What would $2 billion of BRT look like?

Over on their Facebook page, OPAL links to an old Jarrett Walker column from three years ago, “bus-rail debates in a beautiful abstract city, and in los angeles“. In it, he poses the question of which is a better use of transit dollars:

  • Building more expensive types of infrastructure (such as rail or high-end BRT) serving a smaller area?
  • Building less expensive types of infrastructure (low-end BRT) that covers a wider area?

Jarrett then points out how that debate played out in Los Angeles. (He also theorizes, in the comments, how Portland might look with a BRT-focused rather than rail-focused transit infrastructure).

Unfortunately, the question in practice is seldom posed that way: Instead, it’s often “should we build expensive transit in this corridor?” vs “shall we build cheap transit in this corridor, and pocket the savings?” Much of the discussion about BRT for the SW Corridor is predicated on the discussion that light rail in the corridor may be too expensive, especially if tunneling through the West Hills is required. I’ve seen figures such as $2B thrown about–entirely believable, given that getting to Milwaukie (about 7 miles from downtown) is costing $1.5B, and Tigard TC is about three miles further away from the city center than is Milwaukie. And Sherwood is almost 17 miles from downtown Portland.

While I’m certainly not intending to slight those in the Southwest, eagerly awaiting their turn for transportation improvements, let me ask the question. If the region were to spend a couple billion dollars on light rail in a specific corridor; why not spend it on comprehensive, system-wide improvements, mainly focused on the bus system? What would this look like? What could we get? Could such a proposal get funding in the first place–or would it be too politically unattractive to legislators to merit taxpayer dollars? (I’m not worried about the FTA; I’m worried mainly about local politicians who might not be willing to approve appropriations for such a project, without which there will be no FTA matching funds).

Obviously, this question could have easily been asked several years ago, before MLR was planned and approved. But that’s water under the still-under-construction bridge.


14 responses to “What would $2 billion of BRT look like?”

  1. Scotty, what you are saying is HERESY in Portland :).

    But it just may have become to expensive to construct any more new LRT, and reality has to be faced, no matter how painful to the railheads.

    Of course, the bus manufacturers could play their part by designing and building more attractive comfortable vehicles in order to attract more folks who just won’t ride on a bus.

  2. I guess the point that I run into trouble with is the “equity” philosophy. I.e. being able to provide service to those who need it, but may not be in a neighborhood that, from a business perspective, would be “profitable.” But, in these days those with limitations that require them to use public transit, may have productive uses for their time….as opposed to previous times when such folks may have simply had to wait. I grew up in a family with a handicapped adult relative, and my mother never drove, either, so relying on public transit was a part of our life.

    But these days are different, and it would not be PC anymore to say that those who need public transit due to equity can’t think of what to do with the rest of their time. So, why can’t we schedule routing more from a profit perspective, thus reducing the public subsidization? And when there is less subsidization of one service, there is money for an alternative. So, that is why I often raise the idea of express buses that make a few stops….and then ignore everyone in between. There would still be service for the in-between areas, resembling the present scheduling.

    If a bus got people to their destination as quickly as a rail, would people be attracted to it? Last time, I was to the airport I realized that the MAX gave people with luggage plenty of room. But most daily commuting routes probably don’t have that requirement.

    What would we get? Let’s watch Everett, WA and see what the ROI is for their express, double tall system. It did make use of existing SWIFT facilities. OTOH, they funded it with 90 percent grant money. I’ve been waiting for them to put out a financial report.

    I think regarding the politicians decisions it would depend upon how vocal the advocates are. My cynical opinion of governments is that they ultimately want more taxpayers. Does this lead to an endless spiral? :)

  3. I’d love to see a huge BRT system put in! One could always upgrade later. Besides, providing better transportation should be the main goal more than anything else. We also have quite a lot of rail anyway.

    Can you imagine the entire length of our principal routes? Imagine how well North Portland could be served with BRT service on Lombard, Killingsworth, and MLK. West Portland would be well-served by a route on the Beaverton-Hillsdale and Tualatin Valley highways all the way out to Hillsboro. East Portland, though with abundant service, doesn’t exactly enjoy *fast* service. I think it’s time to rectify that. Imagine something rapid on Sandy, Burnside, Belmont, Hawthorne, Division, or Powell. A brilliant cross-town idea would include BRTs along the entire length of the 72 and 75 buses. It could even help in Downtown with good signal priority. It would wonderful to finally have fast cross-town service west to east.

    Service levels could be every ten minutes during the day, every day, and ever fifteen minutes after 9 PM. With stops about every half-mile, signal priority, and pre-boarding fare collection, the trips would be not only be faster than they are now but easier to make. Connections would also be easy for once since waits would be so small. I’m not counting on priority lanes for most of the routes, but the other upgrades would certainly speed things up. As a bus rider, I wouldn’t complain at all. Furthermore, these routes would be fixed lines like MAX and on a map, separately branded, and highly visible.

