. Rochester was one out of hundreds of U.S. cities to dismantle its trolley lines. Now we are one out of hundreds of cities trying to bring people back to Main Street. Cities only grow and prosper when they are accessible. So I’m having trouble understanding how one could argue against giving this idea serious thought especially when there are success stories to point to. Also from my experience with Bus Rapid Transit in other cities, riders typically don’t need to wait more than a few minutes for a bus. Buses arrive almost one right after the other.

  5. Larry Keefe says:

    Even cursory research shows that this concept is a non-starter.

    “Bus rapid transit”, as both a term and concept, apparently was first proposed in Chicago in 1937. It was later promoted aggressively by General Motors beginning in the 1960s.[Source: Wilbur Smith & Associates. Transportation and Parking for American Cities, 1966, p. 217; Light Rail Progress]

    A study titled “Impact on Transit Patronage of Cessation or Inauguration of Rail Service”, for example, published by the Transportation Research Board in 1989 (Transportation Research Record 1221), Edson L. Tennyson, PE, concludes that, when service conditions are equal:

    “It is evident that rail transit is likely to attract from 34 percent to 43 percent more riders than will equivalent bus service. The data do not provide explanations for this phenomenon, but other studies and reports suggest that the clearly identifiable rail route; delineated stops that are often protected; more stable, safer, and more comfortable vehicles; freedom from fumes and excessive noise; and more generous vehicle dimensions may all be factors.”

    In a subsequent analysis of recent LRT and busway installations, Tennyson concludes that, for new starts installed in corridors serving the core areas of American cities, “BRT” busways have attracted only one-third of the rider-trips estimated for them by modeling approved by the Federal Transit Administration.

    In contrast, new LRT operations have attracted 122 percent of their projected ridership.

    When the Rochester subway was closed, the announcement of its closing described how all of the slack would be picked up by buses. Fifty two years later we still do not have a viable system of mass transit to replace it.

    See more details about buses vs LRT at http://www.lightrailnow.org/facts/fa_brt_2006-08a.htm

  6. Chris L says:


    First of all, citing information provided by a light rail advocacy group can hardly be seen as objective. While the statistics and information provided there may be valid, there is just as much bias evident in the omission of poignant counter arguments for BRT on the site.

    That being said, the primary issue, and the reason that Mr. Perrin gave for BRT being implemented in Rochester, is the financing for the project. While a light rail system will probably attract more riders in the long run by all accounts I’ve seen, both objective and not, the problem for a city like Rochester obtaining a light rail system is one of money. As Mr. Perrin said, there are only limited funds available to cities, especially one the size of Rochester, to improve its transit systems, which then brings up the issue of getting the most for that limited investment. Even if light rail is superior, no matter which way you break it down it requires extensive amounts of capital investment to plan and install, and so a city like Rochester would be forfeiting a decent to good BRT system for a limited and flawed light rail network. In addition, it does not make logical sense to the people in charge of the public coffers to dole out money for a very expensive expansion of a public transportation system when the current one is not even operating at or near capacity.

    While I personally perfer light rail and think it offers a better rider experience and quicker service, I think that the development of a BRT system, if that is all we can afford, represents a positive step forward in easing congestion and lessening our dependence on fossil fuels. It may also, perhaps, help garner future support and provide evidence for the construction of a light rail system by its success or failure.

  7. Larry Keefe says:


    Thanks for the response. It’s good to know that this site is being read.

    My initial post was meant to point out that–as the head of a bus company–it is not surprising that Mr. Perrin is justifying an expanded bus system, rather than a rail/mass transit system. This is not the only possible vision for the future of local transit.

    I’d welcome knowing what omissions were committed in the studies cited. If you know of substantive and relative ones, your comment would have more strength if you cited them. (BTW, because academic studies are cited by an advocate of light rail systems does no more to invalidate them than it would invalidate the US Census if it were cited by a group one disagreed with.)

    On the issue of financing: there can never be “enough” money to finance any kind of comprehensive rail system. That’s why these kinds of system are built with long term bonds that are then paid off by the increased regional growth sparked by having excellent mass transit. If the Rochester metropolitan area is willing to settle for a mediocre solution, one thing you can count on–we will get mediocrity.

    In my view, the heavy capital investment required is paradoxically a positive feature of rail. It ensures that a) the region has made a commitment to it, which reassures and encourages potential developers, and b) there will be strong pressure from bondholders, etc. not to simply stop or cut back service at times like the present when declines in the local economy drive up ridership. Parking a bus is a lot easier than taking a train off the tracks.

    There’s no question light rail is superior to the failed concept of BRT–but if we pour even more money into a bus system, of course, there won’t be enough for light rail. And as the Rochester region continues to stagnate, the money will never be available.

