UPDATED: An update on the Fourth Plain BRT project

UPDATE: The Vancouver City Council last night approved the project, voting to support a mixed traffic configuration (with both center and median stops), extending out to NW 121st.

Older content after the jump.

While Portland Transport focuses most of its energies on the Oregon side of the river, we do consider Clark County, WA to be part of our coverage area. And one of the ongoing mass-transit projects in the region is the Fourth Plain BRT project, or officially, the Fourth Plain Transit Improvement Project. This project, a partnership of C-TRAN, the city of Vancouver, and the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, calls for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) of some flavor or another to stretch from just outside downtown Vancouver, along Fourth Plain Boulevard, out to Vancouver Mall or beyond.

Portland Transport examined the project last November. However, the project is approaching the point in its planning where the Locally Preferred Alternative is to be selected, and C-TRAN this past month has begun a public outreach program to get the community involved. Thus, it’s useful for us to take a look at the project again.

The corridor

First, the project’s location. Fourth Plain Boulevard is a major east-west thoroughfare running between Vancouver and its northeastern suburbs such as Orchards. At one point the road was the route of SR500 and was the primary connection. In the 1980s, the current highway alignment of SR500 was opened, and Fourth Plain nowadays serves mainly local traffic. WSDOT is in the process of converting SR500 (the new alignment) into a freeway, with a new interchange at St. Johns Road under construction at this time, and plans in the works to likewise remove the remaining traffic lights at Falk and NE 54th Avenue.

Fourth Plain is also the most important transit corridor in the C-TRAN service district. Several routes run in the corridor, most importantly the 4-Fourth Plain, which runs between Vancouver Mall (where C-TRAN operates a transit center) and downtown Vancouver, continuing into Oregon to connect with TriMet at Hayden Island and Delta Park TC. The 4 is the only route on C-TRAN’s roster which would meet the TriMet definition of frequent service, as it offers 15-minute all-day (except for late evenings) during weekdays. The corridor is also served by the peak-hour 44-Fourth Plain Limited as well.

According to the project’s purpose and need statement and a fact sheet, the 4 is frequently subject to overcrowding and poor reliability, and the population in the corridor (and ridership demands) are expected to increase in the next twenty-five years. Many important transit destinations–downtown Vancouver, Clark College, a VA Hospital, and the mall, are along the corridor. The Fourth Plain corridor is also home to many transit-dependent riders.

The bad news is that the existing land uses along Fourth Plain tend to be low-density. Other than the aforementioned destinations, the road is mostly surrounded by single-family housing, low-rise apartments (concentrated on the west end of the corridor), and big-box and strip-mall retail. Fourth Plain borders the “Vancouver Auto Mall”, a large collection of automobile dealers along Andresen Road; a golf course has its northern boundary along the street as well. The road is a classic “sprawlevard”, one presently optimized for automobile traffic over anything else. Bike lanes are intermittent. In many parts of the street, pedestrians on the sidewalk are surrounded by cars–by those on the road itself on one side, by a sea of parking lots on the other. The good news is that the powers that be recognize this is a problem–a streetscape study done five years ago calls for numerous improvements, and C-TRAN has been keeping the Clark County Bicycle Advisory Committee in the loop.

The project

The project, then, is to build a Bus Rapid Transit system along the Fourth Plain corridor, essentially from the VA Hospital complex (just east of Interstate Five), out to Vancouver Mall, or possibly further. (The project also includes a no-build option and a “transport system management” option, both of which are required to be considered and analyzed by Federal law; we do not discuss them in this article). If all goes well, the project could open in 2014. One key milestone will be public approval of a funding measure (backed by a 0.1% sales tax), which is slated to go before voters in August or November of this year. (One outstanding issue is where the boundaries of the taxing district would lie; a question which has become somewhat contentious).

