Southwest Corridor BRT?

In the previous post, we noted that Metro had approved study for the Powell/Division corridor. A Metro planner indicated that the region in the future would be pursuing a less capital intensive strategy in the future, and hinted that the Southwest Corridor might just not be light rail.

The Southwest Corridor stretches roughly from downtown Portland, along OR99W, southwest to Sherwood. (Map courtesy of Metro).Screenshot from 2012-05-19 22:37:52.pngMajor destinations and communities along the corridor include PSU at the north end, the South Portland neighborhood, OHSU/Marquam Hill, Hillsdale, Multnomah, Capitol Heights, PCC-Sylvania, all of Tigard, Garden Home, Progress/Washington Square, some parts of S. Beaverton, Lake Grove, Durham/Bridgeport, Bull Mountain, King City, a small part of Tualatin, and Sherwood.

The corridor was identified as a high-priority corridor in Metro’s 2008 High-Capacity Transit System Plan. The cities of Portland, Tigard, and Sherwood are active participants in the project, and Portland and Tigard have significant planning activities ongoing concerning 99W; Sherwood will be starting a town center plan soon.

Metro has emphasized that the transit mode for the corridor has not been determined: The project website states “Light rail may be included as a potential solution at that time, but other high capacity solutions, such bus rapid transit, commuter rail or rapid streetcar, or even improved local bus, may also be pursued as well or instead.” That declaration has not prevented many observers (including myself) from believing that light rail is the most likely choice, so the suggestion that BRT is a likely possibility was interesting indeed.

After the jump, we take a look at whether or not BRT, of some form, would work in this corridor. We will not consider rapid streetcar or commuter rail any further.
What would a Southwest BRT look like?

The following is, obviously, rampant speculation and geekery on the part of yours truly. A major assumption with a BRT implementation of the Southwest Corridor is that it would be a surface route, using existing rights of way, with capital spending at a minimum. More exotic solutions such as a subway tunnel under Marquam Hill and Hillsdale are considered out of scope–both due to the cost and the issue of ventilation if internal-combustion-powered vehicles are used. Some limited capital enhancements, beyond preparing the right-of-way and building stations, are considered within scope; but a busway solution to the Southwest Corridor is not likely to look like Milwaukie MAX with tires. I do assume, in a few cases, that planned urban projects along the busway are done (and that these aren’t part of the project budget itself). This proposal ignores the question of project phasing.
Click on the image for a larger version.

A hypothetical design corridor would start at PSU and the south end of the transit mall. Rather than proceeding south on Barbur, it proceeds east on Lincoln along the transitway being constructed for PMLR along Lincoln Street, serving the Lincoln Street stop near Naito Parkway. It then will proceeds south on Naito (which will have a busway constructed in the middle–I’m assuming that some of the recommendations of the South Portland Circulation Study Report and Recommendations are done), with stops near SW Arthur/SW Kelly, and Whitaker/Curry. The busway then connects with Barbur, and proceeds in the median of Barbur until further notice.

Another stop would be at Bancroft/Hamilton. After this stretch, it enters the “woods” segment. There might be a local-service stop near the 4900 block of Barbur (there’s no named cross street here, but a big apartment complex), and another near the interchange with SW Capitol Highway. One thing the South Portland Circulation Study recommends is an interchange between Capitol Highway and I-5, so auto traffic coming from Raleigh Hills and/or Hillsdale can use the freeway, allowing further de-highway-fication of Barbur Boulevard. If a Capitol Highway stop could also be connected to the Marquam Trail (crossing under the highway), so much the better.

Stop density would increase a bit in the Burlingame area, with a stop just northeast of SW Third, another at Terwilliger/Bertha, and 13th and Custer. Stop density would then decrease somewhat compared to S. Portland or Burlingame (every 600-800m or so), perhaps at 19th and Capitol Hill, 26th Way, Alice/35th, and the Barbur TC. Beyond that, SW Huber and SW 53rd/Pomona.

After that, the line would cross into Tigard, and Barbur Boulevard becomes Pacific Highway. While the city of Tigard has plans to tame OR99W through its limits, such plans may be subject to pushback from ODOT, as well as from established property owners and an electorate less sold on density and upzoning. I’m going to assume stops at 64th, 71st/72nd, Dartmouth, Hall, and then Tigard TC. Beyond that, Main/Johnson, Park St., McDonald/Gaarde, Bull Mountain/Beef Bend, Durham Road/King City, and Fischer Road.

