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Call to drop MHCC from rapid bus line raises concerns

TriMet planners say improving existing bus lines will be enough -

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Trimet says it plans to end rapid transit service to Mount Hood Community College. The Portland-to-Gresham service will instead end at Gresham Transit Center, shown here. Mt. Hood Community College may no longer be the end destination of the proposed Gresham-to-Portland bus rapid transit line, which proponents say would bring better service and other transportation investments into East Multnomah County.

Planners have recommended ending the line at the Gresham Transit Center on the corner of Northeast Eighth Street and Northeast Hood Avenue, cutting out the section that would connect to the college.

This recommendation is based on financial limitations. The first estimate for costs was $220 million, well above the $175 million that would give the project the best chance of receiving maximum federal funding. The maximum federal funding available is $100 million, while Metro and TriMet also have identified $58 million in local matching funds.

“We have been working on the project trying to figure out what it will all cost, and we found we were above our projected costs,” says Elizabeth Mros-O’Hara, Metro’s project manager. “We have to serve downtown Portland. That is where people most want to go, so we looked elsewhere.”

Shifting the end of the line to the transit center would cut about $24 million, and more savings could be generated in restructuring the design of the stations.

Urged to reconsider

This plan has concerned some, as it would remove an important means of transportation into downtown Portland for the Mt. Hood students. From the beginning the project was touted as a means to connect Portland State University, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland Community College’s Southeast Portland campus and Mt. Hood Community College.

“Many were disappointed, but this is a normal part of projects,” says Mros-O’Hara. “People are starting to think about how we can best support Mt. Hood Community College, and there will still be big improvements.”

Michael Calcagno, Mt. Hood Community College board member, was dissatisfied to learn about the recommendation to drop the school from the proposed line. He is on the project’s steering committee, and says eliminating the school as the eastern endpoint would be another slap at East Multnomah County. The school was considered, but dropped, as the terminus of the MAX light-rail line between Gresham and Portland.

“It’s another broken promise, and I’m urging Metro and TriMet to reconsider it,” says Calcagno, co-owner of the Calcagno Media Video Production Company.

Calcagno says more of an effort should be made to support the school.

“Housing prices are going up, and more people are moving to East Multnomah County,” he says. “One way to help them is to make it easier for them to get the kind of education that will increase their incomes. Mt. Hood Community College is part of the solution.”

Alternate options

Metro says Mt. Hood students may actually benefit from a different improvement already in the works. TriMet will increase service on Line 20-Burnside/Stark, between the Gateway district, Rockwood and campus.

“We are planning to make improvements to Line 20 in March regardless of what happens with this project,” says Kelly Betteridge, TriMet manager of capital planning. “It is an important line to invest in.”

Roughly 40 percent of Mt. Hood’s 11,000 students come from local urban neighborhoods, but only around 300 take the bus to campus, Mros-O’Hara and Betteridge reported to a committee of East Multnomah County leaders on Monday, Sept. 12, in Gresham.

A total of three bus lines serve the campus, with two linking Gresham Transit Center with Troutdale via the college, but Line 20-Burnside/Stark serves the vast majority of people riding to campus.

“A lot of improvements are going to be made,” says Mary Fetsch, chief media relations officer with TriMet. “New sidewalks and safe street crossings in East County along Division as part of the project."

Betteridge says TriMet sees the improvements to Line 20 as the first steps to achieving Frequent Service status — which means buses would arrive at stops every 15 minutes or better all day, seven days a week.

“It’s not as good as bus rapid transit service,” Calcagno says.

For Calcagno the increased bus service is a barely acceptable alternative, though he says the steering committee should get the promises in writing before agreeing with the recommendation.

Further discussions

The steering committee will hear more information on the options to reduce costs on Sept. 26. A decision will be made on the eastern end of the line on Oct. 3. Additional decisions on station locations will follow before TriMet prepares the proposal to be submitted to the federal government next summer.

“Given this news, it is important to get the east side steering committee members together again to discuss how we will move towards solutions that include effective options to address community needs within what we are beginning to understand as our funding constraints,” read a Friday morning email from the co-chairs, Metro Councilors Shirley Craddick and Bob Stacey.

Rapid bus line

Still called the Powell-Division Transit and Development project, the proposed route being studied only involves Division Street as a link between the two cities. Powell Boulevard in Southeast Portland was dropped after studies showed buses would not save any time on it and the Southeast 82nd Avenue connection to Division, hurting the project’s chance for federal funding.

The bus rapid transit line is being created to foster a better experience and faster ride for the people who take buses 18,000 times every day to get to school, work or the shops. The proposed route will stick to Division, replacing Line 4 and going between downtown Portland and the Gresham Transit Center.

The new system will replace an outdated one that has become overwhelmed by the number of riders, especially during the height of rush hour. It will have fewer stops, priority at traffic signals and multiple doors for passengers to board after pre-paying their fare. According to estimates, travel time on the new line will be about 15 to 20 percent faster. Buses also would stop approximately every seven blocks, less often than the current system, which pauses every two to three.