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March 29, 2023

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C-Tran prepares for second Vine route on Mill Plain in Vancouver

Bus Rapid Transit has been a success on Fourth Plain

By , Columbian business reporter
7 Photos
A 60-foot Vine bus drives through the lot at the C-Tran bus yard in Vancouver. C-Tran's first bus rapid transit line debuted on Fourth Plain Boulevard in 2017, and construction is slated to start next year on a second line along Mill Plain Boulevard.
A 60-foot Vine bus drives through the lot at the C-Tran bus yard in Vancouver. C-Tran's first bus rapid transit line debuted on Fourth Plain Boulevard in 2017, and construction is slated to start next year on a second line along Mill Plain Boulevard. (Joshua Hart/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It’s been nearly four years since the first Vine buses began rolling up and down Fourth Plain Boulevard, marking C-Tran’s first foray into the world of Bus Rapid Transit.

The line has been running solo so far, but not for much longer; construction of a second BRT line on Mill Plain Boulevard is tentatively set to begin next year.

The new line will run along a 10-mile stretch of Mill Plain Boulevard, from downtown Vancouver to the future Mill Plain Transit Center near the Columbia Tech Center in east Vancouver, forming an express link between Clark County’s two biggest employment areas.

“It’s going to have a huge impact in connecting west Vancouver with east Vancouver,” said Chad Eiken, Vancouver’s community and economic development director.

BRT system

Both BRT projects trace their origins to a Clark County High Capacity Transit System Study completed in 2008 by the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council. The study identified three primary corridors as candidates for BRT lines: Highway 99, Mill Plain Boulevard and Fourth Plain Boulevard.

C-Tran opted to tackle the projects in order of demand, according to chief external affairs officer Scott Patterson. Fourth Plain is the busiest of the three corridors, followed by Mill Plain and then Highway 99.

The Fourth Plain route — branded as The Vine — debuted in January 2017, and planning work for the Mill Plain route began in earnest the following year. Early work on a potential Highway 99 BRT project will likely begin in another year or two, Patterson said.

The Mill Plain project crossed multiple milestones this year, beginning with C-Tran’s announcement in May that it had secured $24.9 million in federal funding for the route — approximately one-half of the $50 million total project cost. The remainder is supplied by C-Tran, except for $5 million from federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement funds. The project received its federal environmental determination in October and reached the 60 percent design stage earlier this month.

The next stage will be a workshop with the Federal Transit Administration, likely in December. Completing that process will allow the work to advance to the 90 percent design stage, Patterson said, which is when C-Tran can put the project out for bids.

If everything comes together, construction could begin around the middle of 2021. It likely won’t happen along the entire corridor at once, Patterson said — C-Tran and the contractor would develop a schedule for different parts of the corridor to try to minimize disruption.

Despite the longer route length, the Mill Plain project comes in slightly below the Fourth Plain Vine’s $52 million price tag, mostly because the first project included the cost of upgrading C-Tran’s maintenance facility to support the new 60-foot buses.

The new project is still officially called Mill Plain BRT, but C-Tran’s maps and fact sheets for the route hint at a possible final name — they all include the Vine branding, now in a consistent shade of red rather than the Fourth Plain route’s green color scheme. That’s intentional, Patterson said.

“You’ve got the green that’s very prominent on Fourth Plain,” he said. “We’re looking at doing red for Mill Plain, and then obviously Highway 99 is to be determined, because that’s quite a bit further down the road. But yes, we’re going to color-designate our corridors.”

So does that mean the new route could be specifically called the Red Vine? And is that allowed, given its similarity to the name of a popular brand of licorice? That’s a question C-Tran is currently examining.

“There’s a distinct possibility, yes,” Patterson said.

Route alternatives

The new line will largely function as an upgraded replacement for Route 37, although it will terminate at the planned Mill Plain Transit Center directly north of the Clark College Columbia Tech Center campus at 18700 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd. rather than continuing to 192nd Avenue and looping around to the Fisher’s Landing Transit Center (other route changes will close that gap).

