Vancouver is moving forward with its plan to construct a Bus Rapid Transit line along Mill Plain Boulevard, a massive project that will require the city to upgrade its fiber optic capacity and acquire rights of way for 37 new curbside stations along the route.
At its regular meeting Monday evening, the Vancouver City Council unanimously approved a series of documents hammering out the details of an agreement with C-Tran. The deal would see C-Tran pay to upgrade the city’s fiber optic network, then retain usage of a portion of the new lines.
“Essentially, the city owns an existing fiber optic network along Mill Plain Boulevard, along the entire corridor. And C-Tran relies on those fiber optics in order to be able to communicate with their stations,” Ryan Lopossa, Vancouver’s roads and transportation manager, explained to the city council in a Monday workshop.
The existing system isn’t large enough to support another new BRT line, Lopossa said.
“Under this agreement, C-Tran is going to upgrade that existing system to 144-strand fiber optic capacity — basically pulling existing fiber out and installing new fiber in the existing conduits,” he continued. “The city will own the completed fiber optics system, and through this agreement, C-Tran will be provided with 48 strands.”
The remaining 96 strands will remain available to the city, as well as to other partner agencies, including the Washington State Department of Transportation and Clark County. The city will continue to pay for maintenance on the expanded conduit.
Expanding broadband access is an attractive prospect to the city — already regarded by many local, state and even federal lawmakers as a crucial public utility before COVID-19 struck, the pandemic laid bare just how indispensable the internet has become.
A few Vancouver councilors expressed concerns at the workshop that the broadband expansion didn’t go far enough.
“We’ve been having conversations about the need for better internet connection for our business, for our community — kids who are struggling to get internet connections at home, for example,” Councilor Ty Stober said. “I am a little concerned that we’re not adding enough capacity in this upgrade.”
Councilor Linda Glover echoed Stober’s concerns.
“Let’s make sure if we do this it has some capacity for expansion, because the need is definitely going to evolve,” Glover said.
According to Lopossa, the agreement passed Monday would add enough broadband capacity for Vancouver in the foreseeable future, and the conduit leaves room to add more should the need arise.
“We looked at the city as a whole, in terms of future needs,” Lopossa said.
Years in the making
Vancouver and C-Tran have ventured into BRT territory before. In 2017, the first rapid transit line — since branded as the Vine — started ferrying passengers along Fourth Plain Boulevard. Planning work on the Mill Plain line began in 2018.
The new Mill Plain line will serve to connect the two major business hubs in west and east Vancouver. It will run 10 miles, from downtown to a future transit hub near the Columbia Tech Center.
The full project is estimated to cost around $50 million, around half of which will be covered through a grant from the Federal Transit Administration. Another $5 million will be covered through a federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grant, and C-Tran will foot the rest of the bill.
According to Shawn Donaghy, C-Tran’s director, the agency can start soliciting bids for construction work once the project hits the 90 percent planning milestone.
“Really, all things considered that (have) happened in 2020, we’re pretty close to 90 percent on the design,” Donaghy told the council Monday. “We’re really in those last phases of trying to get everything approved by the FTA so we can begin to draw down that money.”
To move forward with the Mill Plain BRT line, Vancouver also needs to gain rights of way for 37 curbside stations along the corridor. In some instances, constructing the new stations will require pushing the public sidewalk further back from the road and into property that’s currently privately owned.
Obtaining those rights of way will likely take most of the year, Lopossa said.
“They’ll be moving into right-of-way acquisition this year, and potentially construction could commence late this year and be wrapped up in 2023,” he added.
Monday’s meeting additionally saw the approval of an agreement that would offer buses on the new Mill Plain line access to software that prioritizes street signals in their favor — essentially maximizing their chances of hitting a green light. Other C-Tran buses already use the same software.
“That will just allow (the buses) to stay on schedule,” Lopossa said.