Bus rapid transit plan hits bump

Regional panel votes to delay project over funding concerns

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter

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Bus rapid transit plans ran into a possible snag Tuesday as a key group signaled it is not ready to pull the trigger on the controversial project.

The Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council board cited too much financial uncertainty in deciding to delay action on a preferred alternative for bus rapid transit on Vancouver’s Fourth Plain corridor. It didn’t set a date for reconsideration.

The action doesn’t kill the project. But it could delay plans by a year if C-Tran misses a September deadline to apply for federal Small Starts funding to help build the enhanced bus system. The transportation council is one of the local bodies that must endorse the idea before that application is sent in. C-Tran, the project sponsor, had hoped to begin construction on the system as soon as next year.

Ultimately, questions over how to pay for bus rapid tran

sit gave the transportation board pause this week. The project could cost an estimated $40 million to $55 million to build, with C-Tran banking on as much as 80 percent of that to be covered by federal money. But project leaders have recently said the percentage may be slightly lower than that. Annual operations costs — or possible savings — remain unclear as the concept evolves. And C-Tran leaders continue to search for funding options for running light rail in downtown Vancouver, which bus rapid transit may ultimately connect to.

“You at least have to have a basic funding alternative figured out,” Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart said. “And that’s a C-Tran question. That’s got to be figured out.”

The transportation council is one of three groups that need to green-light bus rapid transit before planners can move ahead. The other two are the Vancouver City Council — which approved the idea last month — and the C-Tran Board of Directors. The regional transportation council’s decision to delay action puts an even brighter spotlight on the C-Tran board, set to meet next week.

Tuesday’s 7-3 vote may offer a partial preview. Among the seven members who opted to wait were all three Clark County commissioners. All three also sit on the C-Tran board, and collectively hold bloc veto power over the rest of the group. The Vancouver council’s two representatives both voted against the motion to delay action. Regional transportation administrator Don Wagner was the only other voting member who sided with them.

Some members indicated they’d prefer to have C-Tran act first. Clark County Commissioner Tom Mielke, who made the motion to delay action, said it often feels like agencies are “putting the cart before the horse” when moving too quickly on large projects without the details worked out.

The bus rapid transit concept has generally found favor as it’s gone before various committees and policymakers since last year. But the specifics on how — and how far — to roll out the system on one of Vancouver’s busiest thoroughfares has sparked plenty of debate.

In early May, a corridor advisory committee recommended building out to Northeast 121st Avenue, with the option of extending it farther east to Northeast 162nd Avenue later. But the Vancouver council’s recommendation put it only as far as the Westfield Vancouver mall initially. That’s the alternative the regional transportation council considered Tuesday.

Planners hope the enhanced bus system would more smoothly and efficiently move passengers along Fourth Plain to and from downtown. The system works by using larger vehicles, elevated boarding stations, specialized signals and other features to improve transit service. Planners have said the concept could eventually save eight to 10 minutes each way on Fourth Plain.

Citizens crowded into Tuesday’s meeting to speak to both sides of the issue, though most who took the microphone indicated they were against bus rapid transit. Some opponents cited their own financial concerns, or said the idea is simply the wrong project at the wrong time. Supporters characterized the idea as an opportunity to revitalize a busy Fourth Plain corridor.

It’s unclear what this week’s transportation council decision will mean for the ultimate outcome, said C-Tran Executive Director Jeff Hamm. Much will hinge on next week’s C-Tran board meeting.

As for answering financial questions, Hamm said, “I think a lot of it is walking back through information that is out there.”

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

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