Critics question buses on shoulder program

July 25, 2012 1:56:13 PM PDT
Bus riders have said they are all for a new program that could cut down on travel time, however, one expert believes the program is too dangerous.

As part of the new "BOSS" program -- or Buses on Shoulders System -- bus drivers have the choice to travel on the right shoulder if general traffic is moving below 35 mph on parts of the highway in between Durham and Raleigh.

"It's one of the tools in the tool box to be able to overcome traffic backups, and hopefully give transit the opportunity to stay out of those backups," said Department of Transportation engineer Battle Whitley, who helped spearhead the program.    

The program currently operates in other cities, like Miami, Atlanta, and Chicago. It has also been in place in Minneapolis for more than two decades.

None of the data obtained by the I-Team from similar programs across the country shows any serious crashes involving transit buses driving on shoulders.

But critics have said the program makes driving on I-40 more dangerous because roads in the Triangle are not built for the higher volume of vehicles driving in much larger metro areas, with much worse traffic.

Gerry Donaldson, who is a consultant in North Carolina and spent decades as a traffic safety advocate in Washington, D.C., said the narrow  shoulders, once reserved for emergency vehicles and breakdowns will turn into busy travel lanes.

"You will have a crash. They will happen there. How often they will happen and how soon they will happen, I don't know," Donaldson said.

A Triangle Transit study done by North Carolina State University engineering students reported, "losing the breakdown lane will pose a problem." The report goes on to say, "buildup of debris can cause a dangerous situation for a bus, which could hit it."

However, Whitley said the 2007 study is outdated and the DOT has done new research to determine the program is safe.

"We found out 'hey, some of the things we thought we might need to address, we don't need to.' We're going to be OK," said Whitley.

Whitley maintained debris and disabled cars would be removed quickly. He also said Triangle Transit drivers have been trained to avoid obstacles on the shoulder and will only travel at a maximum speed of 35 mph.

Still, safety concerns remain.

In 2011, Texas governor Rick Perry vetoed a measure that would allow a similar program to begin there, saying in a statement that the system, "Would leave no emergency lane, confuse drivers as to the purpose of highway shoulders, and endanger motorists, emergency personnel and transit bus passengers."

Still, Whitley said he stands by DOT's decision to implement the program.

"I would think that they probably didn't research it as we did, as far as we did," Whitley said.

Donaldson disagreed and said DOT needs to study the program even more because the risk is too great.

"It only takes one large SUV crashing into the left rear end of a transit bus where the tank is, and the stack is for the diesel having the air conditioning system go haywire, ignite the fuel tank which has been punctured, and you have a Holocaust on your hands," Donaldson said.

Whitley said right now the DOT doesn't know how often buses would end up using the program, and ultimately how much time it would save riders. The DOT said the program is still in a pilot phase, and they may make changes to it based on new information they collect. They said one area they may need to re-evaluate is the rumble strips located along side the highway.

For now, buses will ride over them, but the strips could be moved, which could come at a steep price tag.

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