Turning a BRT Line into a Successful Network

March 22, 2022
C-TRAN and Metro Transit offer examples of how expanding a BRT line to a network offers a host of opportunities to bring better service, improved efficiency and better cost-effectiveness.

After the opening of a popular bus rapid transit (BRT) line, C-TRAN in Vancouver, Wash., is gearing up for the opening of a second line currently under construction. Moreover, C-TRAN is ready to enter planning for its third line.

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

These two communities in different regions share one thing: the appetite to build on their success and create not just a single BRT line, but a network. Both cities 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, featuring 38 stations and a new nine-bay transit center.

The nine-mile METRO C Line, which opened in 2019, connected North Minneapolis with jobs and opportunities from Brooklyn Center to downtown Minneapolis. The line logged its millionth rider just five months after opening. Now under construction, the METRO D Line is on-deck to open later this year. This line features 77 platform locations across four cities, delivering a fast, frequent, all-day upgrade to the highest ridership bus route in Minnesota.

“In the Twin Cities, we’re building out a network of fast, frequent, all-day BRT services to help residents and visitors in our region make all kinds of trips without needing a car,” said Katie Roth, Metro Transit’s director of arterial BRT. “With each new link in that network, we’re broadening access to opportunity and making our whole system stronger.”

With every new BRT line, the transit industry should challenge itself to improve. These two communities did just that — and they found success by working in the conceptual phase to gain feedback and focus improvement efforts on the areas of highest need.

To do this, they packaged nearby projects to streamline costs, conducted outreach to improve passenger experience and solicited staff feedback. C-TRAN also designed the project to cost, exerting financial discipline to allow a community’s vision to become a reality.

Designing to Cost

C-TRAN’s first BRT line had a resoundingly positive response from the community. The area wanted to quickly capitalize on that groundswell to build a second line.

“With the success of C-TRAN’s Fourth Plain BRT — the Vine — there was such strong support from our community partners, elected officials and our riders to move as quickly as possible to expand BRT to Mill Plain and to do so in a manner that best fits the needs of that corridor,” said Randy Parker, C-TRAN’s BRT and regional planning project manager.

HDR, partnering 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 (FTA) Capital Investment Grant (CIG) project justification warrants procedure to streamline the application and review process. This decision was made even before planning began to streamline delivery. This meant that the design team targeted an exact project cost, $50 million, and had to design to budget.

The team remained laser-focused on budget as they made design decisions, keeping the scope of the project narrow enough to remain within budget while still delivering a successful BRT project. These decisions included:

  • Strategically placing stations to minimize utility impacts and near pre-existing signalized, protected pedestrian crossings.
  • Lowering fleet costs through C-TRAN's leveraging of a preexisting state contract that provided a discount.
  • Reducing right-of-way costs by shifting berthing at stations farther into the street. This also had the benefit of reducing the frequency of buses hitting curbs and damaging tires.
  • Focusing improvements within close proximity to stations to ensure that the budget was directly tied to BRT project costs.
  • Increasing the average distance between stations from a third of a mile to half a mile. This was in response to passenger requests for faster service, but it also meant lower station costs.

Leveraging BRT Investment for Broader Corridor Improvements

In the Twin Cities, both the A and C Lines were built in coordination with significant roadway enhancements planned and funded by local partners. Early in the METRO D Line design, the team recognized the value of coordinating local priorities for pedestrian, safety, lighting and signal improvements in one construction project focused on BRT stations. The cost savings for construction and the ability to streamline design coordination and construction oversight supported this collaborative approach. This can add complexity but provides additional cost savings and reduction in construction impacts to stakeholders.

For example, the project improved pedestrian safety all along the corridor. The BRT line came with a suite of safety improvements around the stations, including additional pedestrian level lights, CCTV camera coverage and emergency telephones. Packaged in with the construction were ADA-compliant upgrades including curb bump-outs. This approach also provided the opportunity to complete a critical missing link in the bike network near one of the BRT stations.

With the project past the mid-way point of construction, this approach has reduced costs and yielded a better built environment for corridor users. The project is ahead of schedule and disruptions to residents and businesses along the route have been minimized.

Soliciting Feedback to Enhance Passenger Experience

Agencies can improve upon 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 showed the importance of public outreach and customer feedback. The Washington State School for the Blind is located along the new Mill Plain BRT route. C-TRAN officials brought students and administrators on a tour of the existing BRT route along Fourth Plain Boulevard. This led to changes in how users navigate the station, wayfinding and safety improvements and other items that allow for safer access to stations and the bus doors.

C-TRAN also listened to the customers of the first BRT line to make subtle, yet important amenity modifications. The benches under the station canopies were slightly adjusted to be better protected from the elements, particularly in a location that experiences a lot of rain.

Engaging the community on the front end allowed their feedback to be built into the design. Conducting meaningful, equity-aware outreach takes time and effort, but it makes a project a truly integral part of the community. And proactively looking for opportunities to improve a second BRT line creates a stronger network that works for everyone.

Learning from Operations & Maintenance Employees to Improve Constructability and Maintenance

One key benefit to implementing a network of BRT lines is that lessons learned from operations and maintenance staff can directly influence the design details of subsequent lines. In Minneapolis, Metro Transit held workshops and brought together staff 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 was coordinated stakeholder communication from the beginning; this allowed the feedback to shape the foundation of the new line versus a copy-and-paste approach.

Enhancements suggested by staff included:

  • Connecting fiber to every station, eliminating the long-term costs of internet service connections.
  • Locating station amenities so that more snow could be cleared by machine, rather than by hand, across more of the station site.
  • Eliminating additional cabinets at platforms by modifying aesthetics of the real-time sign pylon to allow communications components to fit within the sign itself.
  • Planning for the unexpected and positioning stations so that the most expensive equipment is shielded from traffic, mitigating the potential outage if struck by a car or other vehicle.

Additionally, the team established thresholds for when a station should include certain elements, such as lighted handrails, trees and seat walls. This ensured that the decision to add these at future stations will be an equitable one.

Addressing these kinds of changes can help minimize ongoing operations and maintenance costs as a BRT line expands into a BRT program.

Bringing it Together

These two agencies challenged themselves — and succeeded — in consistently improving upon their BRT experience. Expanding a BRT line to a network offers a host of opportunities to bring better service, improved efficiency and better cost-effectiveness. When an agency reaches inward and outward for inspiration, it can create a new BRT line that helps transform an entire community.


Tom Shook is the bus rapid transit lead and transit project manager for HDR. Ryan Bauman, P.E., is HDR’s north-central BRT lead and Minnesota/Wisconsin transit manager.

About the Author

Tom Shook | Bus Rapid Transit Leader, HDR

Tom Shook is the bus rapid transit lead and transit project manager for HDR.

About the Author

Ryan Bauman | North-Central BRT Lead, Wisconsin/Minnesota Transit Manager, HDR

Ryan Bauman, P.E., is HDR's north-central BRT lead and Minnesota/Wisconsin transit manager.