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What The Dixie Highway Grant Means For Public Transportation In Louisville

The large-scale reworking of Dixie Highway is expected to give Louisville its first try at a new public transportation concept that promises to get bus riders to their destinations faster.

The plans to rework the congested thoroughfare are moving forward, thanks in large part to a near $17 million federal TIGER grant. State and city governments are also chipping in to help overhaulthe highway with new sidewalks, traffic lights and public transit.

For the nearly 5,000 bus riders who travel along this route every day, the overhaul means better bus stops, new buses and Louisville's first look at a new transit concept that is being used in other communities: Bus Rapid Transit.

Bus Rapid Transit is a concept that combines the flexibility of buses with the efficiency of rail, according to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

BRT may mean improvements such as dedicated lanes for buses, and possibly even stations with specific platforms meant to make boarding go faster. It allows for a more efficient and more reliable transit service for residents.

The grant funding will allow the first steps of Bus Rapid Transit to be developed in Louisville. But it's too early to say to what extent BRT will be instituted on Dixie Highway, said Barry Barker, executive director of TARC.

Barker said a benefit of BRT is that it requires fewer major infrastructure changes than, say, light rail. Light rail, of course, requires rails. But with BRT, Louisville could ease into the concept with gradual improvements.

Dixie Highway is currently served by TARC's No. 18 bus route. The Bus Rapid Transit service will follow that same route, Barker said.

Improvements to 36 bus stops, 18 in each direction, will also be funded via the grant, Barker said. The Bus Rapid Transit service will have fewer stops than the current 18 route and they'll be further apart, to help expedite the service, he said.

The grant funding will also allow for eight new buses to be purchased to run along the route, specifically for the BRT service, said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer at a press conference Monday morning.

"It's really going to be the first time we've had this bus service in our city," he said.

Barker also said some areas along the route will feature extra lanes at traffic lights that buses can utilize to avoid coming to complete stops. This will allow buses to get a jump on traffic. And the new buses will be outfitted with technology that can help change traffic signals to green quicker, or make a green light stay on longer, he said.

A city study earlier this year the concept found Bus Rapid Transit will lead to a 15 percent reduction in travel time compared with current service along Dixie Highway.

BRT could carry about 4,600 riders each day, which when coupled with existing service will allow for a 40 percent boost in ridership capacity, according to the study. More than 800,000 vehicle miles of travel could be eliminated from local roadways with BRT.

Fare for the Bus Rapid Transit service has not been set. The study from earlier this year presented two potential payment options: a tap-and-go system that would cost the same as current service ($1.75) or up the cost to equal that of an express route ($2.75).

"We have turned a corner on what the future of public transportation is going to be like in Louisville," Barker said.

Barker said the success of BRT and the support generated for the service could pave the way for more transit options in Louisville, such as light rail. Metro government is currently working to develop Move Louisville, a strategic transportation plan for the city.

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, during a visit to Louisville last week, said many cities across the country have had Bus Rapid Transit for the past decade.

"But they're bigger cities," he said, noting Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit. He said Louisville is a bit behind when it comes to advancing public transit.

"But not that far behind to still be a real model of alternative forms of transportation other than automobiles," LaHood said.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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