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UPDATED: An update on the Fourth Plain BRT project

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.

The corridor

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

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.

The analysis

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.

The interfaces between different transit agencies

Travelling between transit agencies, especially for trips located within a metro area, can be an inconvenient experience for many reasons. Timetables may not be aligned, fare policies may be hostile (requiring additional tickets as one crosses the agency boundary), different agencies often run vastly different equipment, and interchange points are often on the periphery of a service area.

Is it possible, even given tight budgets, to do better for the transit rider.

Presently, TriMet interchanges directly with the following other transit agencies (Portland Streetcar is considered to be part of the TriMet system for purposes of this dicsussion):

  • C-TRAN (serving Clark County)
  • SAM (Sandy Area Metro)
  • CAT (Columbia Area Transit) serving Hood River and The Dalles
  • SCTD (South Clackamas Transportation District), serving Molalla
  • CAT (Canby Area Transit), serving Canby–yes, that’s two transit agencies with the same acronym
  • SMART (South Metro Area Rapid Transit), serving Wilsonville
  • YCTA (Yamhill County Transit Area), serving Oregon’s wine county
  • TCTD (Tillamook County Transportation District, aka “The Wave”), serving the north-central Oregon Coast
  • Ride Connection, serving rural Washington County
  • CC Rider, serving Columbia County

TriMet also has a direct connection during the weekday commute hours with Cherriots (serving the Salem area) via WES; though neither agency’s services reach the territory of the other (one can transfer between them at Wilsonville Station, in SMART territory). In addition, the following agencies allow transfer to C-TRAN; but don’t interchange directly with TriMet.

Frequent commenter Jason McHuff prepared the following graphic, which illustrates the connections between TriMet and its neighboring agencies (including a few distant neighbors not mentioned in this article). Click on the picture for a larger version of the map.


While all these connections are useful, in many ways, they could be better.

Arms-length agreements

One thing that is evident from the chart, is that in some cases, transit agencies do the minimum to reach another’s service. TriMet presently sends zero busses north of the Columbia (more on that in a moment). TriMet sends only one peak-hour bus (the 96) and WES, a peak-hour commuter train, into SMART territory; and only the latter reaches a primary transfer point in Wilsonville. C-TRAN sends express busses into downtown Portland, and local service to connect with MAX at Delta Park and Parkrose. SMART sends a bus as far north as Capitol TC. Some of the rural transit agencies reach downtown; but others only interface to the TriMet system in places like Gresham, or Oregon City, or Hillsboro.

This state of affairs is probably the best we can hope for as far as the rural services are concerned. Many of these agencies provide only bare-bones social service transit on very tight budgets, and expecting them to provide service into downtown Portland isn’t realistic. But for the neighboring urban agencies–chiefly C-TRAN, SMART, and (to a lesser extent) Cherriots, we should strive for better inter-agency linkage.

Many trips between Portland and Vancouver points, for instance, may require 3 or 4 hops. If you want to get from Beaverton to SW Washington Medical Center, for instance, and the 199 or 105 services aren’t running, then you have to take MAX or the 20 from Beaverton downtown, the Yellow to Delta Park, a C-TRAN local (such as the 4 or 44) to downtown Vancouver, and the C-TRAN 37 to the medical center. Ugh. While it’s too much to ask for an arbitrary trip across service boundaries to be a one-seat ride, or even 2…four different vehicles is a bit much. And the big problem is the Portland-Vancouver segment–a ten-mile trip between two major cities downtowns ought to be served by a one-seat ride, but the trip today requires a transfer (again ignoring C-TRAN’s express routes, which require a more expensive fare than the rest of the system).

There is a good technical reason in this case, along with hope that the state of affairs is only temporary: MAX only extends to the Expo Center, thus any trip involving MAX will require a transfer. Running redundant frequent bus service parallel to MAX would be a bit of a waste (though more on that later). If and when the CRC opens, however, MAX will provide a one-seat ride between the downtowns, and direct transfers to far more C-TRAN services then the handful of lines which presently descend into Oregon and call at Delta Park

But a good principle that ought to be followed for adjacent transit agencies (those sharing a common border and serving the same urban agglomeration) is the following: There should be a continual, transfer-free service between key transfer points in the two systems. It’s harder to do, both politically and technically, than decoupling service at a border transfer station (most of which aren’t key transfer points, though some may become so), but it’s far more beneficial to riders.

