Like many cities, El Paso, Texas, once had a streetcar system serving walkable neighborhoods. However, decades of sprawling development, low-density subdivisions, and strip malls created a development pattern that was no longer conducive to efficient public transportation. In 2006, Sun Metro, El Paso’s mass transit department, charted a new course to reinvent its public transportation system. To this end, the city contracted with First Transit, Inc. to manage Sun Metro and modernize its transit systems.
Within a year, Sun Metro’s ridership increased by almost 8 percent. Two years later, Sun Metro received the “Outstanding Metropolitan System” Award from the Texas Transit Association. But Sun Metro didn’t rest on its laurels. To further improve transportation options in El Paso, the agency, in 2008, started planning and implementing a new rapid transit service (RTS) system.
The new RTS system is planned along four of the major state highway thoroughfares in the city. Mesa, one of Sun Metro’s highest ridership corridors, opened to the public on Oct 28, 2014. The 8.6-mile corridor begins at the Downtown Transfer Center, travels along Santa Fe, Franklin, Oregon, Glory Road, and Mesa, ending at the Westside Transfer Center on Remcon Circle. The line connects the west side of town with hospitals, the local University of Texas campus, and the downtown branch of the city’s community college.
“The ridership numbers for the Mesa Corridor have already exceeded projections,” said Sun Metro Director Jay Banasiak. “Currently, more than 52,000 commuters use the service every month. Our goal is to hit 60,000 riders.”
The second corridor is Alameda, a historic and bustling part of El Paso. Construction on Alameda is tentatively scheduled to begin in fall 2016 with completion in early 2018. The 14.5-mile Alameda line goes from downtown to the Mission Valley Transfer Center on the eastern side, crosses an industrial/residential area, and traverses the University Medical Center and El Paso Children’s Hospital, as well as three high schools, before terminating in the Mission Valley.
The 12-mile Dyer Corridor and the 16.8-mile Montana Corridor, currently in the bidding and planning stages, respectively, will serve the northeast and the far eastern areas of the city. Some of the key destinations along these corridors include the city’s new Northgate Transfer Center, the Fort Bliss Army Post, City Hall, and the El Paso International Airport.
To differentiate this high-tech service from the city’s traditional transit services, Sun Metro hired PAVLOV, a marketing communications company. With the company’s guidance, Sun Metro began a branding process that included selecting a name, a logo, and the right color scheme. After conducting an extensive survey, the community named the upcoming system the Sun Metro Brio. Brio is Spanish for excitement, verve, and energy.
The naming process first began with a public working session in October 2011. In November 2011, Sun Metro created a bilingual survey that included a list of four possible names — Brio, Vivo, Corredor, and Ándale. More than a thousand people were surveyed at Sun Metro facilities and online. Brio received the majority of the votes. A distinctive logo was then created to complement the circular nature of Sun Metro’s current logo.
The ‘b’ and ‘o’ in Brio are a graphic element that can be used to extend the identity of the RTS system. The two letters reference the wheels on the vehicles. The movement within the logotype also displays the progressive nature of Brio. Beyond the name and logo, Sun Metro also selected a color palette and graphic standards to capture the community’s attention and ensure the Brio brand stayed fresh and memorable.
Next, the city hired Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc. (LAN), a planning, engineering, and program management firm to provide design and engineering services for the Mesa and Alameda Corridors. Design support was provided to LAN by Carl Daniel Architects, Moreno Cardenas Inc., Sites Southwest, and LTK Engineering. To construct the Mesa Corridor, the city hired Martinez Brothers Contractors LLC.
Brio offers several distinctive features that enable El Paso residents to travel faster and with more comfort. Articulated, rubber-tired 60-foot-long buses that can carry more than 70 passengers provide service every 10 minutes during peak periods and 15 minutes during off-peak periods for 14 hours a day, Monday through Friday, with 20-minute service on Saturdays. Powered by compressed natural gas (CNG), a cost-effective and more environmentally friendly fuel, the buses are hinged near the center to negotiate tight corners in city streets. The buses are also equipped with an audio/visual system to provide destination and next stop information inside and outside vehicles, bicycle racks, Wi-Fi connections, and wheelchair accommodations.