The proposed line would have stops at roughly quarter-mile (400m) intervals. The key design issues yet to be decided are:

  • The routing and alignment in the vicinity of the VA Hospital.
  • The design of the route along the bulk of Fourth Plain
  • The routing and alignment around Vancouver Mall
  • How far east to extend the project–options include terminating at the mall, going all the way out to NE 162nd (density, not high to begin with, drops dramatically once you cross I-205), or somewhere in between.

Probably the most interesting question is the routing and alignment along the bulk of Fourth Plain. This is the busy part of the corridor, and it’s more important to optimize the middle of a line than the ends. Three options are under consideration, generally:

  • Curbside mixed-traffic BRT. Buses (with BRT enhancements such as all-door boarding, off-board fare collection, and limited stop spacing) would run in mixed traffic in the outer lane of the street.
  • Median mixed-traffic BRT. This is an unusual configuration (I’m not aware of other examples, other than at “difficult” stops), in which busses would travel in the left lanes of Fourth Plain, and board on the left at median platforms (which would also serve as pedestrian crossing refuges). Generally, BRT systems that travel in the median provide exclusive lanes for the bus. This idea makes me nervous, if for no other reason that it would encourage dangerous passing-on-the-right maneuvers as annoyed motorists whip around stopped busses.
  • Curbside “BAT” (business access and transit) lanes. Here, busses travel in the right lane, which is closed to through vehicular traffic. Cars are permitted to enter the transit lane for purposes of making right turns.

The analysis

While C-TRAN is to be commended for this project, the above design choices do leave much to be desired. Despite the fact that the Fourth Plain corridor lies adjacent to the SR500 expressway, and despite the fact that the purpose-and-need statement calls out laudable transit-related goals, the project is constrained by a hidden-in-plain-sight fourth directive: Thou shalt not annoy motorists. Other than in the vicinity of the VA Hospital and the mall, it doesn’t appear that bus signal priority is part of the project at all, and the ideal BRT configuration (absent more expensive options like a full busway) of median-running, exclusive lane, is not among the options. Bus service in this configuration don’t get blocked by traffic at all, including by turning cars, and the platforms are useful for pedestrians. In contrast, Portland turned the two interior lanes of Interstate Avenue, made obsolete by the construction of I-5, into the Yellow Line; such a transformative option is off the table for Fourth Plain. And while the less-desirable curbside BAT is being advanced for consideration, this presentation, prepared by C-TRAN as part of the public outreach, puts the fourth directive in black-letter text. If you look at the chart on page 7 of the presentation, you’ll note that the differences in transit quality improvement between the design options is glossed over (all get a green check for “improving corridor transit service”, despite the fact that exclusive-lane BRT performs far better than the mixed traffic variety), but the BAT option gets a red exclamation point for “failing to meet current and future travel demand”, by allegedly causing automobile congestion. C-TRAN might take note of the fact that induced demand also works in reverse–if you take traffic lanes away, the cars tend to disappear, rather than continuing to exist in a perpetual traffic jam. And as noted above, there’s a perfectly good freeway just a short distance away from Fourth Plain that commuters from Battle Ground are quite able to use.

Of course, agencies have to work within the political constraints of their environment. It’s easy for Portland to generate the political consensus to put city streets on a road diet; such things are hardly controversial south of the Columbia. Vancouver is significantly more conservative, and existing land-use patterns far more greatly favor the automobile, so perhaps asking Vancouver to surrender two auto lanes on a major thoroughfare for bus service is simply a non-starter; in which case C-TRAN should strive for the best service quality they can muster. But still, mixed-traffic BRT doesn’t provide an effective demonstration of what BRT is capable of, so the indication that C-TRAN is leaning towards the mixed-traffic alternative is somewhat disappointing. I was kinda hoping that C-TRAN could show TriMet how it is done. :)

Speaking of TriMet…

One area of the current 4/44 route that isn’t part of the project is downtown Vancouver and the extension of the routes into Oregon. The BRT project ends around the VA complex and/or Clark College; it is anticipated that busses will use Vancouver city streets when reaching downtown.

