C-Tran board poised to act on BRT

Officials may vote to OK $6.7 million in local funds to jump-start Fourth Plain corridor bus project

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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More than three years after C-Tran first floated a proposed bus rapid transit system in Vancouver, the agency's board of directors could make the project all but a done deal on Tuesday.

The board will consider voting to authorize spending $6.7 million in local funds as part of the $53 million project. Approval would clear the way for C-Tran to secure a crucial federal grant and begin construction as early as next year.

But the board hasn't been unanimous in its support for BRT. Some members have questioned or openly opposed the project. And Tuesday's key vote comes amid new worries raised by a group of business owners in downtown Vancouver, where the enhanced bus line would end.

A letter sent to C-Tran and other leaders last week outlined a series of questions and concerns from merchants and property owners who say they feel blind-sided by the project. Much of the worry centers around the decision to put BRT's terminus station at Turtle Place plaza, part of the property that used to house C-Tran's Seventh Street Transit Center before it closed in 2007.

The old bus mall was long a source of frustration as it became a magnet for loitering and occasional police calls. Many celebrated its departure.

"I'm not opposed to the bus rapid transit system. I'm not opposed to public transit in general," said Brianne Wallace, owner of Fleur and Dot and The Little Garden Studio on Seventh Street. "I just hope they consider the new businesses down here, the life that's coming back."

BRT uses larger vehicles, raised boarding platforms and other features in an effort to move passengers more efficiently and reliably. C-Tran's version of the system would run between the Westfield Vancouver mall and downtown, replacing the existing No. 4 and No. 44 buses along that stretch. At Turtle Place, 60-foot articulated buses would maneuver through the property at the end of the line.

Spending $6.7 million on the project would consume two-thirds of C-Tran's uncommitted capital reserves, estimated at about $10 million. Most of the overall $53 million price would be covered by grants, the largest of those a $38.3 million award through the Federal Transit Administration's Small Starts program. BRT is already in the queue for that money; C-Tran hopes to secure a final agreement this fall. But it can't do that without local funds committed.

C-Tran feels good about the process that led to this point, said public affairs manager Jim Quintana. The project has continued to advance at every step, undergoing plenty of scrutiny along the way, he said.

"We think it's a solid project," Quintana said. "There's a lot of really good work that's gone into this."

C-Tran plans to respond to the letter sent from the downtown business owners before Tuesday's meeting, Quintana said. But the group sent it feeling rushed at the end of a process that left so many neighbors out of the loop, said Dean Irvin, owner of property manager HG Industries.

"This is a shock to us," Irvin said.

Light-rail contract returns

Bus rapid transit isn't the only high-interest item on Tuesday's agenda. The board will also consider revisiting a controversial light-rail contract signed by C-Tran and TriMet last year. Some board members have called for the termination of the agreement, left in limbo after the demise of the Columbia River Crossing.

The contract detailed how the agencies would have operated light rail in Vancouver as part of the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement plan. The agreement only takes effect if the CRC is actually built. But it also has no end date, meaning it didn't technically die when the CRC did earlier this year. The project shut down in May without any funding from Washington or Oregon.

The board briefly discussed the contract in June, but ultimately decided to delay action. It's listed at the end of Tuesday's agenda, after a closed-door executive session on the subject.