While the CRC and its design remain a topic of hot controversy, one of the key design elements is the extension of light rail, specifically the Yellow Line, into Vancouver. Many in Portland insist on it. Many in Vancouver are just as opposed, considering light rail an expensive boondoggle.
Currently, the only through services between Portland and Vancouver are C-TRAN’s 105 and 199 express lines. And Clark County (specifically the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, the Metropolitan Planning Organization for Clark County, albeit one far less powerful than Metro) is making its own rapid transit plans based on Bus Rapid Transit, with the first proposed line along Fourth Plain Boulevard, in the planning phases.
Might a BRT connection between Portland and Vancouver, assuming suitable design modifications on the CRC (or whatever gets built), be a possibility (including in addition to the proposed MAX extension)?
Whither the Yellow?
Right now, the Yellow Line is tabbed to be the primary connector between the two downtowns; and many Vancouver-Portland travelers use it to Delta Park before transferring to one of the C-TRAN services that cross the river. The 105 and 199 also provide express service between Portland and Vancouver; whether or not these services will be maintained in a post-CRC future is an interesting question. (Anecdotally, there is a significant contingent of express riders who have reservations about using MAX, in some cases for rather retrograde social reasons; that said similar objections are commonly voiced whenever a rapid-transit line replaces an express service).
The Yellow Line has one problem, though: It’s slow.
Unlike the east-west trunk line, and the soon-to-break-ground Milwaukie line, which operate in their own rights-of-way soon after leaving the downtown core, the Interstate line runs in the median of Interstate Avenue for over four miles, and is speed-limited to 35MPH. It takes 20 minutes to travel the less than six miles between the Rose Quarter and the Expo Center; while that’s faster than a well-used local bus (and more reliable, given the exclusive right-of-way), it’s not all that good either. The Steel Bridge bottleneck makes things worse; it takes about six minutes on average for trains to travel from the Rose Quarter to Union Station, and another five to reach Pioneer Square. If we tack another 3-5 minutes to cross the river, including a stop at Hayden Island, we’re looking at a 35 minute trip between the two downtowns. It’s better than the current arrangement, but it is far from ideal. And for a line which is intended to be a regional trunk, it’s rather….annoying.
Interstate MAX has other issues as well, many of which commenter Jason McHuff outlines here. Some of these issues, such as I-5 acting as a barrier to the Yellow Line’s catchment area, don’t directly affect the issue of Portland/Vancouver trips, but many of Jason’s observations point to opportunities, which we will discuss later.
Meanwhile, across the river…
..planners in Clark County are busily making plans to build bus rapid transit. Four corridors have been identified, the first of which is in the early planning phases (the other three do not yet have projects associated with them). They are:
- Fourth Plain Boulevard, between downtown Vancouver and Vancouver Mall, with a possible extension east along SR500. This is the busiest corridor in the C-TRAN system; with the 4 and 44 lines providing headways that TriMet would label frequent service (and being rather crowded to boot).
- The Highway 99 corridor north from downtown Vancouver to Salmon Creek
- A “BRT-lite” alignment along Mill Plain from downtown Vancouver to Fischer’s Landing
- A “freeway bus” route along I-205 from Fischers Landing, to Gateway TC in Portland.
All of these proposed corridors, other than the I-205 one, would intersect the proposed MAX extension downtown. (The I-205 corridor running to Gateway is an improvement over the existing eastside busses which only connect to Parkrose TC; thus missing connection opportunities with the Blue and Green Lines).
I will not waste any (digital) ink condemning Clark County’s preference for BRT over LRT. I’m generally mode-agnostic, density north of the Columbia is much lower than in Portland, and the political support for rail simply is not there–so a BRT solution makes a lot of sense for Vancouver. Of course, the necessity to transfer to MAX in Vancouver to reach Portland bothers me.
One interesting thing that caught my eye in the FAQ for the Fourth Plain line is this little tidbit:
How is this related to the Columbia River Crossing Project?
