Council approves 4th Plain bus plan

Vote clears the way for C-Tran to adopt plan, get in line for federal funding

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Vancouver's city council is on board for a bus rapid transit system on Fourth Plain Boulevard to Northeast 121st Avenue.

In a 4-2 vote late Monday night, the council said it supports a plan 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.

The adoption of what's known as a locally preferred alternative paves the way for the plan's adoption by the C-Tran Board of Directors on June 12, and starts the process of getting the project -- estimated to cost up to $55 million -- in the queue for federal transit money. The Federal Transit Administration is expected to pay as much as 80 percent of construction costs, although project staff members have said the figure may be closer to 70 percent. C-Tran will be responsible for the rest of the construction costs, and the operations and maintenance costs.

Well more than a dozen people flocked to City Hall on Monday night to testify in support of or against the plans, and nearly split down the middle in sentiment.

"I care deeply about what happens to Fourth Plain," said resident Derya Ruggles, who said bus rapid transit will help revitalize the corridor and make it better for biking and walking as well. "The BRT proposal will give us a flexible transportation foundation."

Other business owners praised the process that moved away from dedicated bus-only lanes to its current design. Barry Sullivan, who owns the Grocery Outlet on Fourth Plain, said he had an employee miss two buses because they were full, before she could catch a third -- and was late for work. "There is a need for increased capacity."

But a Clark College student said that there was more than enough space on her route and questioned the spending. Others agreed. Critics also questioned the safety of longer articulated buses.

Vancouver forensic accountant Tiffany Couch questioned C-Tran's ridership and revenue figures, and said she feared riders could be left propping up shortfalls with increased fares and service cuts. She said C-Tran's own figures show that ridership is supposed to increase by 250 percent in less than 20 years. She called for a halt until better figures are provided.

"Their numbers aren't making sense," Couch said. "In my business, numbers have to tell a story. When I look at this preliminary proposal, I'm frightened by the lack of numbers provided to you."

Councilors Bill Turlay and Jeanne Stewart echoed financial concerns, with Turlay calling it "fiscally irresponsible" to go forward without a more clear picture on exactly how the project will be financed.

But Councilor Jack Burkman said that the federal application process means that a locally preferred alternative must be chosen in order to get in line. The city council can change its mind down the road if it thinks things are too shaky, he said.

"We understand it at this point, and agree with it to this point," Burkman said. "I really wish the process with the feds was different, but it's not. And we're playing by their rules."

C-Tran Public Affairs Director Scott Patterson said that the ridership along Fourth Plain is more than double the minimum required to apply for a Federal Transit Administration Small Starts grant -- the money the agency is targeting to build bus rapid transit. He also said more complete financial figures are coming.

"There's been a lot of financial work that's been done, and a lot of financial work that continues to evolve," he said, adding that many of the numbers critics are asking for involve "a lot of additional work that you wouldn't see at this stage of adopting a locally preferred alternative."

In support of the locally preferred alternative were Mayor Tim Leavitt and Councilors Larry Smith, Burkman and Bart Hansen. Stewart and Turlay voted against the locally preferred alternative; Councilor Jeanne Harris was absent.

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