Archive | November, 2011

C-TRAN also considers BRT

TriMet is not the only local transit agency considering Bus Rapid Transit. C-TRAN is also in the early analysis and planning stages of a possible BRT line. They are calling this effort the Fourth Plain Transit Improvement Project. It appears that the proposed line, while still in early stages, would roughly follow the route of the number 4 bus from Vancouver Mall to downtown Vancouver along Fourth Plain Blvd, and could possibly continue south to the Expo Center Yellow Line MAX station just across the Columbia River. This portion of the line would depend greatly on whether the Yellow Line is extended to downtown Vancouver, which in turn is tied up in the continuing battle over the Columbia River Crossing. In any case, C-TRAN is clearly interested in BRT as a way to improve a busy transit corridor that currently suffers from low speeds and poor access. They are holding a workshop on Saturday, Nov. 19th, 9:30am-12:30pm, at the C-TRAN headquarters at 2425 NE 65th Ave in Vancouver.

Could TriMet become a “free” (or nominally-priced) service?

There’s been discussion lately about the fare structure of Portland’s transit agencies–both the Streetcar and TriMet itself. Much focuses on the current disconnect between Streetcar pricing (currently a sweetheart deal, especially for Streetcar users who don’t use TriMet-badged services) and the rest of the system. TriMet’s fares are currently above the national average.

So here’s a hypothetical.

What about making the entire system free–or drastically reducing fares to a nominal level–less than 50c a ride or so (sufficient to discourage camping on busses), with annual passes costing no more than a couple hundred, rather than the $1000 you’ll pay today? TriMet’s farebox recovery ratio is about 25%, so this isn’t quite as far-fetched of an idea as it might seem. It would require other new revenue sources of about $100M/year (minus what passenger revenue remains under the new scheme) to keep service at the same level, but such a gesture might make other monies available.

  • How much would this boost ridership, particularly encouraging a shift from cars? For those who have a car in the garage, it takes about a 15-mile round trip to work and back (not counting tolls and parking, but counting things like fuel and maintenance) for a bus pass to be cheaper than driving; a dirt-cheap service would vastly alter this equation.
  • Would a combination of reduced fares and a higher payroll tax to plug the hole, be a politically saleable proposition?
  • What level of fares should be targeted in such a scenario?
  • How much would this increase demand for new services (crowding on existing routes, calls for new routes)?

Again, this is a hypothetical proposal, but one which seems interesting to discuss.

TriMet considers Bus Rapid Transit

The latest update of TriMet’s Transit Improvement Plan contains an interesting development: TriMet is considering Bus Rapid Transit on two corridors:

• A corridor from downtown Portland to Gresham, generally following Powell Blvd from downtown to around SE 82nd or I-205 and Division St east of SE 82nd or I-205
• A corridor generally following I-205 between Clackamas Town Center possibly stretching as far as Beaverton, with service to Oregon City, Tualatin and Tigard.

For those unfamiliar with the term, BRT originally referred to the grade-separated rail-like bus systems found in cities like Curitiba and Bogota. This “full BRT” is often used in developing countries that need the speed and capacity of a rail line but have difficulty raising the high amounts of capital required. In the US, the availability of federal funds for major rail projects has made full BRT less common. The cost of acquiring the necessary right-of-way is also a major part of the cost of a light rail line, so full BRT may not save as much capital funding as one might expect.

TriMet is considering a more limited form of BRT they call “On-Street BRT.” This is the form of BRT recently established in the Seattle region in the form of King County Metro’s “RapidRide” and Community Transit’s “Swift.” These systems generally run buses in mixed traffic with only limited exclusive segments, and instead rely on a variety of other mechanisms to make the buses run with more speed and reliability. These tools include: high frequency; off-board payment; real-time arrival signs at stations; wider stop spacing; signal priority; queue jumps and bus-only signals; and many others depending on the project. The rise of On-Street BRT is driven primarily by a new category of federal transportation funding called “Very Small Starts.” This funding source provides relatively small grants to transit agencies that create such a BRT line, and comes with several requirements. For example, this type of BRT must have its own brand (like RapidRide) with distinctive vehicles, and must have widely spaced “stations” with off-board payment rather than just normal stops.

