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Worries aired as BRT line nears vote

FILE PHOTO - The steering committee has raised several concerns about the project.Some members of the steering committee planning the proposed bus rapid-transit line between Portland and Gresham at its most recent meeting questioned whether the project is worth continuing because of proposed budget cuts.

They also pressed Metro, which is overseeing the planning, for firm commitments that bus service will be improved to Mt. Hood Community College if it is dropped as the eastern end of the line, which both Metro and TriMet, which will operate the line, is proposing.

“I’m optimistic we can provide good, reliable service to Mt. Hood Community College. That must be the crux of any vote, because we need to get these transit commitments in place,” said member Michael Calcagno, who is on the college’s board of directors, at the Oct. 3 meeting. Calcagno said he hoped direct service to the college can be added in a second phase of the project.

Kelly Betteridge, TriMet’s manager of capital planning, assured the committee that despite the cuts, the line will improve transit between the two cities if built as proposed.

“When you begin this process, you go for the best possible design. We are comfortable with how it will operate today and in the near future,” Betteridge said.

The Powell-Division Transit and Development Project already has undergone numerous changes since it was first proposed as the region’s next high-capacity transit corridor. Inner Powell Boulevard has been dropped because congestion and other constraints would prevent it from reducing travel times. Metro and TriMet are now studying running the line along inner Division Street to downtown Portland.

In addition, the two agencies have now concluded the overall cost must be kept to $175 million to have the best chance of securing $100 million from the federal government. But that is $50 million less than the current estimate for the proposed 16.5-mile line, which is why terminating it at the existing Gresham Transit Center instead of the college has been proposed to save money.

During the meeting, Metro and TriMet said MHCC students may benefit from a different improvement in the works which would shorten transit times. TriMet will be increasing service on the Line 20 bus route, which runs between the Gateway district, Rockwood and campus. The line was identified as a main means of transportation for students and faculty through a survey conducted by planners.

Committee members raised several other issues about the project, too, providing a guideline for planners to research and address before the next meeting and potential vote on the alignment. Among other things, they want to ensure the contractors hire locally, that those who rely on public transit will still have options after reducing the number of stops, and the project doesn’t worsen traffic along Division.

The meeting was held at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 9901 S.E. Caruthers St. It began with a presentation by Metro and TriMet, providing a deeper explanation into the project’s financial situation surrounding the new bus line.

“We have reached the hard part of every project — asking the steering committee to help us reach the best possible consensus,” said Elizabeth Mros-O’Hara, Metro project manager. “This will serve a community that is struggling with public transportation, but we realize it can’t do everything.”

The project now proposes to run articulated buses with multiple boarding doors and increased carrying capacity between the two cities along Division. This means there will be less waiting time along the route.

Other improvements include better communication with traffic signals, upgraded stations with amenities like weather protection, and improved sidewalks near the stops. Some stations along inner Division will be eliminated, however, to speed up service.

An online survey conducted by Metro earlier this year found support for reducing the number of stops along inner Division if it speeds up trips. More than 4,000 people responded to the survey, with three-quarters saying they’d prefer walking farther if it meant a faster trip, compared to more stations and a slower trip. But many also were concerned that fewer stations could create a hardship for people with mobility challenges.

Two more meetings are planned for Oct. 24 and Nov. 7, with the hope of finalizing a vote on route recommendations for the Locally Preferred Alternative as soon as possible. This would ensure the planners have time to put together a package to apply for federal funding. The steering committee vote does not require a unanimous decision to move forward.

Jim Redden contributed to this story.