Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Milwaukie BRT?

Today, it goes without saying, was not a good day for the Milwaukie MAX project.  Only a few days after the projected budget for the project went up by $100 million, the FTA made official what may have been unofficially known to TriMet for about a year; they are only planning to match local funds evenly ("50% match"), rather than contributing $1.50 for every local dollar ("60% match").  The stated reason?  The FTA doesn't want to "set a precedent" for matching big-ticket projects at such high levels.  There's probably lots of other politicking going on in DC, as the transportation bill is stalled in the Senate (like everything!), but given FTA chairman Peter Rogoff's recent remarks about allegedly-overpriced rail projects, I'm not surprised.

$300 million hole

This decision leaves TriMet about $300 million in the hole--around $470 million of local funding has been located, and 50% of $1.5 billion is $750 million.  According to GM Neil McFarlane, TriMet plans to tighten belts accordingly.   "Over the next few weeks, we'll be working with our project partners to recalibrate the project to fit within these new funding parameters" said McFarlane.  What "recalibate" means exactly is unclear, but according to spokesperson Mary Fetsch, who was interviewed by portlandafoot.com, part of the strategies being considered include eliminating parking garages, shrinking the maintenance facility and not ordering spare cars for trains on the line.

[Graphic courtesy of portlandafoot.com]

While those steps would save some money, it's hard to see the savings from those moves amounting to anywhere near $300 million.  And its hard to see where additional local funding might come from, given that government agencies of all sorts are dealing with budget problems--and if push comes to shove, MAX is not likely to be the highest funding priority.  If a funding package is not completed by the fall, the project may need postponement--which would put current funding in jeopardy.   Many other projects and constituencies in Oregon have uses lined up for $250 million in lottery dollars--and there's not guarantee that the figure would be made up in a future funding cycle.  (Especially if the GOP manages to retake control in Salem).  TriMet has discussed borrowing more itself--likely bonding more payroll tax revenue, in addition to the $39 million it already plans to contribute via this controversial form of financing--a maneuver which would no doubt make many of its rider base scream.

Not all of this mess is the agency's fault, of course--rail costs have gone through the roof in the past decade; and the current recession seems to have governments all around the country scrambling.  However, the agency has committed a few unforced errors of its own--and has opened itself to criticism that it is over-extending itself.

Unlike a few other projects on the drawing board, rapid transit in the Portland-OC corridor is important for the region's future.  My concerns about Milwaukie MAX chiefly lie around cost, not about the usefulness of the project.  But if the money isn't there, the money isn't there. 

Depending on what happens...maybe it's time to revisit BRT.

Milwaukie BRT

Consideration of BRT in the corridor is nothing new.  After the Milwaukie/Vancouver MAX funding initiative failed back in the 1990s, Metro gave serious consideration to various flavors of BRT in the early phases of the South Corridor study--a study which initially excluded light rail.  At the request of leaders in Clackamas County, LRT was added to the study, and eventually became the locally preferred alternative for both Phase I and Phase II of the project.  Phase I is now the MAX Green Line; Phase II is Milwaukie MAX.  The South Corridor Supplemental DEIS considered several options for the Portland/Milwaukie/Oregon City corridor, at the following price tags:

  • BRT from Portland to Oregon City (here, "BRT" means bus service enhanced with low-cost capital improvements such as signal priority, but not a full busway):  $119-$131 million.
  • Busway from Portland to Milwaukie, BRT from Milwaukie to Oregon City:  $267 million - $299 million.  ("Busway" means a fully dedicated ROW for the exclusive use of transit vehicles).
  • LRT from Portland to Milwaukie, BRT from Milwaukie to Oregon City:  $467-$518 million.
Careful readers will note that the current LRT price tag is 3 times the SDEIS estimate, and that doesn't include any bus enhancements south of Milwaukie.   Pretending the BRT part doesn't exist, that would be about $70 million per mile, about the same cost as the Yellow Line, which was under construction at the time.  The SDEIS glossed over the question of how MAX would cross the river (the maps included had trains going across the Hawthorne Bridge--a dubious notion), but the fact that the project has tripled in price since early planning illustrates the problem.

A few other proposals for a Portland-Milwaukie BRT have been floated, such as this one by John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute (a libertarian think tank that has a reputation for not being terribly fond of public transit).  BRT was also discussed at portlandtransport.com when the decision to go with light rail was made.  Critics of BRT have noted that light rail "won" the technical analysis to become the LPA--the SDEIS predicted 33% more trips with the LRT solution than the busway, and 60% more than with BRT.   However, given the new project constraints, the prior analysis may no longer be sound.