TriMet has identified two major corridors that will be studied for possible On-Street BRT investment. The first would run from downtown Portland east to Gresham via Powell Boulevard and Division Street. This corridor was identified in the recent Metro High Capacity Transit (HCT) Plan as a first-tier priority for the region. This BRT line would replace portions of the busy number 9 bus and would provide an excellent parallel route to the existing MAX Blue Line to Gresham farther north. Powell Boulevard is currently very car-focused, so a major transit investment like this could make a huge difference in this corridor.

So why not light rail? One problem is a lack of available right-of-way. While it would be technically possible to put light rail in the center of the roadway like the Yellow Line on Interstate, the reduction in car capacity would be unacceptable on these major arterials. Another related problem is that Powell is an ODOT facility, so TriMet would be severely constrained in any efforts to remove or change automobile capacity. TriMet could build an elevated rail line, but that would be much more expensive and most likely heavily opposed by the neighborhoods and businesses along the line. It is also worth pointing out that this BRT line would be able to bypass the Ross Island Bridge by using the new transit-only bridge currently under construction.

The other BRT line being considered as a longer-term project would run on I-205, connecting Clackamas Town Center (terminus of the MAX Green Line), Oregon City, Tualatin, and Tigard. This corridor is in the second-priority tier of projects in the HCT Plan. The I-205 BRT line would be a useful crosstown service connecting several suburban employment centers without going through downtown. It would also provide an east-west link between the WES Commuter Rail, the future Southwest Corridor light rail line, and the MAX Green Line. It could even connect with the Milwaukie Line if it is ever extended to Oregon City.

One advantage of BRT is its quick turnaround time. While light rail in the SW Corridor may take a decade to become a reality, these BRT lines could be completed in just a few years. TriMet is smart to consider a cheaper, faster form of high-capacity transit, especially given the recent decline in federal and state transportation funding. This is the kind of flexibility that many have hoped to see from TriMet. Time will tell if these lines are built and how they function, but I for one am excited by the possibilities.

What’s Going On with Streetcar Fares?

There’s been a bit of buzz about Streetcar fares lately, usually framed as “Streetcar is about to drop out of Free Rail Zone.”

That may happen (in fact it probably will), but I’d suggest it’s the wrong way to frame the question.

The real question is “what’s an appropriate fare structure for the Streetcar Loop?”

Free Rail Zone (originally Fareless Square) is a downtown-centric creation. True, it’s been extended to include Lloyd Center, but it doesn’t embrace the concept of a central city (even though in 1988 Portland replaced its Downtown Plan with a Central City Plan). The Streetcar Loop is a transit project that embraces the entire central city on both sides of the river.

A successful central city transit service can’t be free on the west side and $2.00+ on the east side. It’s both inequitable and fails to serve as a unifying factor for the central city. There’s no way we can tell a rider on MLK that their five-stop trip is $2.15 while a 5-stop trip on 10th Ave is free.

In an ideal world, we might make the whole Loop fareless. But I hope everyone understands that given that both organizations that partner to operate Streetcar are in financial distress (TriMet has a $12-13M budget gap for next year, PBOT $16M), that’s not a realistic scenario.

So the real questions we’re grappling with are whether or not to try to maintain compatibility with TriMet’s Zone 1-2 fare and what impact different fare levels will have on ridership given that most streetcar trips are relatively short? Would users rather have a seamless transfer with TriMet or have a $1.00 or $1.50 fare to represent a better value for a short trip? And of course the adequacy of revenue to operate the system also has to be a factor (note that the highest fare is not necessarily the one that generates the most revenue).

One other misapprehension is that this decision will be made by the Portland Streetcar Inc. board. That’s not correct. PSI will make a recommendation, but the ultimate decision authority lies with PBOT and the City. And the decision will be made with public input.

Indeed, there’s a full-blown Title VI process going on to comply with Federal regulations on equity issues.

Two open houses are coming up where you can learn more and share your views:

Wednesday, November 30th – 5:00 to 7:30pm
The Cleaners at the Ace Hotel
403 SW 10th Ave
(Streetcar or #20 Bus)

Thursday, December 1st – 5:00 to 7:30pm
Architectural Heritage Center
701 SE Grand Ave
(#6 Bus)

See you there!

Blumenauer Chastises JPACT

Apparently Earl doesn’t think Metro’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee has sent a clear message to the Feds on what project(s) they’d like to see win funding from the Tiger III grant process.

The region submitted five projects. Earl appears to believe we should have called out one as the key priority.

Interesting. Usually the region plays the Federal process extremely well. I wonder where the breakdown was?