Bus rapid transit plan gets green light

C-Tran advisory committee supports Fourth Plain project

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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A citizens committee Wednesday signaled it’s on board for bus rapid transit on Vancouver’s Fourth Plain corridor as far east as Northeast 121st Avenue -- and possibly farther in the future.

C-Tran’s Corridor Advisory Committee made the recommendation after months of analysis and deliberations, but it stopped short of settling on a single concept for how the new transit system should be integrated into the busy thoroughfare. Still, committee members indicated they’d like to seize a chance to revamp an area that’s home to residents and businesses alike.

“When I see that opportunity,” committee member Javier Navarro said, “I’m more on the side of saying let’s do something.”

Since early last year, C-Tran has explored the enhanced bus system as a way to move passengers more quickly and reliably along what’s now its busiest route. BRT works by using larger vehicles, raised boarding platforms, specialized signals and other features to improve transit times. C-Tran has proposed implementing the system along Fourth Plain Boulevard and Fort Vancouver Way near Clark College.

The plan has gradually narrowed since C-Tran first floated the idea. The Corridor Advisory Committee earlier this year said it’s not interested in putting dedicated bus-only lanes on Fourth Plain or Fort Vancouver Way, fearing the impact to businesses and vehicle traffic. More recently, committee members have debated whether to put boarding stations along curbsides or putting stations in the median.

On Wednesday, the group found itself split between two options and carried both forward. One would use all curbside stations -- a plan favored by business owners on the committee -- and the other would mix both curbside and median stations in different parts of Fourth Plain. That concept, which the group penciled out last month, would require BRT vehicles to make one lane change along the route, said C-Tran project manager Chuck Green.

The committee also wrestled with how far east to extend the project, a question that’s the biggest single driver of its price tag.

“The farther you go out, the higher the ridership, but also the higher the cost,” project consultant Stefano Viggiano said.

Most members favored a phased plan -- that is, build it to Northeast 121st Avenue now, then to Northeast 162nd Avenue later. Limiting the line to 121st could keep annual operation costs even with existing routes, according to C-Tran. If built, BRT would replace the No. 4 and No. 44 routes on Fourth Plain.

The cost to build BRT to 121st could land anywhere from $40 million to $55 million. C-Tran expects as much as 80 percent of that to be covered by federal grants. But the price tag could be a tough sell for a system that’s predicted to shave 8 minutes off of peak transit travel times.

Several citizens -- and a couple of committee members -- indicated they’d like more information about smaller “transportation system management” fixes that C-Tran has studied alongside BRT. Those less expensive options might include more frequent regular bus service on Fourth Plain or transit-prioritized signals, for example. The agency is also carrying forward a no-build option, essentially leaving Fourth Plain as is.

A couple of committee members leaned toward the other extreme, building a more expansive BRT system now. Committee member Leah Jackson said she supported the group’s recommendation, but would have liked to see “real BRT” that uses more of its available tools to boost transit efficiency.

The Corridor Advisory Committee’s decision stands as a recommendation only. The concept will also go before the Vancouver City Council and the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council in the coming weeks. The C-Tran Board of Directors holds final say on whether to move ahead with BRT, and could consider the idea as soon as June.

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