The eastern terminus was one of the biggest questions about the route leading up to the selection of the Locally Preferred Alternative: should the line turn south on 164th Avenue and terminate at Fisher’s Landing, or continue east and terminate near 192nd Avenue?

The ultimate decision to go east was due in part to the large amount of planned development in and around the Columbia Tech Center, Patterson said. Fisher’s Landing Transit Center is popular for Park & Ride commuters, he said, but the future Mill Plain Transit Center will work better for nearby workers and riders who need to transfer.

“It’s surrounded by all the right stuff,” said project manager Randy Parker.

The downtown end of the route will also change a bit. Route 37 currently enters downtown on Mill Plain Boulevard westbound, which becomes 15th Street, then turns south on Washington Street and then east back across Interstate 5 on Evergreen Boulevard, cutting up on Fort Vancouver Way to rejoin Mill Plain.

The Vine will use the Evergreen-Fort Vancouver route in both directions, dropping down on Washington Street to reach the Turtle Place bus station off of Seventh Street and then looping back up on C Street to Evergreen.

The city was involved in the discussion about some of the station locations, Eiken said, and the Evergreen route option was chosen in order to avoid the Mill Plain and I-5 interchange, which should cut down on congestion-related delays.

The shared Turtle Place terminus in downtown Vancouver is the only station where the two BRT lines will overlap. The rest of the Mill Plain route will consist of 37 new stations that will look very similar to those on the Fourth Plain route, plus the eastern terminus transit center.

The 37 new stations form 18 eastbound-westbound pairs, with one exception: an eastbound station at Mill Plain and Chkalov Drive has no counterpart. The westbound station was deferred after consulting with local businesses, due to the challenges presented by the surrounding intersection.

“What we were trying to balance was wanting to provide a station stop there, because there’s a lot of activity there with Fred Meyer and other shopping opportunities,” Eiken said, “but (we) could not find a viable location for the station that wouldn’t really mess up the traffic in that intersection even more.”

Linking Mill Plain

Transit access hasn’t developed as quickly in east Vancouver, Eiken said, so the line will likely have an impact on both current and prospective future employers in and around the Columbia Tech Center. Transit access tends to be at the top of the list of questions from companies looking to move to the city, he said, alongside topics like schools and housing options. CTC property management company PacTrust described the line as “a welcome addition.”

“Every workday for the past two years (before the pandemic), I used the Fourth Plain Vine,” said Tom Keough, a data engineer at ZoomInfo, which is headquartered about two blocks from Turtle Place. “Expanding the system with a Mill Plain Vine would be great, considering how helpful the Fourth Plain Vine has been at getting me from east Vancouver into downtown. I imagine the new one would help a lot of people, especially those with disabilities, since it passes by some health facilities.”

But it’s not just about linking the two endpoints — the line will serve major destinations along the Mill Plain Corridor such as PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center and the east Vancouver Kaiser Permanente offices. There are also numerous shopping centers and other commercial hubs at major cross streets along the route.

Asked for comment about the line, PeaceHealth forwarded a copy of a letter it sent to the Federal Transit Administration last year, endorsing the project and stating that it would help both employees and patients reach the medical center.

Outside of the Columbia Tech Center, the biggest potential development site in the corridor is the Heights District. The city plans to redevelop the 63-acre Tower Mall site and other areas in the district to create a central neighborhood area with higher-density housing and commercial offerings.

The addition of the BRT line figures into the city’s master plan for the district, Eiken said, providing better transit access for future residents and allowing for a more balanced amount of parking in the area.

Several education destinations stand to benefit too: Hudson’s Bay High School and the Washington School for the Deaf are both located near the line, as is the International Air and Hospitality Academy, whose divisions include the Northwest Culinary Institute, Northwest Railroad Institute and Northwest Renewable Energy Institute.

