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Our Opinion: Buses could be better option than light rail

Here we go again: another proposed light-rail line, another epic battle.

The destination this time is Southwest Portland and the Tigard-Tualatin-King City area. Already, people who view trains as inherently undesirable are mobilizing to block them from encroaching on their communities. A Washington County citizens’ group has gathered the necessary signatures to place a measure on the ballot that would give Tigard residents the final say on whether high-capacity transit makes it to their area.

On the other side of this issue are the seemingly unstoppable forces that have succeeded in pushing light rail and streetcars into many — but not all — corners of the metro area. They’ve faced critics, ballot measures, legal challenges and funding shortages before, but somehow managed to persevere.

We believe, however, that the region should take a different approach this time and potentially lower the hostility levels that will come with this conversation. The era of big rail projects in the Portland area may well be nearing its close, and the emphasis could once again swing back to buses.

In this particular instance, we’re talking about fast-traveling buses that can move people with nearly the efficiency of trains, but at a fraction of the cost. Bus rapid transit — dubbed BRT — has proven its worth in places such as Eugene-Springfield, Las Vegas and Cleveland, Ohio.

The BRT option is under active consideration — along with light rail — for Portland’s southwest corridor. It also has its potential critics, as the citizens’ group opposing light rail is questioning whether bus rapid transit will consume lane capacity on Highway 99.

However, the financial advantages of bus rapid transit have been well documented by the Metro regional government’s in-house news reporter, Nick Christensen. A bus rapid-transit line launched in Las Vegas last year cost $3.75 million per mile to build. In Eugene, construction costs for the first four miles of a BRT project came in at $6.25 million per mile.

That contrasts with $180 million per mile for the new Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project (not including the new bridge over the Willamette River).

Bus rapid transit in Cleveland has demonstrated that this form of transportation can attract development in a similar manner to light rail. Also, a study of bus rapid transit by the U.S. Government Accountability Office indicates that BRT contributes to economic development if the transit lines include permanent features — such as large stations — and if local policies and incentives encourage transit-oriented development.

Bus rapid transit — which features dedicated lanes, elevated station platforms and automated ticketing, among other amenities — stands as an attractive alternative at a time when federal, state and local transportation budgets are highly constrained.

One potential objection is that operational costs, including fuel expenses, could be higher for BRT than for fixed-rail systems. However, swiftly changing technologies for buses should be able to close that gap. Natural gas-powered, hybrid and electric buses already are in use, and manufacturers are working on ever-more-efficient buses all the time.

Bus rapid transit could be the key to completing the remaining corridors in Portland’s renowned transit system. It’s doubtful this region can continue to bear the cost and controversy of large light-rail projects. BRT, however, can tie into a system that’s already in place — saving taxpayers’ money and potentially mollifying at least some of the rail critics who are on record as advocating buses over trains.



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  • 24 Nov 2014

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