At least until (and if) the Columbia River Crossing opens.

After that, C-TRAN anticipates that the BRT will share an alignment with the extension of the Yellow MAX line between Clark College and downtown Vancouver. (See map). Operational agreements are already in place between C-TRAN, the CRC project committee, and TriMet for this to happen. If and when the Yellow Line reaches Vancouver, it is likely that C-TRAN will no longer send its regular-service bus lines into Oregon to rendezvous with TriMet; instead, Oregon-bound commuters will change to MAX in Vancouver. (I expect express bus service to Portland to continue).

As the BRT project is anticipated to open in 2014 at the earliest, well in advance of the CRC, one of two things will happen in the interim: Either the BRT line would use the existing Interstate bridge to reach Delta Park and Hayden Island, as the 4 and 44 currently do, or a high-frequency shuttle service would transfer passengers between the BRT line and TriMet. The former would be more friendly to customers, but would expose the BRT to Interstate bridge traffic, potentially undermining its reliability. The latter would require an additional transfer, likely making the service less attractive to Oregon-bound commuters.

And this is all assuming that the CRC itself is built as planned. Were the CRC to be cancelled or materially changed in scope, what would happen is anybody’s guess.

26 responses to “UPDATED: An update on the Fourth Plain BRT project”

  1. Epic fail. C-Tran, Vancouver and Clark Co, are all broke. I don’t see how a large new transit facility is going to make matters better when the voters fail to consistently fund transportation let alone transit. Besides, BRT vehicles are visually appalling. Great idea, right place, poor timing.

  2. Property values in Vancouver have been hit hard during the housing crisis. Households budgets are tight (except for auto-related spending, apparently). There is essentially no tax base up there to fund any transit improvements.

  3. In early days the standard configuration for streetcar service was two tracks in the center of arterials. Usually these alignments were shared with other vehicles, and passengers boarded from protected areas to the right, which squeezed other vehicles toward the curb. I am remembering Grand Avenue in Saint Louis, which was the major north-south passage.

    It seems that C-Tran’s BRT option 2 is basically similar, except for common areas for boarding both directions on the left. (Few old streetcars had doors on their left side.) There is no reason this system could not work well, even though Fourth Plain in 2015 is not Grand Avenue in 1945. Common boarding areas to the left would offer much better passenger protection on our endemic high speed multi-lane “sprawlevards.”

    Placement of dedicated transit alignments within existing streets is tricky. Portland Streetcar, Inc., was faced with basically a new task in reintroducing streetcars after a hiatus of fifty years: how to do so in a grid of one-way streets, which did not exist until after WWII. They chose to align to the right, which turns out not to be felicitous.

    I think that running dedicated or semi-dedicated transit down the center of “sprawlevards” is the way to go. Portland Streetcar, Inc., operates best when centered the old-fashioned way, in the center of two-way arterials; its cars, which can be accessed left or right, then can employ central protected boarding areas for passengers bound in either direction.

    Old streetcars rarely ran in the right lane, next to the curb, which would have preempted the primary lane of travel for all other users. Always such alignments will be problematic.

  4. The center configuration might work; but a lot will depend on how much traffic on Fourth Plain can be calmed. Right now, it’s a four-lane (plus turning lane) arterial with good-sized gaps between traffic lights; accordingly, it can get treated as a highway. Median refuges tend to feel unsafe if traffic is whizzing by at 35 or faster.

    A big difference between streetcars in the 1940s and today, is traffic volumes. Traffic is one of the things (among many) that killed the old streetcars; many of which were built in an era in which automobiles were rare and horse-drawn wagons were commonplace. Modern best practice for streetcars is to put them in their own lane so they don’t get stuck behind cars. For local circulators like the Portland Streetcar, mixed-traffic running is acceptable (people like to ride it despite the ~7MPH average speed); but for a major transit corridor, not so much.

