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.

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