After leaving Tigard and crossing the Tualatin, OR99W ceases all resemblance of an urban thoroughfare and becomes a high-speed expressway. While grade-separation of the line isn’t necessary; pedestrian overcrossings are probably a useful thing to have in this stretch. A station could be supported at Tualatin Road/124th and possibly at Cipole Road, then nothing until Six Corners is reached. The current 12/94 takes a rather winding route through Sherwood; while the city of Sherwood is mostly single-family housing, I can think of several places where transit service would be useful. As Sherwood is the “end of the line”, I’m assuming minimal capital improvements here.

For most of the line–certainly until one gets past the Tualatin River, my assumption is a median busway within 99W for most of the length, with a few deviations at places like Tigard TC. In some places, this may difficult to accomplish, but one advantage of BRT is that it can mix with regular traffic if needed for a tight spot. I’m also assuming robust signal priority along the route; the bus should only rarely have to wait for crossings or be blocked by traffic. I’m assuming platforms designed for 67′ busses (in addition to better capacity, longer busses speed dwell times by having more doors), and proof of payment used on busses that serve the BRT corridor, including those that branch off, and that stations will have amenities and facilities similar to light rail.

One obvious issue: By running on Barbur (and Naito), the line as indicated doesn’t serve OHSU/Marquam Hill directly. Given its location, OHSU is awfully hard to serve with transit. The current streets up to and around Marquam Hill aren’t suitable for a rapid transit line. Some possible options to reach OHSU include tunneling (which would favor light rail over combustion-powered busses), a new surface route (on a gentler grade) up to the top of the hill, or some way for transit users (as well as pedestrians and bicyclists) to reach the campus from Barbur Boulevard. Although a subway tunnel is likely out of scope for BRT, my assumption is that OHSU is an important enough destination that a reasonable connection to the line and the hospital complex is made–either a pedestrian tunnel to a bank of elevators (passenger throughput will be a big problem, as said elevators may be a bottleneck at shift changes), or a bank of escalators up the side of the hill (similar to the Central-Mid Levels Escalator in Hong Kong). Or a funicular, or some other technology. In the above map, a connection from the Whitaker/Curry stop is assumed, and shown in yellow.

Technical analysis of BRT

In this comment, I list several technical advantages that BRT has in some situations. One additional one, relevant to this discussion, is that it’s far easier to support passing (and thus things like express services). Supporting this with rail is far more difficult–you need to add switches, reconfigure the signalling, etc–but for busses running on pavement, providing passing opportunities is easy. This is important. You’ll notice that over the 11 mile stretch between PSU and King City (we’ll ignore everything past there), there are about 26 stops/stations called out; one about every 700m–and depending on development patterns, I could see calls for more. This stopping distance is far closer than needed for rapid transit–the Yellow Line, for instance, also travels in a street median and has 3000′ (1km) stopping distance on average, and still regarded as kind of slow. I’m assuming that since this is BRT and not rail, there will be opportunities for busses to pass, and thus many of the busses running the busway will have limited stopping patterns. (Were this to be a LRT line rather than a BRT, I’d suggest fewer stops). On the above map, the stops indicated in blue are assumed to be called on by all stations, those in red may be skipped by rapid services.

Now take a look at this map of the current TriMet services in the area.
Screenshot from 2012-05-20 00:02:14.png
If one looks at the map of existing bus services in the area, one thing stands out: There’s a whole lot of bus lines heading south from downtown, on one of five corridors: Terwilliger, Barbur/Naito, Corbett, I-5, or Macadam. Other than those bus lines heading down Macadam, most of them branch out and head west to varying degrees in the vicinity of Hillsdale/Burlingame; but in between there and downtown, you have some intense bus activity. Many of these lines run limited service through this area. This sort of branching configuration is something BRT supports well, particularly through “open BRT”, and is something that rail has a harder time supporting–rail works best with linear corridors, not trunk-and-branch. Geography prevents construction of an effective grid in southwest; one doesn’t encounter a significant crosstown bus line until one reaches Tigard and the 76/78. Many of the major trip generators (such OHSU, PCC, Washington Square) don’t lie in a line; serving all of these with a single rail line would be difficult. Note that BRT-like improvements outside the Barbur corridor aren’t discussed, but a BRT line along Beaverton/Hillsdale out to Beaverton TC (and then along TV Highway to Hillsboro) would be a fine idea, as would BRT improvements down Capitol to PCC, then to Kerr and along Boones Ferry to Bridgeport and Tualatin. (I’d love to see the 44 extended to Tualatin–far southwest really could use an all-day direct line to downtown).

There are a few flies in the BRT ointment, however. One is that ideally for an open BRT, you’d have intense development and high density along the trunk; so many people would be able to take advantage of the very-frequent transit service. Most of the “trunk” of Barbur Boulevard, however, is built along the side of a cliff–the terrain prevents any significant development. While this permits fast service through the area, it’s unlikely that significant new development along Barbur would be able to take advantage of this. One exception is the stretch along Naito Parkway that the city hopes to rebuild one day, as the parkway is turned from its highway past to a tame urban street; there are ample development opportunities here.