    For BRT, though, the objection isn’t quite as big–mixed-traffic BRT requires little capital investment, and busses can maneuver around obstacles. But if Clark County really wanted to transform Fourth Plain from a sprawlevard into a nice urban street, a road diet would be a great way to do it.

  5. FWIW (in reply to kittens): While some in Portland may view Clark County with scorn, it’s worth noting that the last TriMet tax levy on the ballot failed (in November 2010). The last C-TRAN levy on the ballot (in November 2011) passed–so the claim that Clark County voters are unwilling to fund transit is false.

    Many of them are certainly suspicious of light rail; but LRT is not one of the options.

  6. This is a BSRT proposal…Bus SortaRapid Transit (or Bull Sh*t Rapid Transit).
    Without a dedicated ROW, its just a fancy bus; this does not even have any signal preemption and is not likely to spur any new or denser development. A waste of time and money.

  7. Let’s give some credit to Oregon voters.

    TriMet flacked us with photos of photogenic old, disabled, and minority models and told us that we needed to pass the bond so that it could buy new buses. The bond failed and TriMet is buying buses anyway. If the agency had been more honest with us, committing to specific ways that the freed-up general funds would be used, maybe the issue would have passed. Few sane voters wanted to give a blank check to an agency which has a history of being a pushover for such boondoggles as WES while using every excuse to cut basic service.

  8. *sigh*


    WES was a Washington County project. TriMet didn’t initiate that. When it was clear WashCo was going to build it anyway, TriMet had to get involved. So this was not a TriMet “boondoggle”. If you believe WES was a mistake, then place the blame where it belongs, with WashCo, not with TriMet.

  9. A property tax increase for rail investment makes sense; going that route to buy buses doesn’t. Hence the loss at the polls.
    And don’t blame TriMet for Streetcar either…it wasn’t their idea, their planners did not particularly like it, but they are the transit operators in the region. Hence their folks operate Streetcar, and WES has TriMet’s colors.
    Wash Co should have pushed for a $1.5B light rail project to Wilsonville or maybe Kruse Woods, instead of a $150M…on the cheap…deal that runs every half hour, requires two operators and does not run mid day or weekends. But it may still work out; start up happend at the worst possible moment in the last 50 plus years.

  10. Guys, no one is arguing that TriMet initiated WES; only that it was a pushover in accepting it. Please reread the aggrieving post.

    TriMet has always been the main contributor to WES operations costs and Washington County’s [up to $2 million annual] contributions are scheduled to end within the next few months, if they haven’t already. It’s TriMet – – – read TriMet riders and taxpayers – – – , not Washington County, that’s set to shovel $100 – $150 million down the WES hole over the next 17 years. Thanks to record low interest rates, TriMet has a one-shot opportunity right now to walk away from WES, pay back the feds, and save perhaps $20 million or more over the guarantee period. It’s not taking it.

    There would be no problem if Washington County and Wilsonville were subsidizing WES at least to the degree that TriMet’s subsidy would be limited to the roughly $2 that it provides for the average ride on its other services.

    Nor would there be a problem if ridership and farebox revenue were both triple current numbers. How realistic is that?

    The real scary thing is that there are too many influential people who honestly believe that the only thing wrong with WES is there isn’t enough of it.

    The problem is, in certain ways, similar to that of TriMet’s involvement with streetcar. That wasn’t TriMet’s idea, either, but the agency finds itself wheelbarrowing $$ millions each year to PSI which in turn undercuts TriMet fares on competing lines.

    Some contributors and posters to this blog don’t see streetcar as competition, but here in Clackamas County, it is very much a threat to existing and proposed bus services. In January, when Lake Oswego Councilor Tierney famously sidetracked the LO extension, he added a rider stating Council’s support for extending streetcar into Johns Landing along the lines of the MOS. The MOS specifically calls for the truncation of through bus service at Nevada Street. The motion passed unanimously after no member of Council asked even a single question about how it would affect Lake Oswego transit users.

