C-Tran officials showed the Vancouver City Council on Monday tentative plans for bus rapid transit on Fourth Plain Boulevard — and the debate showed some of the likely speed bumps ahead for the proposed line. The transit agency is meeting with the city council and the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Committee this month, and next, as it hopes to gain support for plans in advance of a possible November ballot measure to pay for the project and light rail from Portland.
The two agencies will have to approve a locally preferred alternative for the route and other major details, and then the C-Tran Board of Directors would give that plan final approval at its June meeting. But city leaders expressed hesitation about impacts to businesses and vehicle traffic, while acknowledging that the congested arterial does need some sort of relief.
"As a city, we have some needs on Fourth Plain," Vancouver Long Range Planning Manager Matt Ransom told the council. "Is this project the right project? I think it's worthy of consideration."
Bus rapid transit works by combining several upgrades into a revamped bus system designed to move passengers more smoothly and reliably. Features include larger vehicles, raised boarding platforms and specialized traffic signals. Other similar systems have used dedicated bus lanes and fixed "guideways," though that doesn't appear likely here.
A citizen committee this past week recommended no dedicated lanes for bus travel on either Fourth Plain or Fort Vancouver Way as it runs east from downtown (just how far east the line would extend is yet to be determined). Even without dedicated bus lanes, C-Tran Project Manager Chuck Green said the line would cut travel times by 20 percent, or 8 to 10 minutes, compared with a no-build scenario. "We're looking for a cost-effective project that still has an enormous amount of value," Green said.
Green said that the routes along Fourth Plain already have a greater ridership than 22 of 47 operating bus rapid transit lines in the nation. Their models, he said, show that ridership will double by 2035 if rapid transit goes in, due to increased demand from new riders drawn in by the service. Adding more buses to the congested corridor only increases operation costs without providing much in the way of time savings, Green said.
"We looked at that," he said. "It's not cost-effective. We continue to look at bunched-up buses that continue to run late." The line is expected to cost from $35 million to $50 million for a terminus at the Westfield Vancouver mall, to as much as $60 million for a line to Northeast 162nd Avenue.
Federal money is expected to cover 80 percent of the costs; C-Tran is relying on a sales tax vote or some other form of increased revenue to pay for the expected $5 million annual operation costs. Also still undecided is where the dedicated platform stations will be located in the roadway — on the shoulder or in the median. City Councilor Jeanne Stewart asked Ransom if the city's transportation plans are prepared for the traffic diversion she believes the line's stations will cause. The dedicated stations will create "physical and psychological barriers" for drivers, Stewart said.
"We're going to complicate it and make it more difficult to get into businesses," Stewart said.
Councilor Jack Burkman asked what Vancouver may have to do in the future if bus rapid transit isn't added to Fourth Plain. "We may need to add capacity, and we don't have transportation funding," Burkman said. "I want a way to wrap my arms around what happens if we don't do (bus rapid transit)."
Vancouver's subarea plan for the Fourth Plain Boulevard area, adopted by the city council in 2007, calls for maintenance of "high-level transit service" that considers options like premium bus service. Light rail was ruled out for Fourth Plain, Green said, as ridership numbers didn't pencil out. While Stewart and Councilor Bill Turlay spent considerable time during Monday's workshop expressing their dislike for rail, Mayor Tim Leavitt closed the work session by asking for more information on the option.