Bus rapid transit wins key endorsement

Panel's backing allows C-Tran to seek federal dollars

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Plans for bus rapid transit on Vancouver's Fourth Plain corridor secured a key endorsement on Tuesday, clearing the way for C-Tran to seek federal money for the project.

By a unanimous vote, the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council said it backs putting the enhanced bus system between downtown and the Westfield Vancouver mall. The council was one of three groups required to green-light bus rapid transit before the $40 million to $55 million project could move forward. The other two, the Vancouver City Council and the C-Tran Board of Directors, signaled their support earlier this year.

Tuesday wasn't the first time the transportation council has considered bus rapid transit. In June, the group decided not to act, citing too much financial uncertainty around the project. But since then, local leaders have settled on a proposed funding model to help pay for it — a 0.1 percentage point sales tax increase set to go to voters in November. If approved, that measure would also help operate a light rail extension planned as part of the Columbia River Crossing.

C-Tran next month plans to apply for a federal Small Starts grant covering 80 percent of the cost to build bus rapid transit, though agency leaders have acknowledged that 70 percent is a more realistic number. Planners have also recently scaled back fare revenue projections.

Transportation council member and Clark County Commissioner Tom Mielke made it clear he's still "very skeptical" of some of the assumptions made in the project. But in the interest of moving the process forward, he said, "I'm going to hold my nose and vote for it."

The recommendation approved Tuesday would put a bus rapid transit line between downtown and the Westfield Vancouver mall, with the option of extending the system farther east down Fourth Plain in the future. The first segment would also pass by Clark College along Fort Vancouver Way. Construction could begin as soon as 2014.

Planners hope bus rapid transit moves passengers more smoothly and reliably along one of the city's busiest thoroughfares, using larger vehicles, raised boarding platforms, specialized signals and other features. Vancouver's system would put bus rapid transit vehicles in mixed traffic, not dedicated bus-only lanes.

The idea has generally found favor among the committees and policymakers who have shaped it since last year. But it's run into opposition from some citizens who question the financial sense of building a system that's estimated to shave — at most — 8 to 10 minutes off transit travel times on Fourth Plain.

On Tuesday, Vancouver forensic accountant Tiffany Couch reiterated her concerns with C-Tran's revenue and ridership projections for bus rapid transit once it's online. If those numbers don't pan out, she said, "who pays for the expense?"

Supporters of bus rapid transit view it as an opportunity to revamp the city's Fourth Plain area. C-Tran rider and neighborhood advocate Judy Tiffany counts herself in that camp.

"Our community would blossom with this new system," she said.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.