[Image courtesy of South Corridor SDEIS]

A good potential BRT corridor

The Portland/Milwuakie corridor has good BRT potential for numerous reasons:
  • The Willamette River acts as a "funnel" for commuters; other than the Sellwood Bridge (presently closed to busses due to weight limits), there is no public crossing of the river between the Ross Island Bridge and Oregon City.  Numerous busses converge on the corridor from points east and turn north into the city.  
  • With the existing bus services along 99E, there is already frequent service along the corridor for the entire length (the #33), along with numerous other routes which provide augmented service during peak hours.  Even without introducing any additional routes, an "open busway" between Portland and Milwaukie would be an attractive transit corridor.
  • The SDEIS predicted 30,000 rides/day with the "busway" alternative, vs 40,000 for light rail (a figure which has been slashed as the issue has been studied further; a common phenomenon in planning).  Not bad for a second option.
The support of BRT I envision would be the "busway" alternative, with a fully dedicated bus lane.  In addition, even though it is one of the most expensive components of the Milwaukie MAX project as currently constituted, I would look to keep the Caruthers bridge, as the busway would have the greatest impact if there were a continuous exclusive-transit route between Milwaukie and the mall. (I would also love to see the Milwaukie-OC section added back into the project, even if only consisting of signal priority and queue jump lanes on McLoughlin).

Switching to BRT, or at least publicly considering it, could have significant political impacts as well.  It would demonstrate to TriMet's critics a greater regard for financial responsibility, and help to demolish the meme that "TriMet no longer cares about the bus system"--especially given Neil McFarlane's prior role with the agency.  Such political calculations ought not drive the decision, but it would be ignorant to ignore their potential impact.  And even if TriMet were to go ahead with light rail, it would improve the optics of the situation tremendously.


David Axelrod, President Obama's chief campaign strategist, is famous for saying "never let a good crisis go to waste".  With the financial straits facing the organization, and the greater ability to change direction afforded by a new general manager, TriMet has an opportunity here to greatly change the nature of transit politics in town.  It may be that reconsidering BRT remains a bad idea; and that the correct decision may be to proceed as planned, delay the project until costs come down or money becomes available, or no-build.  But one paradox of management is that constraints can be liberating, as they allow consideration of alternatives that were previously unthinkable.


  1. I am not a local - so these comments are from a visitor's perspective: I have ridden the MAX out to Orenco in Portland, and honestly I was pretty underwhelmed by the development around the stations. They (and the line) are very tucked out of the way. I tried to walk between two stations, discovered no sidewalks, got lost and only the third person I asked knew what I was talking about.

    Whatever transport option is taken, it needs to be integrated with the existing fabric, not stuck into a corridor becuase "this is where there is space & we dare not limit car capacity". With the BRT, depending on where the ROWs come from, there is at least potential to simply reassign lanes on existing street to it - which for riders would mean getting on and off right at the action, rather than a two-block walk away. With budget constraints, it might make more sense to re-allocate existing road space, and use some of the row budget to construct decent stations to anchor the BRT and make it more user-friendly.

  2. Anonymous--

    The Orenco Station area is an area on the eastern edge of Hillsboro which, as you note, is largely new development. The line itself was located on a former railroad right-of-way. One disappointing thing about Orenco is that much of the development is a bit distant from the MAX...that said, the primary reason for the line out there was to provide service to the established parts of Hillsboro.

    Agree with many of your comments in general, though. One issue is that in many cases, TriMet and Metro have no control over the roads, who are generally maintained by some level of "ordinary" government--cities, counties, or the state. City and county roads are often convertible to transit (both Portland and Multnomah County are "friendly"), but ODOT guards state highway lanes jealously. I'm actually a bit surprised that the Streetcar Loop is being routed down MLK and Grand (part of OR99E, and maintained by ODOT) for that reason.

    Whether a BRT solution would choose a different route (i.e. not between OR99E and the UPRR), I don't know.

  3. Don't know if things will change, but Mr. McFarlane has so far been awfully positive in his comments about Milwaukie LRT---all the jobs and economic development, etc.

    An open BRT seems to be a no-brainer for this corridor. Single-seat service from OC and all over Clackamas County with door-to-door trip times that LRT can't hope to match except in a very few showcase examples.

