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.

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