    I don’t know if two billions dollars would cover all of those projects, but it could probably cover a couple of them quite well. It would be like the Rapid buses in LA. If they can’t reduce trip times by a third there, imagine what it could do here. I would welcome it, I would vote for it, and I would be happy to see such an investment cover so much of Portland proper instead of the suburbs.

    Oh, and if there’s any funds left over, let’s use them to expand the general bus network. I’m sure a lot of people would love to see more north-south routes on the East Side, especially inner Portland between 12th and 39th avenues. Restoring the high-frequency network and even expanding it would be good, too. I can think of several lines that need additional runs.

    Oh, the things we could do with two billion dollars directed just for buses! Dreamy…

  4. The problem with a huge, ambitious BRT network is operations costs. We could spend two billion on buying top-of-the-line buses (possibly trolley buses with batteries good for several miles of independent operation) and putting in all kinds of great support infrastructure with overhead wiring, full MAX-like stations, improved ticketing, dedicated lanes, signal preemption, the whole nine yards … and we’ll still have the need to put an operator in each bus and to maintain frequent service (15 minute headways or better) on all of those lines.

    LRT costs more up front, but the ability to have an operator run a train of LRT vehicles, plus the lifespan of the vehicles themselves, saves money on operations over the long term. In terms of capacity, it’s the equivalent of one operator per four buses … a good deal as long at the LRT line runs reasonably full much of the time. Since (AFAIK) the federal government won’t help pay for operating costs, it’s probably better to get their help building the system that will cost less, over the long run, to operate.

    I also question the $2 billion estimate for a MAX line to Tigard. Maybe that would be the case for a surface line. However, if the “long tunnel” option (OHSU, Hillsdale, PCC) were used, the tunnel would need to be about six miles long — twice the length of the Robertson Tunnel. Per Wikipedia, the Robertson tunnel cost $184 million in 1996. Double that to reflect the greater length, and roughly double it again for inflation, and it’s around $735 million or so. Add a couple of additional underground stations at $120 million each (from memory, $38 million, but I tripled it because the PSU and OHSU stations would be larger and more elaborate), and you can get from downtown nearly to Tigard for under $1 billion.

    I can see PSU to Tigard TC costing a bit over a billion. Two billion just sounds absurdly high, given the actual cost of the tunnel and underground station that Tri-Met already built.

  5. I don’t see that happening. Our current policies encourage density around frequent transit lines, so over time, provided healthcare gets figured out, our financial position should get better

  6. I haven’t yet read much about BRT and bikes. I typically use the MAX as a supplement to bike commuting. Many other cities’ transit systems I’ve used have had little to no practical bike facilities, particularly on trains. The MAX doesn’t stop longer for bikes. Bike racks on buses are useful, but also take much longer and are often full during rush hour, so I tend to avoid them. A BRT may have something similar to MAX, but I haven’t seen it. Does anyone know more about this?

  7. Douglas makes the point I’ve been saying from the start, I just didn’t have actual numbers. Namely, that the tunnel is not as expensive as some people assume. Trying to carve out ROW next to Barbur Blvd through already dense Lair Hill, then on the side of a cliff to Burlingame, that 3 mile section alone could cost as much or more than the whole 6 mile tunnel Douglas described.

    Drilling technology has improved over the last 15-20 years, since we drilled the Robertson tunnels, and I think an estimate of 100M per mile is pretty accurate. Add the cost of the stations and the vehicles, electrification, etc. and it will likely be less than the Milwaukie MAX. The reason MLR was so expensive was because of the outrageous cost of ROW through Central Eastside, SE Portland, and along the UP tracks. Plus the new bridge. We largely avoided those costs with the other 5 MAX lines.

  8. Drilling tunnels isn’t the expensive part of a subway.

    Excavating stations is.

    The Washington Park station is a good example of a very minimalist station–basically the two rail tunnels are a bit wider for 200′, and connected in several spots. I’m assuming that any stations under the West Hills would be of similar design; the massive caverns found in many East Coast subways would be avoided. But still, underground stations cost lots of money.

  9. The reason it isn’t done that way here is because we have along habit of playing within the federal funding system for our capital projects, and the way that system is shaped favors a corridor model. So we end up talking about discrete lines that can be argued at the FTA, rather than systemic designs.

    Overall, though, I’m with Doug K on this one: every time the bus vs. rail trope gets raised (though, I’m not accusing you or even OPAL of this in this case) everyone seems to forget entirely about operating costs.

    (WES itself should have taught us all to watch out for this: it was cheap to build, and REALLY expensive to operate.)

    Large vehicles operating under electric propulsion are far cheaper to operate. I don’t think we would be wise to invest in what we presently think of as BRT, even if the design side were done properly rather than halfway like Eugene did with the first EMX line. Seriously, people, you don’t have on street plus center running median plus side running and mixed traffic transitions. It’s a recipe for delays and no better than a regular bus.

