Vancouver council supports bus rapid transit plan

It still has questions about business impacts, financing, station sites

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Vancouver’s top leaders said Monday they’ll back a plan for bus rapid transit on Vancouver’s Fourth Plain corridor to Northeast 121st Avenue, but made it clear they still have questions about financing, business impacts and station locations.

A majority of the city council appeared to support plans for bus rapid transit that has buses in mixed traffic rather than in a dedicated lane, and with a likely mix of curbside and center median stops along the way.

A public hearing and vote is set for May 21, in advance of a June 12 C-Tran Board of Director’s meeting that will set the stage for applying for Federal Transit Administration grants that will cover much of the construction costs.

The cost to build the line to 121st could land anywhere from $40 million to $55 million; other options included a terminus at Vancouver Mall and at Northeast 162nd Avenue. C-Tran expects as much as 80 percent of that to be covered by federal grants, although project manager Chuck Green acknowledged Monday that the feds may only cover 70 percent of construction. The plan would shave eight minutes off of peak transit travel times, and keep them relatively constant into 2035. Construction on the line could begin as soon as early 2014, with the line up and running by late that year or in early 2015, Green said.

Green addressed several critiques of the system’s plans, including the lack of dedicated lanes for bus travel, a hallmark of many bus rapid transit lines around the country.

Due to traffic patterns on Fourth Plain Boulevard, C-Tran can build short, bus-only lanes at congested intersections such as Andresen, Grand and Stapleton, that would allow buses to jump the line of cars at those lights, he said. That will cut two to five minutes on the line.

“A bus-only lane would only save us a minute or two, but not substantially much,” Green said.

Level, roll-on boarding for all riders, including passengers in wheelchairs, will cut loading time in half, and make up the rest of the time savings, he said.

The council appeared most apprehensive about approving a locally preferred alternative without set plans for station locations, and potential impact to businesses along the Fourth Plain corridor.

“We don’t know where (stations are) going to end up,” City Transportation Planning Manager Matt Ransom told the council, adding, that as the owner of the roads C-Tran will use, “we will have a strong hand in the on-the-ground implementation.”

Councilor Jack Burkman asked that staff add a line to the locally preferred alternative that recognizes and tracks how bus rapid transit could affect business and residents.

Other concerns included skepticism about financing for the project. Bus rapid transit buses are longer than regular buses and are diesel-electric hybrids. But Councilor Bill Turlay suggested they instead run on natural gas produced by the controversial fracking process in the United States and Canada. He also spoke of fears for hyperinflation, and said that it would be unwise of C-Tran to forge ahead with a big project now.

“We don’t know what’s going on in the world,” Turlay said.

Referencing the stalled funding plans for the Columbia River Crossing -- for which the Vancouver City Council approved a locally preferred alternative in 2008 -- Councilor Jeanne Stewart said she wasn’t a fan of giving bus rapid transit the nod without financial ducks in a row.

“We have some of the money, but not all of the money, and I’m not hearing a certain plan of where the money is coming from,” she said.

Scott Patterson, public affairs director for C-Tran, assured Stewart that the agency has plans to finalize its finance plan “within weeks, not months,” although it may be after the June adoption by the C-Tran board of a locally preferred alternative.

“Still seems like the cart before the horse here,” Stewart replied.

Mayor Tim Leavitt closed the two-hour presentation with a firm affirmation of his approval for the plan.

“To the extent that the feds will continue to spend money -- and they will -- it’s incumbent upon us to apply for what money we can,” Leavitt said. “I’m supportive of the (bus rapid transit) project, I’m supportive of continuing to move ahead.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.