Bus stops are an early test for infrastructure spending

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Judy Stevens’ bus stop shelter is no match for the dreaded New Orleans rain. When it rains, she takes refuge under the awning of a gas station, then rushes to the sidewalk in her rain boots when the bus arrives.

Even when it’s dry, Stevens, 56, begins the hour-long journey to her job as a medical technician in the dark. Passengers shine mobile phone flashlights on the bus stop sign to attract the attention of approaching bus drivers.

“When I go out of town, I take pictures of other bus stops and shelters and say, ‘It would be really nice if we could have that,'” she said.

Along much of the No. 94 road that Stevens takes through town, there are no shelters. This pattern is repeated across the country: Less than a fifth of the more than 122,000 bus stops served by 16 of the nation’s largest transit agencies have shelters, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.

Shelters are a priority for bus riders looking for a place to stay dry or sit after a long day of work. As record levels of federal transit funding begin to flow from last year’s $1 trillion infrastructure package, plans for thousands of new shelters present a test of whether Washington’s promises to focusing on racial equity and the environment can quickly translate into benefits for transit users.

Much of the new federal funding will likely go to big projects like new rail lines or expensive electric buses, but advocates say transit leaders have a chance to show they can meet the needs of people, too. passengers who often lack other means of getting around.

Transport agencies are struggling to make ends meet. They are also preparing for a record federal investment.

Steven Higashide, director of research at advocacy organization TransitCenter, said the lack of bus shelters in US cities underscores a lack of interest in making basic improvements to public transit service.

“Bus riders are more likely to be marginalized people in American politics – more likely to be people of color and more likely to be low-income people – and that’s one of the reasons why which the state of bus transportation has been so inadequate,” he said. mentioned.

At a groundbreaking ceremony for the transit center this week in Illinois, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the Biden administration was breaking with the past by prioritizing investments in public transit.

“The journey hasn’t always been easy, especially for people who had to walk blocks between transfers or wait outside in the elements, and who otherwise found their working day sometimes started in unpleasant conditions, thanks to the disinvestment of past generations that has now been replaced by a commitment to invest for the future,” he said.

Many major transit agencies plan to increase the number of shelters as they redesign bus networks, in a bid to make the most widely available mode of transport more attractive. The Department of Transportation is seeking to encourage these efforts, helping cities find ways to leverage highway funding to rebuild sidewalks and improve bus access.

Great disparities exist in shelter coverage on the main bus networks. More than 40% of stops in the Las Vegas area have shelters, the result of a campaign started a decade ago. In the Washington area, approximately 27% of Metrobus stops have a shelter. In Pittsburgh, the figure is about 8%.

“Why this number is low compared to our peer agencies would be speculation on my part,” said Allegheny County Port Authority spokesman Adam Brandolph. which operates the Pittsburgh area bus system. He said the agency was working to install more.

Higashide said the Infrastructure Act’s $109 billion in transit funding offers a chance to rethink who benefits from federal spending as agencies put a new focus on long-neglected bus stops.

Alex Wiggins, chief executive of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, acknowledged that the region’s leaders haven’t always invested in the kind of infrastructure that riders most want. The agency has earmarked $1 million for future years to set up shelters and won a federal grant for two transit centers designed to protect against the weather.

“As we continue to provide transit mobility during the pandemic, the real focus is on knowing what our customers need,” Wiggins said. “Comfort and safety are really at the top of our considerations.”

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Other transit systems have similar plans. The Maryland Transit Administration secured funding for shelters in Baltimore as part of an expanded Infrastructure Act grant program. A $414 million plan approved by Houston voters in 2019 calls for overhauling bus service and increasing the number of shelters. The system celebrated in recent days reach 2,500 accessible stops.

In Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority launched a transit service overhaul plan in 2019 to double the number of shelters. A user survey that year showed that passengers ranked shelters and benches as the best way to improve comfort. The agency also cited research that found better stops reduce passengers’ perception of waiting time for a bus.

The New Orleans plan also points to challenges. Shelters can be purchased for as little as a few thousand dollars, manufacturers say, but prices can be much higher. The RTA plans to add 25 more by the end of this year at a cost of $33,000 each. Supply chain bottlenecks are also driving up aluminum prices and lead times.

“It’s been difficult to get hardware,” said Larry Hagan, project manager at manufacturer Austin Mohawk. “Deadlines have gone from eight weeks to eight months.

Bureaucracy could also be an obstacle. In response to questions from The Post, some transit agencies said they could not provide full data on their number of stops with shelters because the responsibility lies with the local service that maintains city streets. In other parts of the country, shelters are maintained by private companies who use them as billboards.

Transit advocates say passengers also need safe and accessible sidewalks to get from home or work to the bus stop.

Jessica Meaney, founder of Investing in Place, an advocacy group in Los Angeles, said the city’s sidewalks often don’t meet Americans With Disabilities Act requirements, making it difficult to install more of shelters. A sidewalk must be eight feet wide to accommodate a shelter, according to LA Metro.

Paul Gomez, spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, said officials are trying to resolve the issue. The city started a sidewalk repair program in 2016, he said, and “is in the process of having a new transit and amenities program that will include more bus shelters.”

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The Department of Transportation has launched an effort in recent weeks to help state and local agencies think about how to use highway dollars to fix sidewalks and improve transit stops. According to the department, a significant portion of the $350 billion in highway funding included in the infrastructure program can be transferred to projects on local streets, including bus shelters.

The department highlighted a project in suburban Houston as an example of the possibilities. Texas officials used federal highway money to improve sidewalks in an effort to make it easier for buses to access.

Transit agencies are also facing a crisis alongside the influx of federal money. Many riders have lost passengers and transportation revenue during the pandemic while struggling to recruit bus drivers. In the short term, some agencies are tackling potential drivers’ fears of crime. In the long term, the increase in telecommuting means that some cyclists may never return or ride less frequently.

Despite the difficulties, Higashide said adding more shelters and improving sidewalks shouldn’t be a huge effort in many cities.

“There’s a lot of fruit out there that would improve runners’ lives and bring new runners into the system that don’t require a lot of planning,” he said.

The experience of the Southern Nevada Regional Transportation Commission suggests that major improvements are possible. In 2011, Las Vegas-area agency officials launched what became an $18 million campaign to remove bus shelters from the streets and install more. The agency also tapped into $4 million in federal funding to improve lighting.

In New Orleans, Stevens said making shelters more widely available would be a sign that leaders care as much about the workers who are as vital to the city as the tourists they serve.

“What if they don’t get wet when they get to work?” she says.

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