The biggest education sector beneficiary is likely to be Clark College, because the line will run almost directly between its two branches: the main campus near downtown and the Clark College Columbia Tech Center building, which is located directly south of the planned Mill Plain Transit Center site.

“Thirty-four percent of our students are low income. Transportation is one of the many challenges they face,” said Kelly Love, chief communications officer at Clark College.

The line doesn’t quite reach the western campus, but it passes less than a quarter-mile away, and students are already used to walking that distance to catch the existing Route 37 bus, she said.

The predictability and efficiency of the line will be helpful for students trying to get to both branches, but especially the eastern building, which houses the college’s business students, community education programs, professional development classes and Running Start program.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a shift to online classes, so neither campus is seeing proper usage this year, but the college is assuming things will have returned to normal by the time the BRT line opens, Love said.

Mill Plain Vine at a Glance

Length:10 miles

Number of stops: 39

Western terminus: Turtle Place, downtown Vancouver

Eastern terminus: (Future) Mill Plain Transit Center, near the Columbia Tech Center

Bus type: 60-foot articulated

Number of new buses:8

Cost: $50 million

Construction start (tentative): 2021

Service start (tentative): 2022

Is it really BRT?

Purists might object to the Bus Rapid Transit label, which most often refers to systems where the buses get their own dedicated rights of way or reserved lanes within a larger roadway. Like The Vine on Fourth Plain, the Mill Plain route will run in regular traffic lanes.

C-Tran’s argument for the use of the term is that The Vine incorporates a number of other features commonly found on BRT lines, all of which are aimed at speeding up the overall pace of transit.

Like the Fourth Plain route, the Mill Plain line will use 60-foot articulated buses paired with stations where customers pay in advance and can board through both doors. The low-floor buses and custom-built station platforms allow for level boarding, eliminating the need for wheelchair access ramps.

The Vine buses run more frequently than most routes — 10 minutes apart on Fourth Plain, and initially a planned 15 minutes apart on Mill Plain — and the stations are spaced farther apart. The buses also have traffic signal priority and “queue jump” systems to get through intersections ahead of other traffic.

Dedicated rights of way would eliminate the risk of the buses running into traffic congestion, but the trade-off is that the project would have to either take over two of the existing travel lanes — a politically dicey proposition, Parker said — or take on the high cost of widening the entire roadway.

“We know we’ve got a couple of chokepoints,” Patterson said, but he added that travel conditions were good enough on most of the Mill Plain corridor to rule out the need for dedicated lanes.

The only exception is the approach to Turtle Place on Washington Street. The Vine and other buses have run into frequent congestion in that corridor, Patterson said, so the Mill Plain project will convert the eastern lane of the street to a “Business Access & Transit” lane on the approach to Turtle Place. Except for buses, all traffic in the lane will need to turn left at each light.

C-Tran would argue that The Vine’s performance during the first few years has proved the benefits, even without dedicated traffic lanes. On-time performance is up compared with Route 4, which served the corridor before The Vine replaced it. Overall station stop times have decreased, Parker said, and wheelchair boarding times have dropped from more than three minutes to about 35 seconds.

The faster speed has been matched by an increase in ridership. Four months before the Fourth Plain Vine’s January 2017 debut, C-Tran altered Route 4 to match the future Vine route in order to make a direct comparison of boardings, according to spokeswoman Chris Selk.

Route 4 saw 205,356 boardings in the final three months of 2016. A year later, The Vine saw 304,605 boardings during the same time period. Overall boardings were 1,112,617 during The Vine’s first year, rising to 1,328,432 in 2018 and 1,455,940 in 2019. For comparison, the existing Route 37 on Mill Plain carried approximately 761,000 passenger trips in 2019.

The increase appeared to be on track to continue in 2020 prior to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Vine boardings increased 4.5 percent year-over-year in January and February, Selk said, but then fell along with most transit ridership in March. As of October, the Vine’s 2020 boardings stood at 832,925.

Columbian business reporter