Another potential issue is that while the current transit topology is tree-like, travel patterns might not be. OHSU, in particular, draws many people from the south and west; several express bus lines serve Pill Hill. Improving transit connections to OHSU is an important issue.

Finally, one downside of open BRT is that it limits vehicle choice–in general, the busses that operate on the BRT section are limited to standard rolling stock–in particular, things like center-platform boarding (requiring doors on the left) are off limits. This can be mitigated by having some bus routes run limited service, skipping some stations–the skipped stations can be configured for left-side boarding.

Political analysis

A longstanding rule of project development (in both the public and private sectors) is “if the politics doesn’t fly, the project won’t either”. Whether a BRT solution will be acceptable for stakeholders is an interesting question. Several important points to consider when thinking of the politics:

  • The South Corridor DEIS, which led to PMLR, concluded that light rail would produce 33% more trips than a busway would.
  • A big factor in the choice of light rail over busway for Portland-Milwaukie was objections by the city of Milwaukie. The reasons for this objection I’m not sure enough about, but other metros (LA comes to mind) have had nasty fights between different communities over who gets “better” infrastructure, much as children will squabble over the largest piece of cake. Expect some hurt feelings in Tigard and Sherwood if they “only” get BRT whereas Beaverton, Hillsboro, Gresham, and Milwaukie all got light rail–many politicians seem to view rail as the more prestigious project.
  • On the other hand, Tigard already has rail–WES. Given the manner in which Washington County twisted TriMet’s arm on that project, the region might be justified in saying no to light rail.
  • The same folks pushing anti-rail politics in Clackamas County have been active in Washington County of late, trying to get anti-rail initiatives on the ballots in Tigard and Sherwood. (And in Tualatin, though the line only nicks a corner of Tualatin, so I’m not sure its contribution matters much). If these measures are similar to the one one the ballot this September in Clackamas County, they only would affect rail, not BRT.
  • OTOH, Tigard still seems to be a Democratic-leaning town, and Washington County is still a blue-leaning county, so anti-rail organizers may have less success here than they have been having in Clackamas County.
  • Given the present national and economic situation, the region may not be able to count on buckets of cash from Uncle Sam; a low-cost option may be required.
  • A good argument can be made that WES and Milwaukie MAX have “poisoned the well” for future rail construction, at least for the time being.
  • At least one recent TriMet board appointees, Craig Prosser, is known to be an ardent supporter of MAX on the SW Corridor. While the TriMet board won’t be directly involved in the planning process, were board members to object to BRT it would be a major obstacle.
  • One other potential political land mine is OHSU’s involvement with the Portland Aerial Tram, which suffered cost overruns of over 200%. OHSU management was accused of misconduct by public officials, including Portland city councilor Randy Leonard, after it became known that OHSU officials knew of cost overruns early on but didn’t inform city officials, preventing the city from considering the cancellation of the project prior to the expenditure of public funds. Given that, there may be considerable political resistance to any further infrastructure spending seen to be beneficial to OSHU, even though it may be otherwise important to the region.

A plausible political case for BRT can certainly be made, though a BRT project may face opposition that a rail project might not. One key constituency to be concerned with are developers; they seem to still exhibit a definite pro-rail bias, and are less likely to consider BRT-facing properties to be a lucrative opportunity. Developers and their financiers tend to be a conservative (meaning slow-to-change, not politically conservative) lot, and many of them still don’t believe that bus service can be an attractive amenity. To the extent the Southwest Corridor is intended as a transformation project instead of just a transportation project, there may be pushback against bus.

One other issue is environmental goals. Assuming that the region isn’t likely to consider trolleybus (or other types of electric-powered bus), the issue of bus emissions may be important (even if no tunnels are built). One reason busses suffer from a bad rap is that their engines are often noisy and smelly; compared to the electric motors in LRT vehicles which are quiet and emission-free. (On the other hand, there’s no rail squeal with a bus). This doesn’t rule out bus, of course–a bus project that can attract motorists out of cars can still meet environmental goals–but at a certain price point, this too will exert a strong push to a rail based solution.

I suggest that the recent Metro announcement may well be a trial balloon to see if the region is ready to do a BRT project on a major regional corridor. BRT on Powell/Division is probably an easier sell–much of the route is already developed; there’s already a parallel light rail line (and thus no reason for Portland or Gresham officials to get upset), the established bus service does well, and given the existing grid there’s nothing to be saved by eliminating overlapping routes to downtown. But none of these things are true for the SW Corridor.

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