TriMet's taking a solid look at transit plans for ever-busier commuter routes.
One exciting item in TriMet's plans for the future of Portland's transportation is the Division Transit Project, which will add super-length buses with fewer stops, curb extensions and new, efficiently-designed stations to the Southeast Division corridor.
The cities of Gresham and Portland along with ODOT, Metro and TriMet are all working in a partnership to deliver this project. TriMet is managing it. In the planning works since 2014, the design phase is expected to last from 2017-2018, with construction during 2019-2020 and service beginning in 2021.
Metro originally identified the corridor as a place to update because Inner Division was seeing a lot of pass-ups — full buses skipping stops because there's no room for one more passenger. Since it was pinpointed, TriMet took over the project management in December to take it through design and construction phases.
The Tribune sat down with Michael Kiser, TriMet's Manager for the Division Transit Project, and Coral Egnew, TriMet community affairs coordinator, to find out more.
Division Transit Project scope
The total project cost is $175 million, of which 50 percent is planned to come from federal funds, and the other 50 percent from local funds.
The project scope is a 14-mile alignment of high-capacity transit that extends from downtown to the Cleveland park and ride.
It's a bus of rapid transit (BRT), but faster and longer: It has fewer stops and can carry more people. TriMet is removing some of the number of stops along this corridor that currently exist. It doesn't have dedicated transit lanes, but has bus stops specially designed to be efficient.
Each of the 42 new stations are made of two platforms — one eastbound, one westbound — spaced roughly a third of a mile apart.
"To make this work from a performance perspective, we have articulated 60-foot buses, so the buses themselves have greater capacity," Kiser said. "The platforms themselves represent a higher-quality transit environment that provides near-level boarding, a higher 12-inch platform so that people can step on and off the bus easily, these buses have three doors and we have access at all three doors."
Currently when you hop a bus, you pay at the front, and jump off the back door. Now, all three doors will accept your Hop Fastpass.
"Now people will flow on and off, using their Hop Fastpass readers at each of the doors when getting on, so there will not be a delay related to confirmation of payments," Kiser said.
Bikes will be on-board instead of on a front-loading bike rack, reducing dwell time at stations as well.
"We have shorter, quick-deploy ramps for mobility devices," Kiser said. "It's a much more easy, fluid station that helps us get through the corridor quicker and more reliably."
The new buses will also come equipped with traffic signal priority (TSP) like emergency vehicles, so as a bus approaches an intersection, it will communicate with the smart lights, which will begin to flush the traffic through.
There are two primary types of stations, both of which are elevated.
"We have an integrated type of platform which basically builds off the sidewalk currently out into an area that would otherwise be on street parking and allows the bus to remain in the travel lane oftentimes, but pull right up to the platform itself," Kiser said. "The integrated type is a more compact station for higher-density areas like we have in Inner Division."
The platforms will have the common elements of shelters, seating, lighting, signage wayfinding and trash cans, similar to the light rail platforms, but smaller. Bike riders enter at the rear door adjacent to external bike racks.
"Since we are coming up to basically a curb extension, we don't have to get partially out of the travel lane on Inner Division, so it doesn't give drivers temptation to go around," Egnew said. "If they see a sliver, they try to go around, versus if you take up the entire lane. Drivers will like the fact because of multi-boarding, and the (new quick) ramp, so dwell times at stations is much less."
The curb extensions increase pedestrian safety and discourage drivers from illegal passing.
"When you factor in low dwell times on Inner Division and traffic signal priority, everything should move much more efficiently and with fewer stops ... it's going to be an improved situation," Kiser said.
The new buses are no wider than the existing ones, just longer.
"The second station is the island-type station," Kiser said. "The city is implementing buffered bike lanes, and the stations on that segment (along 82nd Avenue) reflects the investment on bike infrastructure, so instead of having bikes be in the travel lane with the buses, we bring the bike lane behind the station to improve safety so there is always this buffered and protected corridor separate from buses, so you don't have that leapfrogging that often goes on down the corridor."
The project as a whole is supposed to improve by 15 to 20 percent travel times and reliability.
"It's TSP, but also fewer stops, lower dwell times, all those things combined that gets us that performance component," Kiser said. "We've been doing traffic modeling to understand the impact or benefits of the design decisions we've been making on performance, and we're in that 15-20 percent range."
One of the project's greatest successes so far is the community affairs outreach, a team of three specialists each assigned a segment of the alignment.
"Business owners had concerns about driveway impacts to their properties. Michael and the team were able to work with their design to be able to shorten platforms and reduce (impact on) private properties," Egnew said. "Communication between property owners and business owners and the design team about what works and what doesn't work came to a really great, collaborative solution to a very tricky place."
The locations of the station are about to be locked into place with the end of the first 30 percent design phase, and next what exactly they look like will be determined.
"It starts to be more real as far as the imagery we share with the public," Egnew said. "It's not a huge brick shelter that's going to block the view of a business from the streetscape. In some cases, it's more integrated with the streetscape, creating a more walkable environment to wait for transit — but they're not going to wait long."
TriMet has also held internal open houses for its operators. Egnew said they're excited about the Traffic Signal Priority.
"They can actually take advantage of that tech, they're really excited. They feel like the way it is right now with all the stops, it really bogs down their route," Egnew said. "They're happy they don't have to hear from upset customers, upset that they're being passed up, and happy because they're able to get through this route quicker and more efficiently."
TriMet also held open houses throughout November and online so everyone involved could weigh in.
Funding and politics
Earlier this year TriMet submitted to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for a rating for the Small Starts projects, which established the project's position in the lineup for potential funding, expected to be released in February, 2018.
Small Starts is an FTA capital investment program for projects costing less than $300 million and seeking funding less than $100 million for new, fixed systems such as light rail or commuter rails, extensions to existing systems, or bus rapid transit systems for fixed guideways or corridors, like the one TriMet is proposing along Division.
"We'll also know (by February, 2018) whether we've been recognized for funding as part of the president's budget," Kiser said. "That is kind of an essential component for us to move forward."
Small Starts also has an environmental analysis component in National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) work, called documented categorical exclusion — which is defined as a category of actions which do not, individually or cumulatively, have a significant effect on the human environment.
Metro will submit the NEPA documents in January, based on the 30 percent-finished design work produced for this milestone. After that, if the project is recommended for funding, TriMet will begin to pull together its applications for grants.
"It's possible we won't get recommended for funding. If we don't we will delay the project potentially a year," Kiser said. "We could look for a congressional approach as an alternative approach to find funding for the project, but there's a lot of uncertainty about whether it will get funded or not next year in this (federal) administration."
In the past, TriMet has had success in getting federal support — except last year, because it was a transition year, and no Small Starts projects were funded.
"TriMet's always been really optimistic, really successful in working with federal partners in order to get funding," Egnew said. "We continue to do that as Michael went up to (Seattle) FTA 10 last week to make sure we have everything in play, we have everything ready."
TriMet plans to go out for advertising for CMGC in February.
"Even though we won't have certainty on funding, we want to bring the contractor in to contribute in the design process," Kiser said. "And of course, we'll work with them to strategize sequencing and how we do our construction in the context of an operating corridor with operating businesses and homeowners along this alignment."
TriMet is a national model for its disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) program and this project is no exception.
"As we go into construction, one of our goals as we go for CMGC procurement is to open it up to smaller, local contractors," Kiser said. "We're encouraging DEB involvement, whether it be the prime or part of a joint venture."
The project design is expected to be at 60 percent completion by next summer with design finishing in Dec. 2018. If all goes well, the new route will open for service in 2021.
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By Jules Rogers
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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