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TriMet on slow track to big changes


Smaller tweaks to westside MAX and PCC bus line could come before 2015

TriMet’s Westside Service Enhancement Plan is a sign the agency knows it’s falling short in Washington County.

After all, the westside MAX line wasn’t even open back when TriMet last realigned its service out here, nearly 20 years ago.

“There are pretty dramatically different residential and employment centers in the county now,” said Neil McFarlane, general manager of the regional transit agency. There are also dramatic financial hurdles TriMet will have to jump before it can put the plan into action.

The plan — which focuses on westside service north of Scholls Ferry Road — identified serious gaps in current bus and rail routes, as well as new service that will be needed to meet future demands.

Among the new-service possibilities is an express or rapid-transit addition to Bus Line 57, which runs to Cornelius and Forest Grove.

According to TriMet Planner Tom Mills, who recently spoke to Forest Grove city councilors, Bus Rapid Transit could feature a separate travel lane and enhanced stations similar to a light rail line. Rapid-transit stops are generally further apart (like MAX stops) and the bus could possibly receive “transit priority” treatments such as signal timing and green-light holding, Mills said.

TriMet is also looking at ways to bridge that “last mile” between riders’ transit stations and their homes or jobs, Mills said, acknowledging that most people won’t take public transportation if they have to walk too far to their destination once they get off the bus or MAX. Bike or car “sharing” might help, Mills said, or improved bike storage.

There’s at least one big problem with these ideas: money. McFarlane says TriMet can’t yet implement much of the Westside plan. In fact, the regional transit agency has been cutting service since 2009 to help balance its budget.

A major issue is employee health care benefits. McFarlane says TriMet cannot continue paying its union employees what he calls “the most generous health care benefits in the country.” Amalgamated Transit Union 757 officials say TriMet should cut management salaries and stop new rail projects instead.

The $485 million operating budget McFarlane proposed in March might allow small service realignments in Washington County, but big changes cannot occur until the agency overcomes its long-term funding problems, he said.

From suburbs to city

Twenty years ago, TriMet focused its bus service in Washington County on moving people from suburban communities such as Forest Grove into Portland along east-west lines. The westside MAX line that opened in 1998 reflected this model. Officially known as the Blue Line, it runs from downtown Portland to near the Hillsboro Civic Center, with 32 stations along the way.

But much of the county’s growth is now happening away from the Blue Line. Housing has exploded in the Bethany area north of U.S. 26, for example.

Farther north, enrollment has increased 50 percent at Portland Community College’s Rock Creek campus. Despite that, the area is served by only two bus lines that have changed little over the past 20 years.

The PCC problem may benefit from one of those “small realignments” McFarlane said the agency can make.

TriMet’s proposed 2013-14 budget includes money to improve connections and weekday frequency on Line 47, with buses running to the Rock Creek campus via Northwest 174th Avenue and Laidlaw Road instead of Sunset Transit Center as they do now. In addition, bus frequency would improve between the campus and the Orenco/Northwest 231st Avenue MAX station.

Overall, Mills said, TriMet wants to complete the county’s service grid with more north-south routes. This is a more realistic option than ever before. Washington County and local governments have invested heavily in north-south connections in recent years, adding lanes and other improvements to Brookwood Avenue/Parkway, for example, and Cornelius Pass Road, now both major transportation corridors.

Another change, according to Mills, would be to extend MAX’s Red Line all the way to Hillsboro while shortening the Blue Line, so riders who board in Hillsboro can have a straight shot to the Portland International Airport. Right now, the Red Line goes only to the Beaverton Transit Center from the airport, so airport passengers have to disembark somewhere along the route and switch trains. TriMet officials are thinking of switching those two lines around so the Blue Line terminates in Beaverton instead of the Red.

“We are hoping we can make the change in September 2014,” Mills said, “but that will depend on the cost.”

Forest Grove Councilor Richard Kidd said he has struggled with the choice of how to get to the airport because he doesn’t like having to make that mid-trip switch on MAX. Kidd told Mills he liked the idea of a Red Line extension, although what he’d really like is to see MAX extend to Forest Grove.

In fact, Forest Grove planners are updating the state-required comprehensive land-use plan and have proposed raising downtown’s residential density. Such a move might support a higher level of transit service.

McFarlane, however, says any major changes will require new revenue, which TriMet cannot expect to receive until the public believes the agency’s budget problems are under control.

“It is incumbent on us,” he said, “to prove we are providing the best possible return on the dollar.”