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Can rapid buses go where light rail wont?

The boisterous backlash against new rail projects in the metro area has overshadowed quiet talk about a cheaper alternative to light rail that hasn’t yet been tried in this area: bus rapid transit.

This form of transit, however, may begin receiving greater attention now that a Metro steering committee has identified it as a possible option for better service here in Washington County.

Bus rapid transit is not just another name for express buses, which TriMet has tried with limited success. Rather, it includes many of the amenities that accompany light rail: fixed stations with platforms, quick service and easy-boarding buses and, if possible, dedicated right of way or lanes. The transit agency in Las Vegas went so far as to design its new rapid transit buses to look like light rail cars.

Last month, the Southwest Corridor Plan Steering Committee agreed to move forward with studies of both light rail and bus rapid transit for the corridor between Portland and Tigard.

We're glad to see both options on the table, since the comparison will give residents of the Tigard area and all of Washington County a more complete understanding of the pros and cons of each.

The emerging interest in bus rapid transit comes at a time when expansion of TriMet’s light rail system faces soaring costs and a suburban rebellion of sorts. In recent elections, Tigard and King City voters approved measures that could require public votes on funding rail projects.

In an era of constrained budgets and increased competition for federal transit dollars, it will be all that much harder to obtain funding for light rail.

The financial advantages of bus rapid transit are easy to document. According to statistics from Metro’s in-house news reporter, Nick Christensen, the bus rapid transit line launched in Las Vegas earlier this year cost $3.75 million per mile. In Eugene, the first four miles of a bus rapid transit project came in at $6.25 million per mile.

That's still a lot of money, but only a small fraction of the $180 million per mile cost for the new Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line (not including the new bridge over the Willamette River).

Bus rapid transit is of particular interest in western Washington County, where city officials, major employers and Pacific University have been lobbying for TriMet to extend the light rail line to Forest Grove, as originally planned.

Those discussions (which include a price tag of nearly $200 million) have hit a dead end, and it's time to look at less costly alternatives to connecting commuters, shoppers and students on this end of the county with the Max Line in Hillsboro.

One potential objection to bus rapid transit is the possibility that it might not stimulate development. Portland’s rail lines — both light rail and streetcars — have attracted high-density residential and commercial development along their corridors.

A study of bus rapid transit by the U.S. Government Accountability Office indicates that bus rapid transit also can boost business. The GAO report states that such development is more likely if bus rapid transit includes permanent features — such as large stations — and if local policies and incentives encourage transit-oriented development.

Bus rapid transit, if adopted in Washington County or anywhere in the Portland area, would not represent a rejection of light rail. Instead, it could be a major enhancement to a comprehensive transit system, building on the backbone of light rail, but potentially extending faster transit to more communities than would otherwise be possible.



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