"Caution" was the word of the day as steering committee members for a bus rapid transit line between Portland and Gresham met Wednesday to discuss a new route option that would use Division Street rather than Powell Boulevard in inner Southeast Portland.
Planners took a closer look at the route after analysis of a previously preferred route using inner Powell proved to have slower travel times between downtown Gresham and downtown Portland than the regular 4-Division bus.
Preliminary results reported last week show that by spacing stops wider, providing faster boarding and traffic-light priority, bus rapid transit on Division could improve travel times by as much as 20 percent over the 4-Division between Eighth Avenue and 82nd Avenue.
The steering committee meeting packet includes more details about the route option.
That could be welcome news to the thousands of riders. The 4-Division is one of TriMet's busiest transit lines, TriMet's Alan Lehto told the committee. During peak hours Division buses often turn riders away for lack of space.
A bus rapid transit line would use longer buses that are the same width as a standard bus, so they could also fit more people while requiring minimal streetscape changes even in narrower sections of Division west of 60th Avenue.
To be eligible for federal construction funds called Small Starts, bus rapid transit requires certain common elements, such as traffic signal priority, defined stations and frequent service. But unlike light rail, bus rapid transit doesn't require a dedicated right of way, meaning the project can reduce impacts to properties and buildings along its route where those impacts would be cost-prohibitive or undesirable.
That was a major reason the committee chose bus rapid transit over light rail for the corridor in September 2014. Project manager Elizabeth Mros-O'Hara said that decision gives a great deal of flexibility to advance the project.
"The fact that the steering committee chose a bus rapid transit project really was helpful, because the kind of improvements we were seeing that were really promising to get reliability in transit times were because we could be really context-sensitive," Mros-O'Hara told the committee.
"The type of improvements you could do on inner Division west of 82nd Avenue aren't necessarily the same kinds we would do on a wider street. You could really tailor what you need to the location," she added.
For their part, many steering committee members expressed a continuing desire to improve transit reliability and transportation safety in the corridor, particularly to educational destinations like Portland Community College's Southeast Campus and Mt. Hood Community College, and in high-need areas like East Portland.
But almost all said they needed to know more before reaching a decision about whether the line should use Division through inner Southeast Portland.
"I'm going to want to see a lot more information," said East Portland Action Plan representative Kem Marks, who noted that the committee thought travel times looked good for Powell and 82nd when they chose that route, but that impression changed as more information became available.
Of particular concern was whether a Division route would mean crossing the Hawthorne Bridge or the Tilikum Crossing to reach downtown Portland. The committee had previously recommended the Tilikum, but to get there a line on Division could have to cross Union Pacific and MAX tracks, requiring either lengthy delays at a close-in railroad crossing or a costly bridge over the tracks. Planners have called the Hawthorne option more promising because it would connect more quickly to the downtown Portland Transit Mall, which is a bigger destination for today's 4-Division riders than South Waterfront.
Several committee members were reluctant to let go of the Tilikum.
"I would really like to see a little more information around the option of the two bridges," said Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel. "We have this beautiful Tilikum Crossing. It would be nice if we could get the rapid transit to that."
PCC Southeast Campus President Jessica Howard said she wanted to make sure her students still have an easy, fast connection to Portland State University, where many take classes. She thought the Tilikum could still be a better choice – despite the added costs of getting there.
"The bridge (over the tracks) is expensive, but I wonder if over time it wouldn't prove to be a good expense," Howard said.
Several steering committee members, including Portland Bureau of Transportation director Leah Treat, also worried about not serving high-need communities along inner Powell.
But Metro Councilor Bob Stacey, who represents inner Southeast Portland, emphasized choosing Division wouldn't mean leaving Powell behind.
Focusing for now on Division "doesn't foreclose future high capacity transit project on Powell," Stacey said. "In fact, success on Division, I think, would invite future regional investment on Powell."
Project staff will continue analysis and outreach to the community over the summer, Mros-O'Hara said, including online surveys and open houses in Southeast Portland. They'll also develop more refined cost estimates.
Several inner Southeast Portland residents spoke at the meeting, expressing similar caution to the steering committee.
"I'm very support of BRT or some sort of mass transit in inner Southeast," said Stewart Long, who lives a few blocks north of Division near 28th Avenue. "But Division is a bottleneck at rush hour."
"My concern is that there's already too much cut-through traffic into the neighborhoods from people getting frustrated with Division," said another neighbor, Melissa Ryan, who added that she worried the line could harm inner Division's pedestrian-friendly environment.
Bruce Halperin, who lives near Clinton and 33rd Place, said he was initially skeptical but is open to hearing more. "At first I'm thinking, 'What are they going to do to my neighborhood now?' And then I started thinking, 'Potentially it could actually make inner Division nicer.' So in the end I just went into it with an open mind and see how it plays out."
The steering committee is expected to meet next in September.