The Fourth Plain BRT Project is independent of the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project and is not funded from the CRC project’s funds. However, C-TRAN is currently working with the CRC’s transit design team to determine if it is possible to run BRT buses along the same transit guideway as light rail trains (LRT) that the CRC project is planning to extend into downtown Vancouver at some point in the future. [emphasis added] C-TRAN is also working with CRC staff to ensure that both the CRC LRT and BRT projects can be accommodated in downtown Vancouver. Additionally, there is a proposed August or November 2012 ballot measure which would increase the sales tax slightly to pay for construction and operating/maintenance costs of the BRT project as well as just operating/maintenance costs for the LRT extension.
It is unclear if they simply mean dual LRT/BRT operation on the surface MAX alignment in downtown Vancouver… or if they mean dual LRT/bus operation on the CRC as well.
The latter idea has possibilities.
What if BRT were extended into Portland?
What if one (or all) of the proposed BRT lines, rather than ending in downtown The Couv, all crossed the river and provided fast, friendly service to downtown Portland? We’ve got a bit of BRT ourselves in the Rose City (the transit mall), even if we don’t call it that; and a Salmon Creek BRT would obsolete the 199 and 105 express lines. Assuming that the transit lanes on the CRC could be configured to support busses as well as trains (there are good reasons to extend MAX into Vancouver, even in this scenario), there are several possible routes that a BRT corridor could take to reach Portland. In order to avoid duplication of service (and due to the fact that rebuilding the Yellow Line is considered out of scope in this discussion), a few possible BRT corridors come to mind:
- Portsmouth to UP to Swan Island. One option would send busses west from Delta Park up Columbia Boulevard (preferably in an exclusive-ROW, and then south along the Portsmouth Trench (or whatever its called) to UP, then along the shore to Swan Island, and then downtown. This would be the longest route, but provide good opportunities for an exclusive right of way without needing to tear down much in the way of existing urban fabric. This route could include a short “green bridge” connecting Willamette Drive south of UP to Basin Avenue, crossing over the railroad tracks, permitting other useful service reorganizations in North Portland.
- Along I-5. This routing would closely parallel MAX, but help to rectify a major sin of the Yellow Line by providing service to the east side of I-5. In many places along I-5, there’s room for a busway; an I-5 routing would provide direct service to PCC-Cascade and Legacy Emanuel, two important transit destinations in North Portland which are presently not directly served by mass transit. (Also as part of a BRT line in this corridor, it would be a useful project to tear down the bulk of the obnoxious Kerby Street ramps off of the Fremont Bridge, bringing it down to surface grade at the Kerby bend–and then reconnecting Kerby Street south of the ramps to Kerby Street north. The land currently occupied by the ramps could be converted to something more useful than redundant pavement. This is probably a good idea apart from any BRT…
- Along MLK. MLK is a four-lane highway (or better) all the way from Delta Park to Broadway; which is probably two more lanes than it needs to be. Median busway (or hybrid busway-streetcar, as it’s on the Streetcar System Plan) makes a lot of sense. Of course, it’s still a state highway, so ODOT will probably put the kibosh on this idea, and a higher-speed surface line might not work with the neighborhood.
One other outstanding item is the bus connection from the Rose Quarter to downtown. Right now, existing busses use surface streets and the Steel Bridge (curiously, no TriMet busses use the Broadway, which I find intriguing), the outer lanes of which are shared with cars. It’s tempting to want to close the Steel to through traffic altogether, but doing so probably would be disruptive (though it would be nice to do something about the horrible bottleneck on the east end where the MAX lines all come together–right in the middle of an intersection with Interstate Avenue and Multnomah Street). A better idea might be to shift many of the bus services that currently use the Steel to the Broadway, and make the outer lanes of that (where the Streetcar tracks are doing) transit-only; with autos limited to the inner two lanes, with exclusive-transit lanes continuing to Irving Street and the north end of the mall. (Another possibility would be to make the rightmost eastbound lane on the Broadway, and the rightmost westbound lane on the Steel, transit-only; and provide both with direct connections to the transit mall).
I should conclude that much of this post is probably wishful thinking. Building a rapid transit corridor in close proximity to the Yellow Line is probably not happening any time soon; and one which would be significantly for the benefit of an out-of-state transit agency is doubly problematic–especially if it doesn’t have a larger multi-state project like the CRC to piggyback on. And the inter-agency cooperation issues discussed previously would be magnified (though MAX into Vancouver will likely bring these issues further into the forefront). But still–C-TRAN’s forays into BRT might be useful to TriMet in the future.