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A rendering for a bus stop. (Capital District Transportation Authority)
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It’s been a good while since anyone had reason to consider upstate New York a mass-transit laboratory.

You’d probably have to go back to 1831, just a few years after the opening of the Erie Canal, when dozens of politicians piled into coaches near the western edge of Albany and became the first railroad passengers in New York State history. They chugged past scrub oak trees in the sandy dunes of its Pine Bush on their way to Schenectady. The trip took less than an hour. “We fly with a smooth and even course along once impassible barriers,” one early passenger wrote, “and distance seems annihilated.”

Now, transportation innovation of a different sort is unfolding along the same 16-mile east-west stretch in the form of sleek silver and red passenger buses, the BusPlus system of the Capital District Transportation Authority. The Red Line passenger buses have sliced the commute time between the Capital Region’s two largest cities from the regular, local bus routes, and have helped bring an extra half million passengers into the bus system since it came online in April, 2011.

It’s not exactly a spectacular development, in the distance-annihilating way that that first railroad must have seemed. But it’s having a significant impact in the way people move around the Capital Region, and could provide something of a model for mid-size cities.

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It’s a form of bus rapid transit—a loose term used by transportation planners for a suite of technologies that help speed along designated buses and visually differentiate them. The first U.S. system opened in Pittsburgh in 1977, and major cities like Boston and New York both have elements of it in their larger bus systems. But the Capital Region is one of the smaller areas in which it has been implemented, and planners there see it as a cost-effective alternative to the light rail systems that have hogged the imaginations of politicians and planners, yet rarely made it off the drawing boards.

The Albany-area BRT system is taking root at the same time as transit innovations in other upstate cities, which continue to look for ways to reinvent themselves to deal with, and perhaps stem, continual population loss. Rochester’s transit authority is focusing on a massive downtown transit center. In Buffalo, planners are once again pondering an extension of its Metro Rail subway service to a new medical campus north of downtown.

But the only other northeastern city currently pondering BRT is Hartford, whose metro area contains 1.2 million people, compared to Albany’s roughly 870,000.

“I think this is a wave of the future for cities that are not megalopolises,” Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat who has committed to fighting for $40 million to build the next leg of CDTA’s system, told Capital. “I think it’s a transformative project to the Capital Region and could be for others. CDTA is proving itself to be a real innovator, and what Albany is doing could be a model for medium-sized cities around the country.”

The costs of these systems can vary, according to CDTA director of planning Ross Farrell, but they are roughly a tenth as much as surface tram systems and 100 times less than an underground line.

The system uses a few simple tricks that have helped shave precious minutes off the trip. It stops at a lower number of selected stops (like an express train), and makes use of dedicated lanes and queue jumpers—special signals which let it jump ahead of the line of waiting cars at major intersections.

Buses can be equipped with signaling devices that help them turn traffic lights from red to green. The stations are newer and feature LED signs indicating the next scheduled departures. The buses themselves have WiFi.

These kinds of bells and whistles help BRT systems attract a new kind of rider, according to Art Guzzetti, vice president of the American Public Transportation Association.

“We have to make transit a better choice for people so it will be there for people to use,” he said.

“BRT in many places is an attempt to make service better, and it’s branded as such,” he said. “At one point many of these bus systems had fallen into an era where they existed for people who had no other choice, sort of a social safety net. Now, people are saying that if transit can be for everyone—and the trends are pointing that way—if you give them a good choice.”

While more people would probably board a light rail system, the increased investment probably wouldn’t justify the bump. Part of Schumer’s proselytization routine when talking about the Capital-area scheme, in fact, is that BRT is a good transit solution for hard times, and that it actually “works better” in an era of fiscal austerity.

The numbers support this idea: The estimated cost of a light-rail system between Albany and Saratoga County range as high as $1 billion. By contrast, CDTA spent $18 million on the Red Line.

Because it grew up around three city centers instead of just one, the Capital Region is structurally sprawled compared to, say, Utica, and is perfect for this kind of service. The Red Line, for example, connects two business districts, stopping at a major shopping mall for its mid-point. The next planned service line would unite Albany’s traditional downtown with a burgeoning growth pole on its western edge.

The so-called Purple Line will take a step up from the Red Line by using a dedicated lane through the University at Albany campus and the adjacent Harriman Campus, a state-owned office park that’s been eyed for redevelopment.

Farrell says the project should cost $48 million; Schumer said he’s prepared to lobby for the bulk of that money once the concept study is formally approved by two metropolitan planning boards in March. Optimistically, it will begin operation in 2017.

A third line going north along the Hudson River, connecting Albany to Troy and the old “river cities” that formed the region’s historic industrial spine, has been sketched out but has no clear funding path.

Planners dream that BRT systems will to help harness a generational sensibility shift that has millennials heading back to the cities. Albany is updating its zoning code with overlays that allow for denser development around stops; the university’s campus planning revolves around the Purple Line’s route.

There hasn’t been any major development to crop up yet in response to BRT stops, but Scherzer said there has been increased interest. (There’s also a chicken-egg dynamic here, in that the stops were purposefully located in some of the densest, most-developed areas.)

Federal programs have already shifted to help jumpstart small BRT systems through the Small Starts program, a scaled-down offshoot of the New Starts pot of funding. Guzzetti rattled off a list of new BRT systems, including Kansas City and Salt Lake City.

As Albany pushes forward, its transportation planners hope other small cities—upstate and beyond—will take notice.

“There’s a reason Albany’s good test market from transit to fast food—people here love to try something different,” Scherzer said.

This article appeared in the February edition of Capital magazine.