    But who cares?

  4. If I were cynical, I might suspect that getting $750 million of Federal money into the local economy is actually part of the goal. :)

    OTOH, maybe I am that cynical.....

  5. Great now they'll value engineer the line even more, removing all speed and keeping all existing obstacles. More at-grade crossings, elimination of the parking garages, maybe even the whole Park Ave extension.

    I'd like them to revisit the old PTC line. I bet for much less money they could get it to Oregon City on this old line. They could trench through Waverly CC and Arista Dr in Oak Grove for minimal impact to properties on both sides. Street running would be fine in Gladstone and has little traffic anyway. Sure the route between OMSI and Sellwood isn’t great as far as it doesn’t serve anything except Oaks Park (though would be fast which is a plus for Oregon City riders) but don’t tell me the current route running past TriMet's Center Garage is all that much better.

  6. While I certainly support the concept of Milwaukie LRT in this general corridor, I've had a lot of concerns with this line, the cost and local funding sources (cannibalizing the TriMet future funds) only being some of my concerns but are definitely among the most serious. It would be cheaper to build an automated entirely grade separated Canada Line in this corridor with a better route like under Milwaukie Ave than what is proposed and you'd have a much, much better product (you could skip the automation and just use the LRVs in the fleet).

    My other concerns and issues...
    -Routing at-grade through industrial areas (worst of both worlds... slow, safety hazard and serves little)
    -Routing in the no-mans-zone between expressway-style McLoughlin and the UPRR line (which is additionally buffered by parks and golf courses). Given this, the walkshed is minimal to non-existent.
    -The huge amount of condemnation (and driving many industrial businesses out of Portland to really transit unfriendly areas). This is one of the largest concentrations of industrial land in the center of the region. Nevermind the enormous cost of condemnation.
    -The hijacking of the bridge by cycling and pedestrian advocacy groups (by all means I support a path and these organizations but please this is first and foremost a transit bridge and we don’t need two gold plated paths)
    -The busway that has a poor connection to Powell Blvd and Milwaukie Ave on the east side and requires a complex out-of-the-way route to access it. Much of this busway is one way, the other direction has to navigate back streets to find its way to the busway. A full two-way busway to Milwaukie Ave (a logical terminus for it) would have apparently been too much of an inconvenience to motorists because of bus crossing gates going down often... Cars win, buses lose, yet again.
    -The route deviation to sort of but not really hit SoWa. And with SoWa having specifically been designed without LRT only now to have to somewhat added in poorly (still a bit of a walk to the tram), plus the streetcar would have been designed differently only a few years ago if it was known LRT would also serve SoWa.
    -The whole OHSU land remediation and removal of the new albeit temporary streetcar track. So temporary streetcar track that lasts 5 years (which happens to be the fastest stretch on the whole route) is built to practically the same standards as permanent track?!?... concrete ties, steel poles, new welded rail, etc.
    -The obstacles UPRR is throwing up for this project just add to the cost and again its not even a great route next to their line. Plus given that it runs through industrial areas lots of additional accommodations for trucks are being made at the expense of urban design/street design and TriMet's pocketbook.
    -Passengers headed to Oregon City will be required to transfer in Milwaukie or at Park Ave. And leading into the next point, this won’t be some temporary thing.
    -Lack of any real plans to get to Oregon City any time soon and huge difficulties in running down McLoughlin Blvd politically that make it very difficult to impossible. The way I see it most of the value in this line is getting halfway to Oregon City and eventually getting there, you would think in planning this Milwaukie line it would be heavily planned for a future extension to Oregon City. I get the sense talking to people at open houses that almost no thought whatsoever went into a future Oregon City extension, it was really just 'we'll cross that bridge way down the road.' Nevermind that all through the 1970s the plan was to get LRT from Portland to Oregon City.

    At least this current route design doesn’t have a ridiculous full cloverleaf loop in Downtown Milwaukie like the 1990s version of it did.

  7. This is all very interesting, Scotty. (And I'm glad that page could be useful!) I may add the BRT concept to our PM page if I get a sec; feel free to do so if you want to, obviously.

    I've been dogging the gubernatorial campaigns for comment on their continued support (or lack thereof) for the project, but I really want to know more about that $250 million lottery bond -- which bill it was in and how it's allowed to be spent.

    Basically I just have a hunch that in desperate times, unspent money has a way of disappearing.

