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Lane County Looks To Expand Bus-Rapid-Transit

OPB | Jan. 25, 2013 4:02 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 5, 2013 9:16 a.m. | Eugene, Oregon

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If you’re familiar with the popular children’s book “The Hungry Caterpillar” it’s easy to picture the EmX. The Lane County bus looks like the main character: it’s a long, green bus with an accordion middle. On this day, the bus is full of University of Oregon students, commuters, and people running errands. It comes every ten minutes.

The EmX bus.

The EmX bus.

Amanda Peacher / OPB

Jewell Stevens takes this bus every day on her way to her job as a caregiver. 

“I like it,” she says. “Honestly, it’s convenient. The time is perfect. Every 10-15 minutes is great. I like it a lot.” 

Unlike regular buses, the EmX sometimes has its own lane. When it does travel in traffic, it gets priority green lights. That allows it to zoom ahead of other vehicles. Stops are also less frequent. All of this adds up to a faster trip. 

“Bus rapid transit is totally flexible,” says Ron Kilcoyne, general manager for Lane Transit District, or LTD.

“We can use a number of different techniques to give the bus priority treatment or to make sure the bus does not get stuck in traffic as it were,” Kilcoyne says.

The EmX line currently runs from downtown Eugene to Springfield and then to North Springfield. Kilcoin says that the EmX sees more than 10,000 riders each weekday.  But a planned 4.4 mile extension  of the line is controversial in the community.

The EmX bus systems sees more than 10,000 riders each workday.

The EmX bus systems sees more than 10,000 riders each workday.

Amanda Peacher / OPB

Drive down West 11th Avenue and you’ll see a mix of big box stores and local businesses. But there’s also a residential community, says Kilcoyne.  

“On the other side of the channel is apartments and condos and some of the highest density housing we have  in Eugene,” he says.

Kilcoyne says the EmX extension will help connect West Eugene residents to downtown, and will improve traffic congestion. The project would widen the road in some places. LTD is also planning a number of other improvements, like two pedestrian bridges, new sidewalks, and an additional bike lane. That’s in part why the price tag is so high— all this is estimated to cost $95.6 million. 

And that’s the main complaint from groups like Our Money, Our Transit. Along 11th Avenue, opponents of the extension have lined the road with signs that read “No Build” with a picture of the big green bus crossed out. 

“It’s a really poor use of public funds.” 

Roy Benson owns the Tire Factory, an automotive store along the planned route. As a business owner, he doesn’t see any benefits of the new line. 

Roy Benson would lose a strip of sidewalk in front of his tire store when the new EmX line goes in. But his biggest problem with the project is cost -- the extension will cost more than 90 million federal and state taxpayer dollars.

Roy Benson would lose a strip of sidewalk in front of his tire store when the new EmX line goes in. But his biggest problem with the project is cost -- the extension will cost more than 90 million federal and state taxpayer dollars.

Amanda Peacher / OPB

“I’ll probably never have anybody come here on the bus, and then buy four tires and get back on the bus to go home,” Benson says. 

Most of the funding for the new line will come from the federal government. The Federal Transit Administration is providing $70 million. The remaining $21 million will come from the Oregon state lottery fund.

But Benson still says it’s a bad idea.  

“The federal government is now upside down a trillion dollars or so,” he says. “And it’s not free money. It’s my money, it’s her money, it’s everybody’s money.” 

But for some who already use public transit, the West Eugene extension is a welcome idea.

“I’m all for it,” says Joe Mason, rides the current EmX line from Springfield. “My motorhome and my car and my car are parked on West 11th. I think it’s just a fine way to travel. Saves a lot of money.”

The project received a crucial stamp of approval from the federal government in December. That means the extension is moving forward into the design phase. If all goes as planned, the next line of the big green bus will be open by 2017. 

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