There are many ways to accomplish this:

  • One agency can contract with the other to provide the service. This works best if it is a smaller agency interfacing with a larger one; then the often makes sense for the larger agency to operate the connecting service. In practice, however, it seems that the opposite occurs–larger agencies have larger overheads (and in some cases, attitude problems towards their neighbors), and routinely are reluctant to send busses outside of their service boundaries–or demand on levels of compensation that the smaller agency can’t afford.
  • Two agencies can jointly operate the service in some fashion–either both running their own branded services on the same route (offering up to double the frequency), or otherwise agree to share in the operations. (The 1X line between Wilsonville and Salem is an example of this; both SMART and Cherriots operate the service under a coordinated timetable).

Removing the arbitrary transfer at the service boundary isn’t the only important consideration, though. Fare equity is another. Often times, crossing service boundaries requires paying an additional fare; those who want to cross system boundaries on a regular basis may find themselves having to purchase passes on both systems. Ideally, one system will honor the other’s passes and transfers (and better yet if they share fare infrastructure); but many pretend the other does not exist. One compromise is for fare media of either system to be valid on boundary routes, even if not valid throughout the remainder of the system. Switching to distance-based fares also helps deal with the equity issue, though it may still be present if the system(s) have minimum fares that must be paid to both agencies on a cross-agency journey.

Political roadblocks

One helpful thing is that C-TRAN and TriMet are reasonably good terms with each other. Their boundary is dictated by the river and the state line; thus there’s no grounds for a turf war. The same can’t be said for the relationship between TriMet and SMART; the latter seceded from the former back in the 1980s, and while relations have improved, there is still a some bad blood between the agencies to this day. And while service connections have improved, particularly since WES opened, there still is a lot to be desired:

  • TriMet sends no full-time services into Wilsonville; the only services which enter SMART territory are the peak-hour express 96, stopping at Commerce Circle, and WES–both of which only operate during weekday rush hour. Were the former to travel about three miles further south, it could serve Wilsonville Station, including supporting transfers to the aforementioned 1X line to Salem.
  • The SMART 2X goes as far north as Capitol TC; like all of the SMART system, it does not run on Sundays.

Of course, it’s probably premature to talk about improved service to Wilsonville when decent service to Tualatin, a city wholly within its service footprint, seems to be a difficult proposition for TriMet. No frequent-service lines come anywhere near Tualatin’s downtown core (12 skirts the NW corner of the Tualatin city limits between Sherwood and King City, but this isn’t useful for the vast majority of Tualatin residents). The 76 is often talked about as an upgrade for frequent service, and Beaverton-Tualatin is a priority corridor for future rapid transit service, but at the present time, TriMet’s service south of the Tualatin River is abysmal. And east-west connections are an even bigger issue; with no direct lines connecting Tualatin with either Sherwood to the west, or West Linn to the east.

What about Cherriots?

Besides SMART and C-TRAN, Cherriots is the other urban transit agency located within 50 miles of TriMet. However, getting from downtown Salem to downtown Portland (or vice versa) is an presently an inconvenient 3-seat ride. The fastest trip between Wilsonville Town Center and downtown is often WES to Beaverton and then the Red or Blue Line downtown; this trip avoids having to pay a separate fare for WES (the journey from downtown to Wilsonville or vice versa still takes about an hour, however). As noted above, having the 96 meet the 1X in Wilsonville would make this trip more convenient, assuming coordinated schedules–but given the distance between the town centers (45 miles), Salem-Portland isn’t really an appropriate trip for local transit. The distance involved is more appropriate for commuter services–and given the size and importance of the two cities, probably calls for commuter rail rather than express busses that get stuck in freeway traffic. Planners recognize the need, but at this point any such project is a long way from becoming reality.


Again, I would like to offer tremendous thanks to Jason McHuff, who not only prepared the graphics, but also previewed and proofread the article. Any errors are my responsibility, of course; not his.