  8. Damn good piece of research here Scotty!

  9. @poncho:

    The old PTC right of way is being turned into the Trolley Trail, a multi-use trail which will connect to the Springwater Corridor and facilitate bike movement along the corridor. It probably wouldn't be a good LRT corridor for numerous reasons--it's too narrow for a modern, double-tracked system for one, and its routing isn't really optimal for modern land uses, for another.

    As for some of your other concerns, I hear you. One complaint I have about the present Milwaukie MAX project is, as you state, it runs in a corridor limiting local access--which isn't a problem for a major trunk line (Gateway to Lloyd Center is the same way). But if the Eastside line ended at Gateway, rather than branching to the airport, Gresham, and Clackamas, would running the tracks between I-84 and the freight line make sense? No. Likewise, were Milwaukie MAX extended to places like Oregon City or Lake Oswego (even in a subsequent phase), the proposed route would make sense; but as a standalone alignment, not as much.

    @Al, Michael--thanks for the words!

  10. In a post at PortlandTransport.com, Steve Schopp posted an interesting report which might be relevant....

  11. Guys, here's a "grand compromise" proposal. No Yellow Line to Clark County and no Gold Line at all. BRT in the North-South corridor!

    Look at the physical shape of the metro region: it's twice as wide as it is tall. Blue Line Max made a lot of sense, especially with the Robertson Tunnel. And once it was there it made sense to elaborate the eastern end with the Red and Green line branches on the prepared ROW along the freeway.

    The Yellow Line has been a mistake from the beginning and adding to it just compounds the felony. That's not to say it doesn't make a good tram line, but the very low average speed (32 minutes Pioneer Square to Expo Center of which 15 are consumed getting to IRQ) make it very unlike the "regional metro" aspects of the Blue Line. Thirty two minutes to go six point five miles. That's slightly more than twelve miles an hour. Tram speed.

    No Casey Joneses on the Yellow Line.

  12. Anandakos--

    Twice as wide as tall is overstating it a bit--its ~30 miles from Hillsboro to Gresham; its about the same distance (slightly less) from Oregon City to Salmon Creek.

    On the north side of the city; I agree that the present Yellow Line design is substandard for longer trips. For that reason, I would prefer a separate rapid transit corridor to Vancouver; and given Clark County's plans to install BRT, having it be bus makes good sense. (I still would add LRT to the new bridge; but make the transit lanes rail-in-pavements, so both busses and trains can avoid traffic).

    On the south side, the corridor to OC is long enough and busy enough to merit LRT; the question is whether or not it can be afforded at the present time. Much of my interest in BRT is not simply because I wanna knock the pricetag down (if we do BRT, I want a real busway, not queue jump lanes and signal priority--McLoughlin north of Vancouver is frequently congested enough that busses would still get stuck in traffic), but because I want rapid transit to reach Oregon City.

  13. I'm surprised at your support for the Caruthers bridge. I think the biggest support for buses instead of rail for this corridor is you can more easily cut costs by not building a bridge in the first place.

    The bridge is looking pretty expensive last I checked. I just am curious about your position on this.

  14. The bridge is important for reasons besides MAX--the improvements it makes to bus service alone are important, let alone whatever trains may cross it. And automobile traffic will benefit to, as the hordes of busses presently crossing the Hawthorne (except perhaps for the #14) will move to the new bridge.

    The main argument I see for bus instead of rail--assuming that you think that high quality rapid transit in the corridor is important (and I do), is that rail costs--even compared to a full busway--have gone through the roof in the past decade. Queue jump lanes and signal priority won't help much on 99E north of Milwaukie, which is frequently a parking lot--and being a limited access highway, offers busses stuck in traffic little opportunity to get unstuck.

    To put it another way, I think we should still be planning to spend a significant amount of money on the corridor, and do a decent job--rather than just tweaking signal timings on McLoughlin and painting a few busses a different color, and calling it good. I think, however, that there's a case that due to the changing economics, LRT might not be the most prudent solution at the time.

    If we need to save money due to the recession, I can think of numerous other projects I would rather shelve than this one. (Including the proposed Sellwood Bridge replacement--if we're going to rebuild the thing and spend 9 figures to do so; it should be made into a regional facility and located and funded appropriately. Either that, or the folks in Sellwood ought to accept that Tacoma Street is a de facto highway and quit whining abou the traffic.)

  15. I wonder if it would save more money if line goes straight to Garden Rose instead of building a bridge into downtown.


Keep it clean, please