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 in the transportation corridor between Portland and Tigard.
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. We agree that the two options should be on the table, since the comparison will give residents of the Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood areas a more complete understanding of the benefits or disadvantages of each.
The emerging interest in bus rapid transit comes at a time when expansion of TriMet's light rail system is facing new obstacles. Costs continue to rise for light rail, and residents within suburban communities are divided over whether they want MAX lines in their towns.
In recent elections, Tigard and King City voters approved measures that could require public votes on funding rail projects.
The political challenges, while daunting, are nothing new - TriMet has overcome them in the past. But the financial obstacles to new light-rail lines could be even greater. 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, a 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 contrasts with $180 million per mile for the new Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line (not including the new bridge over the Willamette River).
However, bus rapid transit will be an asset to metro communities only if it is done correctly. Bus rapid transit is not just another name for express buses. Rather, it includes many of the amenities that accompany light rail: fixed stations with platforms, dedicated rights of way or lanes, quick service and easy-boarding buses.
One potential objection to bus rapid transit is the possibility that it might not provide the same stimulating effect on development as light rail. Portland's rail lines - both light rail and streetcars - have attracted high-density residential and commercial development along their corridors.
However, a study of bus rapid transit by the U.S. Government Accountability Office indicates that bus rapid transit also can contribute to economic development. 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 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.