“This wasn’t very fast,” he admits, “but it was an innovation, a technological innovation, rather than having to walk or ride a horse or something.”
In a slow, soft manner he stresses, “It’s important to understand that there’s always this continuum of improvement.
“The whole thing was convenience, speed, safety... You know, whether it’s 1891,” he stops, breaking off in a laugh and explains the relation to the present.
“We started with a decrepit system in 1970… we were created as a public entity and we had debt, old equipment. It literally took us probably 15-20 years to really rebuild the system.”
Pangborn says it always goes back to what the customer needs. “What is the customer looking for out of the system? Then you take technology, whatever that is, and you apply it.” In 1891 it was a mule-drawn rail car. In 2006 it was bus rapid transit (BRT).
Developing a New Form of Transit
Of course BRT wasn’t an overnight answer. It was in the early ‘90s that the wheels started turning.
Pangborn remembers, “We had a board member [Ron Bennett] who said to us, ‘You guys are doing a great job. Man, I’m really impressed. You’ve got a lot of service, you’ve got a lot of ridership, you’re doing some innovative stuff. Where are you going to be in 20 years? You just told me you’re getting more traffic, the buses are slowing down in traffic, you’re having to spend more money just to keep your headways and stuff, are you going to be in any different of a place in 20 years?’”
LTD needed to determine where it would be in 20 years and it knew the next step forward was light rail. It was about the time that Portland started its first rail line. “There’s no way we could afford that,” Pangborn asserts. He says Bennett’s reaction was, “That’s it? There’s no other option?
“Right about that time is when the Scientific American article came out about Curitiba, Brazil,” he says. “They knew about light rail but they couldn’t afford it. They created these arterials and they actually designed their own double articulated buses… there’s a whole new way of moving this massive amount of people on this system.”
LTD started a dialogue about the concept of light rail on rubber tires, looking at the amenities that make light rail so attractive and efficient. “Curitiba had done it. It was right there,” Pangborn stresses as his inflection rises.
With the high cost of rail, Pangborn says Gordon Linton, FTA administrator at the time, was very attracted to a possible, less expensive alternative.
“We started talking to the FTA, we started talking to the state, we started talking to the local community,” he says. This led to the bus vs. rail discussion that occurs in many communities.
“There were still people in the local community who said, ‘We don’t want to do that’,” Pangborn explains, taking the voice of those people. “‘Oh no. That’s just a warmed-over version of bus stuff. We want to have light rail’.”
At the beginning LTD looked at the cost of light rail. “The numbers were just so glaringly obvious,” he says. “$30 million, $50 million a mile. I mean, who’s going to pay for that?”
Forging ahead along the BRT path, the local congressman, Congressman Peter DeFazio, was onboard with the plan and was able to obtain 5309 funding to start planning the first corridor.
The first corridor is a four-mile stretch between downtown Springfield and downtown Eugene — LTD’s busiest route. “In a sense it created this backbone of a system between the two and then we run radial systems out of both ends of that,” Pangborn says. “From a political point of view, it started out buying-in both communities. You had Springfield part of it and you had Eugene, so they’re both getting BRT and then you can build off either end of it in terms of the systems.” Two more corridors are in the works for the BRT line. The second corridor, running in Springfield, is in the design stage and the third corridor, to be in Eugene, is in the planning process.