  11. Some contributors and posters to this blog don’t see streetcar as competition, but here in Clackamas County, it is very much a threat to existing and proposed bus services

    Is the issue that Streetcar has a capital cost, or is the issue that Clackamas County feels that service dollars are being allocated unfairly? How should operating dollars be allocated? Are there any bus lines within Portland that you consider excessive or wasteful (I can think of several), that should be reduced or closed in order to beef up service elsewhere? And what level of service should Clackamas County expect? What services in Clackamas County do you think most in need of restoration or expansion?

    In January, when Lake Oswego Councilor Tierney famously sidetracked the LO extension, he added a rider stating Council’s support for extending streetcar into Johns Landing along the lines of the MOS. The MOS specifically calls for the truncation of through bus service at Nevada Street. The motion passed unanimously after no member of Council asked even a single question about how it would affect Lake Oswego transit users.

    Assuming that a Streetcar extension to Nevada Street would not impact the 35 (i.e. the 35 wouldn’t truncate there and force a transfer to Streetcar, like was planned with the LO extension), is this a matter for the LO Council to be concerned about?

  12. That last paragraph in my last post was all about any streetcar extensions along highway 43. The Clackamas County residents affected are primarily those in the small unincorporated area immediately north of Lake Oswego, as well as transit users in LO, West Linn, and Oregon City.

    The services being threatened are the existing 35 & 36 and the proposed Frequent Service status for the 35. Streetcar is sidetracked, just waiting for mayoral candidates Charlie Hales and Greg McPherson to throw the levers to get it back on the main line.

    I couldn’t agree more that the LO Council had no business taking sides on a still undecided project entirely within Portland, especially without identifying a clear benefit to Lake Oswego. Councilor Tierney said that the rider offered only “moral” support. The point is that the DEIS specifically calls for the elimination of line 35 through-service upon completion of the MOS. (See Paragraph It doesn’t mention the 36, but that had to be an oversight.)

  13. Thanks, Scotty–good points.

    It has been noted here that MAX downtown operates like a big streetcar, and TriMet was canny enough in the 1980s to put it to the left up Morrison and down Yamhill, with rough paving in its ROW to keep cars out. This is just what you advocated in your reply.

    What I cannot understand is why Portland Streetcar, Inc., did not clue in on this successful technique when going up 11th and down 10th fifteen years later. The first time I rode my bike down 10th I wondered what tracks were doing on the right, preempting the lane where traffic regulations require that I ride!

    And ten years later Portland Streetcar, Inc., pulled the same trick going down MLK and up Grand. What gives?

  14. It would have been nice if ODOT had allowed Streetcar along MLK/Grand to have its own lane. Even better if it weren’t right next to the on-street parking.

    Oh well…

  15. I’m not in a good spot to open that giant PDF right now… But in the Streetcar Concept Plan, did they take into consideration where the utilities are and whether they could expect median, left lane, or right lane facilities when evaluating and prioritizing future lines?

  16. No, the system concept plan is only to a ‘corridor level’ (in some cases could even be one of several parallel streets. The kind of analysis you’re talking about does not occur until you get into alternatives analysis for a corridor.

  17. OK, that makes sense. I suppose the way I want to scrutinize and pick the corridors doesn’t really match how things work: “OK, we want a streetcar in a median, where traffic conditions are favorable, density is this, cost per mile is that, let’s analyze the expected nitty-gritty outcomes of all of these corridors as the alternatives, and pick the best.” Maybe that’s kind of backwards, looking at these potential corridors as means to a transit modality end, instead of the projects as the means to a clear transportation or development or whatever end. But I think there’s something to the prospect of easily moving on to another corridor if one is looking like it will diverge too far or be too painful, as part of the public process.

    Often there are injurious compromises required of projects just to make sure they happen at all, intractable issues sometimes arise, opposition ratchets up, that all really should be considered in a wider context without the do nothing option feeling like suicide. And sometimes the “no-build” doesn’t mean “do nothing” in reality, but what it does mean isn’t very clear. I think it might be useful to have some kind of explicit and transparent short-circuiting procedure when these alternatives are being analyzed, instead of the seemingly impromptu rejiggering that materializes only after the dust settles. In addition to looking at a no-build, perhaps do some kind of analysis of the next-in-line project, and use that as a benchmark throughout the process (if that project has similar enough goals, I guess).

