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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Long-term value of BRT remains to be seen

The Columbian
Published: October 3, 2023, 6:03am

As C-Tran opens a bus rapid transit line along Mill Plain Boulevard, an examination of the system reveals much to like. But whether it marks an upgrade to previous bus service along the corridor remains to be seen.

In a sense, that reflects one of the benefits of a bus rapid transit program – its impermanence. Unlike systems such as light rail or streetcars, BRT does not require massive infrastructure investment. It uses existing roads and, as developed by C-Tran, only demands changes to the buses and bus stops.

If, years down the road (pun intended), the system is not meeting the needs of the community, it is easy to change. This reflects something written this year in Mass Transit magazine: “During this time of rapidly emerging technologies and high automation . . . the transit world is making one of the most significant impacts to the future of mobility with an old friend – the bus. Over the course of its history, the bus has evolved to meet society’s needs as a safe, efficient and affordable mode of mass transport.”

Critics might argue that point. The rise of the automobile in the mid-20th century as the primary mode of transportation and a symbol of American prosperity and independence transformed the nation’s cities. And claims persist that urban planners are engaging in social engineering and trying to force Americans out of their cars.

Such accusations are misguided.

For one thing, if viable alternatives lead to a reduction in the number of passenger cars on the road, there are benefits. It is clear that limiting the burning of fossil fuels is imperative for our economic and environmental health. For another thing, improving mass transit especially benefits low-income residents and better allows them to fully contribute to the community both socially and economically.

The overriding question, then, is how effectively C-Tran’s bus rapid transit system achieves those goals.

In some regards, the name is a misnomer. C-Tran’s BRT system, like most in the United States, does not meet the pure definition of bus rapid transit. It uses existing traffic lanes where buses mingle with other vehicles, rather than having lanes dedicated solely to buses. This mitigates some of the benefits of bus rapid transit and leaves relatively little difference between regular bus lines and BRT.

Counting all services, C-Tran ridership amounted to 4.1 million trips in 2022, an 18.2 percent increase over the previous year. A little more than 2 percent of the agency’s funding came from fares, with 67 percent coming from local sales tax and 29 percent coming from grants.

That provides a sharp contrast with other transit agencies. According to the American Public Transit Association, fares made up an average of 12.5 percent of transit funding nationwide in 2021 – a sharp decline from pre-pandemic numbers.

But comparing public transit in a mid-sized city to that in a metropolis is incongruous. In that regard, the important thing is to develop a system that works best for Clark County rather than comparing it to other jurisdictions.

C-Tran official Scott Patterson said this week that the opening of a second Vine line is “making the lives and the trips of people better; and in so doing, it’s building the corridor up and giving us the opportunity to see that extra development that can happen and that can best serve the community.”

Ensuring that will require constant and sober reevaluation.