    That’s my take on it.

  8. Bob says:

    I wasn’t going to comment since its unlikely it will ever be seen at this late date, but I take issue with a pair of things in Mr. Perrin’s final response.

    “My response would be the same as to those that claim that new highways do not effectively improve mobility in the long-term and induce additional single-occupancy vehicle demand”

    I am certainly not a build it and they will come guy. I feel a rail spine should start by occupying the route of the current buses with the highest ridership. The problem is that he implies a group without reason is one and the same as a group who know something about reality.

    While economic and geological factors may reverse the trend, in the age of cheap oil it was uneqivocally true that building additional highways, limited access or otherwise, did little to reduce congestion while essentially promoting participation in our nearly mandated national motoring program.

    “As for paying for itself, any form of transportation that does this (or comes reasonably close) would be provided for by private entities.”

    I am not in disagreement here either, but lets talk about how said service would operate on a level playing field.

    Streetcar systems, interurban rail lines, and intercity passenger rail service across the country didn’t fail on its own merits. It was pushed off a cliff on three fronts.

    First, taxation of all rail services continued while money for palatial airports servicing a directly competing private industry was granted by nearly every level of government.

    Second, General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire, and other so-called ‘stakeholders’ created a front company to buy up streetcar systems, discard them, and replace them with uncomfortable buses to create additional incentive toward vehicle ownership. Despite conviction on conspiracy charges, the penalty was a slap on the wrist in the form of a $5,000 fine.

    Third, the incredible amount of resources furnished by state and federal government to create the interstate highway system, many of which destroyed the neighborhoods they were poorly designed to connect.

    Obviously we aren’t going to be ripping up 80% of our roadways anytime soon (though the airlines are on their last legs). I just don’t believe you can make a statement like that while resting on policy that fosters those very conditions.

    These services did operate independently and profitably for a time despite government’s best efforts to get a disproportionate slice out of what Mr. Perrin describes as a provision of public good.

  9. Jeff says:

    Great points Bob. Maybe what goes around really does come around, as GM files for bankruptcy and the Government twist their arms toward electric powered vehicles!

  10. Jamar says:

    The problems I see with buses (as well as one found in Rochester’s system that has not happened in larger cities) is that one, they may be unreliable. Clogged roads mean that buses are slowed down. A dedicated right-of-way for BRT is only good if it can be guaranteed to be clear at all times; on the other hand, Japan has shown that rail travel is often punctual to the second. Two, bus stops tend to be somewhat unsafe (for certain reasons). If they can be reliably policed as a rail transit station would be, that would help. And the problem that Rochester has is the hub-and-spoke system, which actually increases transit times for suburb-to-suburb travel (I understand the purpose is to redevelop downtown, but herding people there will only anger those who aren’t going there). What I think would be a good idea (though an overly idealistic one if no one thinks anyone would use it) for Rochester is to have through services to other nearby cities (or even further ones, like Toronto, with a right-of-way separate from the Amtrak one that’s shared with freight rail) on whatever urban transit system you decide on in the future.

  11. Joe D. says:

    Wow Jamar…talk about forshadowing…high speed rail looks like it’s on its way! I am a huge fan of rail…i think it would do wonders for our great city…i currently live outside Baltimore Md and they have a light rail system. Good model but they have a lot of problems with crime. I hope things continue to progress in Rochester as our city gets stronger and once again becomes a vibrant model for the rest of the state/country.

    Just my humble opinion.


    Joe Dattilo

  12. Jamar says:

    Well, Joe, I wouldn’t say “on its way” yet, but I think the technology is definitely ripe for the picking if/when the city decides to use it. (BTW- I’m not living in Rochester yet, but I’m considering it for college later, so I’m just throwing out opinions based on what I already know). What I’d like to see, if not through services (border crossing would be a pain if anyone attempted to run a subway through service to Toronto, so probably the Amtrak station is best for this, or perhaps a small-ish station in the airport to use its customs facilities since there seems to be no subway-Amtrak link), but “almost-through” services (that is, only a platform change; ticket is purchased with subway fare attached). For example, in Japan (they always seem to be at the front of my mind when I think about rail transit, though not without cause) you can buy (or rather, subscribe to the service, then they send you the member card) combined super-express/local passes so that you can get from one smaller station in, say, a Tokyo suburb to another in say, rural western Japan without needing to buy separate tickets. But this isn’t possible with the Rochester transit system as it is (or as it would be in the “new” map that went up on StrangeMaps) without a convenient link to the Amtrak station (ideally, in the same building).