Another attractive feature of Brio is its stations. The Mesa and Alameda Corridors feature 22 and 29 BRT transit stations, respectively. Unlike traditional bus stops that are small and placed frequently along a route, Brio stations are larger and spaced further apart. Constructed with a unique canopy look, the stations’ dimensions — 36 to 46 feet long, 13 feet tall, and 6 or 9 feet wide — allow easy wayfinding and enough shade for commuters.
In addition, the canopies are equipped with aluminum grills on the front and back to combat the bright sunlight and extreme heat in El Paso. The stations have several amenities such as free Wi-Fi, translucent panels for better lighting, bike racks, electronic real-time displays, ticket vending machines, and solar-powered trash compactors. The station areas also feature street lighting, landscaping, ADA-accessible ramps and station platforms, and reconstructed sidewalk at all approaches.
To get riders to their destinations faster, Brio also uses a Transit Signal Priority system. The system, which operates on GPS technology, allows Brio buses to pass quickly through traffic lights. As a Brio bus moves down the corridor, its GPS coordinates are acquired and transmitted to the city’s traffic control system. When the bus approaches a traffic signal, the lights switch to green as quickly as possible or stay green longer.
“Everything about the Brio is focused on speed, reliability, and comfort,” said Banasiak. “When commuters take the Brio, we want them to have an enjoyable experience that will encourage them to use the service again and again.”
The scale of the project created a number of complex challenges. One of those challenges was finding the appropriate site locations to construct the stations.
“We had specific goals for where we wanted to locate the stations,” said Banasiak. “For each station, we wanted a location that didn’t have too many driveways, didn’t affect neighboring businesses, but still had enough right-of-way. But finding such a location for 20 to 30 different stations on every corridor was a challenge. In some areas, we worked with various stakeholders to acquire the right-of-way. When that wasn’t possible, we relocated the stations.”
The project team also learned that a one-size-fits-all approach to constructing the stations wasn’t the right one.
“In the Mesa Corridor, we designed every station with the same length,” said Philip Meaders, P.E., LAN’s vice president. “We found out that some of the businesses were a little concerned that such a large station might be visually impairing. So, in the Alameda Corridor, we designed three different station lengths, each with two different widths, to best fit in with the specific location. But in making this modification, we also had to ensure that we weren’t affecting the existing site infrastructure too much.”
The project also required extensive collaboration to mitigate the concerns of local businesses and property owners.
“The Mesa Corridor is the first RTS service ever implemented in El Paso,” Banasiak said. “As such, most of the property owners were not familiar with it. We educated these owners on how it is similar to light rail and the various benefits they would derive from this service. We showed them renderings of the stations and its enhanced lighting, security, sidewalk, and landscaping elements, and how it would attract more transit-oriented development, customers, and business opportunities.”
Also, the Alameda corridor passes through some public and private utilities, including gas, electric, sanitary sewer, and water lines. As such, one of the major components of this project has been minimizing the disturbance to the utilities.
“It’s always a challenge to get these lines relocated and not disrupt or delay the construction,” Banasiak said. “That’s another lesson we learned from the Mesa Corridor project. On the Alameda line, the team is conducting subsurface utility investigations to identify any potential conflicts before construction begins.”
Despite these challenges, the city is on course for Alameda Corridor’s grand opening in early 2018. The Dyer Corridor will be operational in late 2018 while the Montana Corridor is scheduled to open in 2020. Brio, when built-out, will not only provide a reliable and affordable transportation option to the city but also take it one step closer to achieving its goal of becoming the least car-dependent city in the Southwest.
Margaret Schroeder, P.E., M.ASCE, is the engineering division manager for the City of El Paso. She can be reached at email@example.com. Chris Masters, P.E., is a vice president and transit leader at Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc. (LAN). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.