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Portland's Proposed Rapid Bus Actually Slower Than Existing Bus

Passengers exit a TriMet bus.

Passengers exit a TriMet bus.

Thomas Le Ngo/TriMet

Portland’s first-ever rapid bus project has hit a speed bump, after a transit study found the new line would actually be slower than current buses on the same streets.

Leaders in Gresham, Portland and the regional Metro government identified the Powell-Division corridor for rapid transit a few years ago. Passengers complained that current buses were so packed, the buses would routinely roll past would-be riders, waiting at bus stops.

In September 2014, a 22-member Powell-Division Steering Committee supported pursuing a bus rapid transit route, which would have longer buses that make fewer stops.

But a year and a half after that decision, a transit study released Tuesday may force big changes in what could be a $250 million project.

Portland-area planners prioritized hearing from the diverse communities of Gresham and Southeast Portland before mapping out a specific rapid bus line from Mount Hood Community College to downtown Portland. The route with the most support involved following Powell Boulevard near the river, and then jog over to Division, likely on 82nd Avenue.

But Metro spokesman Craig Beebe said the new study found that route would be slower from end-to-end than current TriMet buses.

“The reasons include design constraints on inner Powell and 82nd Ave, or 50th or 52nd Ave — the cross-over street from Powell to Division,” Beebe said. 

The study found the current preferred route does not cut as much time as the committee intended.

The study found the current preferred route does not cut as much time as the committee intended.

Powell-Division Transit And Development Project

Those “design constraints” include parts of Powell Boulevard where the street can’t be widened for a new bus lane: the narrow lanes and concrete walls where Powell goes under 17th Avenue, two city parks along Powell, Cleveland High School and its track, as well as the narrow sidewalks and numerous businesses.

Additionally, Powell is a state highway and designated freight route, so handing over a lane of traffic to a bus line isn’t optimal either.

The study doesn’t go into it, but there are constraints on Division Street, too, where multi-unit housing projects and new businesses have been moving in quickly.

On top of all that, what Beebe calls the “crossover” from Division to Powell adds travel time, compared to the regular buses following one main artery, like Powell.

“Taken together [they] lead to a longer end-to-end trip than the current bus lines,” Beebe said. 

The Powell-Division Steering Committee will meet next Monday to decide next steps.

The transit study offers three alternatives:

Build a bus rapid transit line just on Division, with a possible later phase that would stick to Powell.

Powell-Division Transit And Development Project

Build a bus rapid transit line, and maintain the crossover along 82nd Avenue with the design constraints “to be resolved,” as the transit study puts it.

Powell-Division Transit And Development Project

Give up on the longer buses and other amenities of rapid transit, and instead make improvements to the current #4 and #9 bus lines on Southeast Division and Powell.

Powell-Division Transit And Development Project

The new bus rapid transit alternatives include the possibility of crossing the Hawthorne Bridge, rather than the transit and bike bridge: the Tillikum Crossing.

The original timeline had the steering committee identifying a locally preferred alternative this spring, with the new line opening in 2020. A first phase could open by then, but not the total concept involving both Division and Powell.

“It depends in part on what the steering committee decides it wants to pursue, or which concepts it thinks are most promising,” Beebe said. “But with those phased concepts we could be looking at a first phase in four to seven years, and at a second phase at an undetermined date after that.”

The transit study says the third option, of simply improving current bus lines, could begin in three to five years.

But giving up on bus rapid transit would likely mean giving up eligibility for federal funding of $75 million — money that would have to be matched dollar-for-dollar from local sources. However, officials said the federal government is not likely to fund a bus rapid transit project that isn’t actually faster than the buses already running on the same streets.

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