The transit element of Metro's Southwest Corridor study is faintly coming into focus, after a steering committee of leaders from the southwest region asked for studies of several transit options.
Members of the Southwest Corridor Plan Steering Committee unanimously agreed Monday to move forward on studies of bus improvements and light rail for the area, which is roughly a wedge of the region from downtown Portland out to Tigard, King City, Tualatin and Sherwood.
Metro and the cities have been working for about a year to develop a long list of transit projects that could be studied as part of a more comprehensive look at transportation, zoning and economic development in the southwest region.
But answers to a lot of the zoning and economic development questions in the study are dependent on what transit options move forward in the area.
This month, planners from Metro gave steering committee members an initial list of possible transit projects to study and others to put off to the long-term. Several bus rapid transit options were suggested for further study; planners suggested dropping off ideas like streetcar or running transit down the lanes of Interstate 5.
Staffers recommended that some other options, like building a light rail line to Sherwood, be put on the shelf. Planners left it to the steering committee to decide whether to study light rail to Tigard or Tualatin, or whether to put that on the back burner as well.
Portland's steering committee representative, planner Joe Zehnder, asked for light rail to be part of the study. He said including light rail in a study with bus rapid transit will help local community members and businesses understand the difference between the two options.
And, he said, it would offer a cost comparison between bus rapid transit and light rail in areas where right-of-way would have to be bought.
Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden said a study of light rail would help inform a discussion about transit in the area.
"I've got people in Tualatin who've told me, 'No way, light rail in Tualatin,' and I respect their opinion," Ogden said.
"I don't know if it's a good idea or a bad idea. I think it's important to not throw out any idea as a bad idea or to herald any ideas as good ideas" until a study is done, he said.
In the end, the committee moved forward studies on bus rapid transit from Portland to Tualatin and Sherwood and light rail to Tualatin and Tigard. It also said local bus improvements should be considered immediately.
The bus rapid transit option sparked some intrigue at the table, in part because of its flexibility in the corridor, and in part because it's a relatively new concept in the Portland region.
The BRT systems, profiled recently in the Wall Street Journal, can operate in existing lanes or in their own lanes or roadways, and can have other upgrades from regular buses. The goal would be to have a rapid transit line that runs on rubber wheels instead of rails.
Such lines are generally much cheaper than light rail. A bus rapid transit line that launched earlier this year in Las Vegas cost $3.75 million per mile. The first four miles of Eugene's Emerald Express bus line cost $6.25 million a mile.
Factoring out the costs of the new bridge, the Milwaukie MAX line is forecast to cost more than $180 million per mile.
TriMet planner Alan Lehto described an idea where a BRT system could run from Portland to Tigard, then have "a starburst of connections" out to other parts of the area, like Sherwood, Tualatin and Washington Square.
But Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers questioned whether TriMet could afford to run such a system.
"We really like TriMet but we have limited funds," Rogers said. "Everyone's trying to figure out solutions. What I see is a very expensive system being proposed here, and at some point we're going to have to say, how do we make it work?"
Part of that is now in the hands of regional planners who will start studying the costs and impacts of a possible transit system in the area. The study won't single out any transit line as a preferred option, but will look at how much various transit projects would cost, how they would affect the communities of the area and how many people are likely to use them.
The study, which could be complete by next summer, would also look at how any potential transit project would impact the economy of the southwest region, and how the various transit options would affect growth plans in the southwest region's cities.
Commitee members were scheduled to discuss roadway improvement priorities at Monday's meeting, but the lengthy conversation about transit put that off until next month.
Note: An earlier version of this incorrectly identified the subject areas of a light rail study. The study will include light rail to Tigard and Tualatin. This version has been corrected.