    Better ideas would be to steal a few things from the BRT playbook and enhance what we used to know as Frequent Service corridors. (Remember those?) For example:

    • Every major west coast operation uses flexible articulated buses to add capacity. Why don’t we? There’s a cost savings right there as we get more riders / capacity per driver.
    • Improve more stops with shelters and lighting.
    • Move FS routes to electric operation, as we once had, and as SF, Seattle, and Vancouver all still have.
    • Brand FS routes differently than the rest of the bus system and differentiate them with paint and signage.

    I think a program of “enhanced bus” would find support both in Portland and in the suburbs, so long as a few key routes into the suburbs were included. (54/56 seem logical, as does the remainder of service on McLoughlin beyond the Orange Line.)

  10. You know what I find curious, the argument that that LRT is always more efficient and faster than BRT.

    There are so many delays on LRT that I am surprised that this argument even comes up. And one thing on one train holds up EVERYTHING!.

    Trimet screwed up its light rail by going right on the street and having so many stops in downtown.

    Light rail is supposed to be FAST which means it has its own segregated right of way where car’s can’t access.

    The argument that you need less operators to operate light rail is also false.

    BRT vehicles are capable of holding as many passengers as LRT. Of course Trimet getting rid of all its articulated buses increased its own operating expenses by needing more operators.

    I think the Trimet blue line is a example of a somewhat successful light rail line, subject to the limitations that I mentioned above.

    I could envision a line to Vancouver as being worth the investment. But to be truly successful as a light rail line it would have to have its own right of way and have significantly less stops on its way to Vancouver.

    As gas prices rise the demand for transit will increase. Thinking needs to change from the ridiculously expensive inflexible light rail to the cheaper BRT.

    The Milwaukie line is a ridiculously overpriced insane project. Hopefully we will never see that type of extravagance in this area again. How can anybody support it given its cost?

    Eventually I am going to head down to Trimet offices with a hand full of requests for public information and get some access to some of these contracts. I wanna see how these grants have been parted out. We (the public) know nothing about the building of this. We know its going to cost $1.5 BILLION!

    I really want to see exactly how that money is being spent and to whom, from the top to the bottom.

    From what I hear there are many ex trimet managers this getting money as part as one of the dozens of sub contractors.

    There is something rotten over there and somebody needs to dig into it.

    I’m sure I will have to appeal to the attorney general to get a waiver of the absurdly high fees that Trimet imposes to access this material

  11. BRT vehicles are capable of holding as many passengers as LRT.

    Except BRT vehicles can’t be lashed together train-style.

    While I’m leaning toward LRT for the SW Corridor, I think BRT, or a variation thereof, would work great on the following:

    * I-205 (between Clackamas and Tualatin)
    * 82nd Ave (Green Line is just fine where it was built but 82nd still needs transit enhancements)
    * 122nd Ave
    * Powell Blvd
    * Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy
    * Columbia Blvd (between Parkrose and St Johns)

  12. A good rule of thumb for single-level transit vehicles (7′-8′ wide) is that you can crushload 2 about persons per linear foot, with 2 1/2 persons per foot being occasionally possible.

    A 40′ (13m) bus can hold about 80 at crush load. A 67′ (20m) articulated bus or Streetcar can hold about 130, and a 100′ (30m) LRT vehicle can hold about 200. A 2-car MAX train has a crushload capacity of about 400 persons, and I’ve heard of 500 being crammed into a train before.

    There is no street-legal, single-decker bus that can hold as many people as a single MAX car can. Dual-decker busses and multi-level trains obviously increase the capacity per linear foot, but they tend to be really slow to board, and not appropriate for rapid transit applications (they work better for local service and best for point-to-point service).

  13. Drilling tunnels isn’t the expensive part of a subway.

    Excavating stations is.

    This is why the tunnel would necessarily include only a few stations that service major trip generators. Assume each station will cost in the neighborhood of $100 million. Maybe Hillsdale and perhaps PCC would be a bit cheaper; they both could get by with the more minimalist design of Washington Park, since all they need is a basic surface plaza with a transit center around it. Maybe more elevators at each end; maybe wider platforms.

    The OHSU/VA station has so many issues on the surface that it almost certainly would cost significantly more. If the station were to serve both OHSU and VA effectively, it would probably need to be between the two institutions. Bear in mind the bridge between them is 660 feet long — you can’t just put elevator banks at each end of a 200 foot long station and serve both hospitals. (There might also be a need for substantially more elevators than Washington Park and significantly wider platforms.)

    Potentially, you might create a longer underground station, with the elevator banks about 500 feet apart, each one rising into to a tower in the canyon between the hospitals — but that means spending a lot of money on the towers, as well as the bridges to connect each tower into its respective building.

    Or, the station could serve OHSU and let people walk the skybridge to the VA hospital. That could turn into a four-block walk from OHSU to the VA, which is not always the easiest thing for a patient. Depending on projected VA traffic, there may be the potential of pedestrian congestion on the sky bridge.

    Anyway, I would go into this assuming that the cost of an OHSU/VA station would be eye-popping. On the spending end, the state (through OHSU) and the federal government (through the VA) should pick up at least part of the capital cost. Both institutions have massive parking problems that a MAX station would go a long way to solving.

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