    Somehow also have the funding pledged to not go away if everybody agrees to hit the abort button. There’s probably a million problems with all of my specifics, but I think I can imagine a bunch of letdowns that may have turned out better had something like that been in place. Maybe comparing watered down Fourth Plain BRT to potentially intersecting C-Tran projects in the pipeline could help keep it pure or put it out of its misery if it isn’t going to be worth it.

    And back to Fourth Plain: I could swear at some point I read mumblings about LRT running out to the Vancouver Mall either possibly in the future or as part of the failed MAX proposal from the 90s. Assuming I’m not crazy, was that imagined as going down Fourth Plain? Some dedicated ROW there for BRT might enable a future upgrade… I suppose SR-500 would be easier, but boy would that have just about nowhere worth stopping on the way.

    (Also, just noticed I accidentally reverted to not posting my last initial on my comments after I reset my cookies a while back. Sorry about that, hope there is no confusion.)

  18. The I-5 Task Force final report has a LRT loop in Clark county going out the 4th Plain corridor to I-205, then down I-205 to the Red Line. It was largely the idea of Clark county members and no one from this side objected. Like everything else recommended, it would be cost prohibitive.
    re LO…does anyone living in unincorporated Clackamas county north of LO ride the bus? Not likely.

  19. “does anyone living in unincorporated Clackamas county north of LO ride the bus?”

    Well, a lot of us who grew up parallel and perhaps slightly south (so not to directly answer your question) of LO did indeed. Including, I suspect, one engineer who starts with “S”. :-) In fact, the 34 was the original “feeder bus” long before the first shovel broke ground on MAX.

    But point taken.

    – Bob R.

  20. I can actually remember the 34 (or was it the 32?) providing all-day service into downtown. I didn’t use TriMet all that much as a young’un–we lived far enough out in the country (in rural Oregon City) that just GETTING to TriMet without a car was an issue.

  21. The 31 and 32 used to provide all day service to Downtown. Now the 34 and 152 are interlined at Milwaukie.

  22. Thirty years ago, when MAX was being planned, I whinged that It was not “light rail” at all, but heavy street rail: standard gauge with standard weight rail. No way I thought TriMet could make this work. Ray Polani, captious fellow that he is, thought otherwise. He was right.

    Apropos of this thread, I now can envision an age when all TriMet’s main line trains are single articulated units, and the low floor 200 and 300 units are able to function as the giant streetcars they really are.

    Further imagination sees those units operating singly on a semi-exclusive ROW in the middle of 82nd Avenue, from Killingsworth to Sunnyside and back, a corridor on which it is inherently impossible to service the demand with buses. 10 minute interval or less.

  23. The reference in yesterday’s 3:00 post was purposefully as originally written to “residents” of the unincorporated area north of LO, and to “transit users” in LO, WL, & OC. Yes, a few of those residents do use transit, but only about a half-dozen at most on any given day, according to the Fall 2010 passenger census. I do know one who has no car and is dependent on TriMet. There really isn’t much reason to stereotype these folks.

    Given that the Foothills project is going ahead without streetcar, the interests of Lake Oswegans is now pretty much limited to impacts on transit and traffic. Money was the big issue before Councilor Tierney’s announcement. If the full streetcar extension is proposed again well after Foothills is under construction and doesn’t include a significant capital outlay from LO city coffers (fat chance), then we probably won’t witness the backlash that the original proposal unleashed.

  24. My understanding is that not many of the Vancouver VA employees take transit because there is a lot of parking on-site. It isn’t like Portland where most rank & file employees can’t get parking and must take transit. Vancouver VA is also a lot smaller than Portland if you look at number of clinic visits, etc.

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