Friday, August 19, 2022
Aug. 19, 2022

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Press Talk: Is light rail the way?

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I wandered into a presentation a few weeks ago called “Journey to the Future” put on by Punta Gorda, a small southwest Florida city. More than 700 attended. I happen to hang my hat in Punta Gorda during the winter now, reacquainting myself with warm weather and the sun. But I’ve always got Vancouver on my mind. So I attended — in part — to see if I could pick up any ideas for my Pacific Northwest home.

One of the sessions I attended was called “Great Cities and Towns” and it was very enlightening. Who knew how important it was to design street surroundings to create a sense of community?

The speaker was Victor Dover of Dover, Kohl & Partners. He serves as principal-in-charge for many of the firm’s design and planning projects. So he knows about transportation and how it impacts communities. His presentation didn’t contain any information about light rail, but he knows all about it.

Light rail. It’s the lightning rod for Vancouver, how it connects to Vancouver’s future and — more specifically — how it connects to any possible replacement of the antiquated Interstate 5 bridge.

So I grabbed Dover as soon as his presentation was over. What about it? This light rail thing?

•••

Dover easily listed the pros and cons of light rail and its most logical alternative, Bus Rapid Transit. Light rail is fixed and gives business owners assurance that they will be near transit. Many riders prefer light rail over buses. Bus service, which isn’t tied to a track, can shift based on community desires. It’s also significantly less expensive.

Within the definition of BRT there are several options, such as dedicating a traffic lane exclusively to buses. In the end, BRT means getting you quickly from point A to point B on a bus.

When pressed, Dover was unwilling to say which service is best, because, as he notes, it’s all about a thorough, rigorous local analysis. Everyplace is different.

•••

Here’s a little extra history on Vancouver’s light rail dynamic. When Washington and Vancouver tried to get a replacement bridge project funded five years ago, the prospect of light rail and tolling ultimately doomed it. Because the bridge connects Washington and Oregon, those guys just to the south of us have a say. And they say any new bridge needs to have light rail because they already have light rail and they’d like to extend it to us.

Now some on this side of the river have been lukewarm to light rail for lots of reasons. And as we begin to revive discussions about an I-5 replacement bridge, light rail is rearing its head again. But the central question for us is simple: Is light rail right for Vancouver? The answer is not so easy.

•••

I’ve always been a light rail guy.

When I was a young lad in high school — growing up in Oak Lawn, just outside of Chicago — I remember taking a field trip to see a movie in downtown Chi-Town. A few of us quickly became bored so we sneaked out to explore the big city. One thing lead to another, we lost track of time and we missed the school bus back home.

Stranded! Or were we? Nah. We simply hopped onto the El (Chicago’s light rail system) and before you knew it, we were home.

Years later I went to D.C. on a temporary work assignment for eight months. I used its light rail — the Metro — for everything. There really was no need to have a car.

But (isn’t there almost always a “but” nowadays) I’ve begun to question my own views on this topic. And when Dover said these kinds of momentous transportation decisions always should be made locally, I sought a local expert.

•••

Enter Chuck Green.

Green has been in the transportation business for 37 years. Today he’s a senior project manager at Otak, an urban design, planning and engineering firm specializing in transport and infrastructure. He’s also been a project manager at C-Tran. He travels the world working on transportation projects but still lives in Clark County.

Now — full disclosure — Green is a Democrat. Why is that important? Well, for the most part, Democrats are more willing to accept light rail here than Republicans.

So what about it, Mr. Green? Locally, are you a light rail guy or a BRT guy? Apparently his Democrat DNA did not overly influence him.

“I don’t believe Clark County is ready for light rail (yet). They don’t have the critical mass or economics to financially support light rail. Maybe in the long-term future. So, go BRT!” he said.

•••

I also tried to drill a little deeper to create some context. What’s been trending out there — light rail or BRT — with cities making recent decisions?

Dover first: “Both have their base of strident fans. But yes, some communities, like Indianapolis and Cleveland, have done the math and concluded BRT was the better choice, for now, in their case.” But Dover again cautioned that local communities have to do their own math.

With Green I first asked this: Is it fair to say, for a variety of reasons, light rail is falling out of favor because of costs and fixed routes so you’ll see very few cities that don’t already have light rail choosing light rail?

Green’s response: “I think that’s a fair conclusion.”

•••

Personally, I struggle with this. I’m still a light rail guy. I’m one of those people who feel more comfortable on light rail than on a bus. But that doesn’t feel like it’s enough to spend the money on fixed light rail. Regardless, my hope is that Vancouver and Clark County makes its decision based on what is best for us. Not what’s best for Portland. I’m uncomfortable with Portland pushing us around to get what they want if we don’t want it.

So let’s do a thorough, rigorous analysis and then move forward to continue Vancouver’s path to greatness.

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