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.
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, 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.
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.