This past evening in the Twitterverse, I had a discussion with several fine folks, including Michael Andersen, intersection 911, and our very own Al M, on the future prospects for major capital improvements in the bus system, up to and including BRT. (Planned purchases of replacement busses, tardy as they are, are excluded).
An oft-held viewpoint, also echoed frequently by readers here, was that it was unlikely to happen.
There has been quite a bit of discussion of BRT in Portland over the years. The original MAX line was originally conceived as a busway; a BRT solution for the South Corridor project (Portland-Milwaukie) was given serious consideration, and its being discussed for the Powell/Division and Tualatin-Clackamas corridors. Clark County/C-TRAN is also considering BRT. Last year, we discussed the prospect of BRT running parallel to WES; something which TriMet has not, to my knowledge, considered.
But talk, as they say, is cheap. The last five rapid transit projects constructed here in town have been rail, as is the Portland-Milwaukie line under construction. The next major rapid transit line in the queue, the Southwest Corridor, is widely expected to be rail as well (no decision has been made, and its still early in the planning process, but I would be shocked otherwise). And that’s just MAX–there’s also WES and the Streetcar as well. Past behavior is an indicator of future behavior.
Intersection 911 made an insightful comment:
@I-911: seems BRT is always “considered” before rail is chosen. I smell forgone conclusion + too much emphasis on choice riders
While I’ll leave alone the “foregone conclusion” part, the “choice riders” part is dead on. FTA criteria for evaluating transit projects have, until recently, placed much emphasis on attracting “new riders“, and on cutting down on travel times. New riders are invariably choice riders (the dependent riders are already using transit), and there’s quite bit of them who won’t ride busses, and the travel time requirement encourages high-capital projects. The Obama Administration has altered the criteria, but many think the new policy will instead promote streetcars. (In a must-read article, Jarrett Walker channels Socrates for an excellent discussion of the FTA criteria.)
However–blaming the FTA isn’t the whole story. While the FTA isn’t immune from politics, programs such as New Starts are designed to permit funding decisions to be made on technical rather than political grounds, and it works reasonably well. And more to the point–the FTA has funded quite a few BRT projects over the years, including two EmX projects in Eugene. (A third is in the works). Over a dozen BRT projects are presently in the pipeline, meaning construction has started, or is scheduled to start in 2012.
FTA programs such as New Starts don’t pay for programs all by themselves, however–Uncle Sam instead provides a 50%-60% match on projects. (Larger projects like MLR get 50%, smaller ones can get 60%). Which means locals have to come up with the other 40%-50% of a project’s cost. Transit agencies, such as TriMet, generally don’t have that sort of money on hand–and indeed, TriMet has gotten raked over the coals for its contribution of less than 5% of the MLR capital costs, as this is money that could go to pay for better bus service.
Matching funds, instead, are often appropriated by state and local governments. Salem is paying for a significant chunk of the project, and local governments in the region are kicking in the majority of the rest. And unlike the FTA, many of the local governments lack effective bureaucracy to reduce the politics inherent in funding decisions. I have no doubt that the FTA would be willing to fund a suitable BRT project, and although it may seem like a leap of faith, I’m certain TriMet would have no issue building and operating one. My suspicion is that the biggest roadblock to this are the local governments providing the match–cities and counties are prone to seek prestige projects (since Hillsboro, Beaverton, Gresham, and now Milwaukie have LRT, don’t expect Tigard to “settle” for BRT), and are subject to greater influence from local development and construction interests.
That said, I’ve long pondered the debate between federalism and localism of infrastructure funding. Sending the bulk of our tax dollars to DC only to go begging for it to be returned is rather inefficient. My biggest beef with the Feds, though is not what the FTA does, but with the broader transportation funding priorities–Washington still likes to build freeways more than anything else. However, the same is arguably true for Salem.
A Powell/Division BRT corridor actually strikes me as a politically tractable project. It would be built in cities that already have MAX, and lies in a corridor where rail would be expensive (and there’s a parallel MAX line to the north). The existing bus corridor is well-used. The major question is–can the stars be aligned to pay for it?