For more than a year, reaching Mt. Hood Community College on Gresham's eastern city limits has been a goal for the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project, which would bring a new kind of rapid bus and other transportation investments to the region's eastside.
Yet planners have now floated the possibility of ending the line a couple of miles short of the campus, at Gresham Transit Center. This comes after analysis suggesting the project would likely qualify for $100 million in federal transit funds, the maximum amount available from the Federal Transit Administration's Small Starts program, if it can limit total costs of the project to $175 million. Any additional project costs over $175 million would need to be paid for locally and would require a more competitive federal grant process.
Moving the end of the line to Gresham Transit Center could help the project save roughly $24 million from a high-end cost estimate of $219 million, project staff have estimated. Other cost-saving measures could include station design modifications.
The idea, first reported by The Oregonian, has alarmed some steering committee members, however. They saw Mt. Hood Community College as an important destination to serve.
What is the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project?
A partnership of Metro, TriMet, the cities of Portland and Gresham, Multnomah County and the Oregon Department of Transportation, the project seeks to create the first bus rapid transit line in the TriMet system, along with other transportation and community investments between downtown Portland and Gresham.
The bus rapid transit line will use longer buses with faster boarding, fewer stops and traffic signal technology to speed up travel times by as much as 15 to 20 percent between downtown Portland and Gresham, probably following the route of the 4-Division down Division Street.
A project steering committee including top leaders from each of the project partners, as well as community members, is expected to decide on a final route this fall. The line could begin operating in 2021.
But information about how Mt. Hood students get to campus could add a new dimension to the conversation.
Mt. Hood students might actually benefit from a different improvement that's already in TriMet's plans: Increasing service on Line 20-Burnside/Stark between the Gateway district, Rockwood and the campus.
Metro project manager Elizabeth Mros-O'Hara and TriMet project manager Kelly Betteridge presented the information to a committee of east Multnomah County leaders Monday in Gresham.
The East Multnomah County Transportation Committee advises the Metro Council and other regional decision-makers on transportation issues east of Interstate 205. Its members include elected officials and staff from Gresham, Fairview, Troutdale, Wood Village, Multnomah County and the Port of Portland.
Among other priorities, the committee has strong interests in improving transit service to some of the region's most diverse, yet struggling communities.
Diverse district, transit needs
Mt. Hood Community College's Gresham campus is the flagship of a 950-square-mile district stretching east from Interstate 205 to beyond its namesake summit. It is a major educational opportunity for students from a variety of communities, ranging from rural hamlets like Rhododendron and Cascade Locks to high-density urban neighborhoods like Rockwood and Parkrose.
Roughly 40 percent of the college's 11,000 students come from these urban neighborhoods. But there are only around 300 bus trips to campus today, according to the presentation Monday.
The campus is served by three bus lines. Two buses link Gresham Transit Center to Troutdale via the college. But Line 20-Burnside/Stark serves the vast majority of people riding to campus.
Line 20 reaches all the way from Beaverton along Burnside Street to 102nd Avenue, then follows Stark Street in East Portland and Gresham, where it goes through some of the community college district's highest-poverty and highest-density neighborhoods. It connects those neighborhoods to the college campus on Kane Drive before heading south to complete its run at Gresham Transit Center.
"One of the reasons that Line 20 looks like a good improvement for Mt. Hood Community College is not only because a lot of students live (along the alignment), but there's a lot of desire both from this project and Mt. Hood to make it easy for students that tend to be lower-income or transit-dependent to get to the college," Mros-O'Hara told the committee.
Taking the 20 to another level
Eighty-three percent of transit riders to campus today take the 20, Betteridge said. Of those, nearly three-fifths come from Rockwood and East Portland via Stark, not Gresham Transit Center.
That's despite less-than-frequent service on the 20, particularly during the midday and evening hours when community college students most need it to get to class.
TriMet hopes to increase the 20 to Frequent Service – buses every 15 minutes or better all day, seven days a week – as part of its Eastside Service Enhancement Plan, finalized in spring 2015.
In March 2017, the agency will begin moving toward that goal by increasing some midday service to 15 minutes or better and adding additional service on Sundays.
TriMet wants to do more to improve the 20 in East Portland, recognizing the needs of the population along its line.
"As an agency it makes a lot of sense for us to invest in Line 20," Betteridge told the committee.
But TriMet can only add hours to bus lines as new hours are made available, whether because of increased revenues from the payroll tax that funds much of TriMet operations or service changes elsewhere.
It's possible that bus rapid transit on Division could actually improve bus service on Stark, Betteridge said – even though the two thoroughfares are a mile apart.
If the new bus rapid transit line makes regular buses redundant on Division – essentially replacing the 4-Division – TriMet could have 1,400 service hours to redistribute to other bus lines east of I-205, Betteridge said.
Some of those freed-up service hours could go toward making Line 20 a true Frequent Service bus. Others could help with other priorities identified in the service enhancement plan, such as new or expanded north-south service in East Portland and Gresham.
Hesitant reaction from leaders
East Multnomah County leaders weren't ready to embrace the idea Monday, however.
"This is a big change," said Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel, who represents the eastern two-thirds of the county and also sits on the Powell-Division steering committee. "I would like to know how confident we are with this estimate we now have."
"Many of us are not happy at all about this," McKeel noted in remarks earlier in the meeting, apparently referring to her fellow Powell-Division steering committee members, who received a briefing on the proposal last week from staff.
Wood Village City Councilor Tim Clark shared McKeel's concern about a perception that the region's far eastern suburbs suffer the most when cuts come around.
"It often seems that when there's a cut, East County gets a cut," Clark said. "I'm tired of East County getting cut."
But later in the meeting Clark suggested that if other bus improvements can get more students to campus, such as improving the line 20, they ought to be considered.
"In terms of what's being served for Mt. Hood, could one almost argue that increasing the 20 or some of these other routes may actually be more feasible for the college itself?" Clark asked.
Metro Councilor Shirley Craddick, who represents the eastern part of the Portland region, acknowledged that ending the bus rapid transit line short of the community college represented a difficult choice for the steering committee.
But she noted that's often what happens with big projects – whether personal or public.
"When you're ready to remodel your home you start out with ideas and notions of what you'd really like to do. Then you meet with an architect and contractor and you get the bill, and recognize we can't do everything we want to do in this project we had originally planned." Craddick said.
"We know how much money we have. We know what we'd like to do. But the two don't match," Craddick added.
There are $100 million in federal funds hanging in the balance – matched by $75 million raised in the region, of which $58 million have been identified already from TriMet, Metro and the city of Portland.
The next question: After two years of planning, will the Powell-Division steering committee decide to approve bus rapid transit on Division Street, even if it doesn't get as far as they had once hoped? And would the possibility of improving local service on other bus lines be a fair trade?
The committee will next meet Sept. 26 to discuss that possibility, along with the results of recent public engagement around how to run the rapid bus along inner Division Street in Southeast Portland. The committee is scheduled to recommend a final route later this fall.
Learn more about the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project
This story has been updated to better reflect TriMet's planned changes to the Line 20 in spring 2017.