  13. Joe D. says:


    Well thought out! I hope you choose Rochester for your education…it’s a city I miss dearly everyday. Thank you for the reply to my post…it’s nice to see that i’m not the only one that visits the rail site. Where do you currently live? I’ve been out of the ROC for 8 years now but will eventually move back. I think the whole Rennaisance Square debacle should have included an intermodal transit station that either; is located at the current Amtrak station OR both the Amtrak and bus station moved to a new, more practical station (near the airport perhaps). Just a thought.



  14. S.C. says:

    I grew up in the suburbs of Rochester, and I have to say that if there were reliable and rapid public transit, I would definitely have utilized it to take advantage of the Rochester night-life. As it was, nobody ever wanted to drive downtown and get dragged around as the “DD”. It usually made for a short night. We usually stuck to the suburbs out of both habit and convenience.

    I see that there is a very definite segregation of suburbanites and city dwellers in the Rochester area, in part I believe due to the legacy of “white flight”, and the lack of good public transit that perpentuated the schism. A good system would help to reintegrate and rejuvinate the area.

    Public buses carry a lower income stigma, and therefore will probably not catch on adequately among people from afluent suburban areas. Rail would be a much better draw, and would be good for the psyche of the area, allowing citizens to identify their city with metropolitan icons like New York, Boston, Chicago, etc.

  15. Larry Keefe says:

    Thanks for an excellent post. This summarizes from the viewpoint of a potential user the key arguments for restoring light rail to Rochester.

  16. Tim Ellis says:

    A couple of points:

    1) I take it the title of the post is a reference to “Ontario 2020,” the transit plan for our northern neighbours? Do we have anything similar – a competing and realistic proposal for light-rail infrastructure development?

    2) People ride the street car because it is obvious where it is going. You can SEE the rails! By contrast, a bus is messier, smaller, more confusing (is this 24 or 24a? Why am I in Henrietta? Why did we turn at that street? Why did the bus go down Mount Hope instead of South Ave this time? WTF?) and often late or stuck in traffic or stuck in snow. It’s a classic example of a useless cycle – we have shoddy transit because nobody wants to ride our transit so we don’t upgrade our transit so nobody wants to ride our transit. When I first started going to Toronto, I avoided all bus routes and used only streetcar and subway because I grew up in a place without mass transit and didn’t know how to work the system – but the rail options were so obvious that I didn’t have any problems figuring them out.

    3) People who go to RIT never leave RIT. SC makes a great point – when I lived in Henrietta I never went downtown. I don’t drive and won’t drive, and without a car, it’s nearly impossible to get downtown in a timely manner. There are tens of thousands of actively spending students who never even SEE the downtown core despite being 15 minutes away. Light rail opens that entire market up.

    4) Every time somebody buys a car, they are sending thousands of dollars to Detroit or Japan. Every time somebody fills a tank, they are taking money out of Rochester and shipping it direct to Texas or Saudi Arabia. But every time somebody rides a street car or bus or subway here, that money goes right back into Rochester. 100% of it. Now think about all the cars on the road and all the money we are just siphoning right out of our economy and handing to other cities. Why? Why is that the best option?

    5) Transit is the circulatory system around which an economy body is built. If we build a solid transit system now, it won’t be used to capacity at first. You could call that under-utilization – or you could call it growth potential.

    So really – have we tried putting together a strong light-rail proposal to take to city council to compete with these bus plans? Can we make a Rochester 2020 plan and at least present it?

  17. admin says:


    The similarity to the title of the Ontario 2020 plan was a complete coincidence. This post came about as the result of our attempt to find out if Rochester/Monroe County had any plan to expand public transportation options in the future. Out of 15-20 city and county officials we contacted (including all of City Council), Mr. Perrin was one of the only people who offered to field our questions. One other person got back to us but when pressed he deferred to Mr. Perrin.

    But Rochester absolutely needs a plan for light rail. The closest thing we’ve had to a real plan came almost 10 years ago from a citizen’s group called the Rochester Rail Transit Committee but as far as I know that effort has fizzled out. Their site is http://www.ggw.org/rrtc/. This plan might have been too ambitious for it to gain any traction. In my opinion we need to start with a very simple line in the core of downtown that works in conjunction with the bus system. Then build off of that.

    Whether or not our government officials would back such a plan initially is irrelevant. They are not the visionaries… we are. RochesterSubway.com will work to develop a plan for light rail in Rochester. But we can’t do it alone. Keep reading our posts, leave comments, and submit any ideas you might have.

  18. Paris says:

    I love reading these articles! I’m very excited about the future of the Rochester area, so excited I moved back to Rochester from Fort Bragg, NC hoping to witness growth in this wonderful city.
    I believe Rochester would really benefit from LRT, in my opinion. The area has so much potential for growth. The only thing is being ready for the move to LRT, and a plan to keep it running effectively.

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