By Midge Pierce
As surprise subsides, Metro and Portland transportation officials are getting an earful as they make the rounds soliciting feedback from residents, businesses and neighborhood associations processing the news that Division – not Powell Blvd., is the preferred route for future Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).
Few seem overjoyed that SE’s slick new Division streetscape is proposed for BRT. Even officials claim it was not their first choice, but simply a better option than the clogged Powell corridor from the river to 82nd (the original route proposed for the transit’s inner Portland portion).
Data analysis indicated Powell was untenable because it would cause greater delays and fail to meet federal grant guidelines requiring increased speed and efficiency.
As a result, Division BRT may be the logical Faustian bargain to improve commutes and get cars off the street.
Service on SE Division would mean less traffic congestion and quicker, more reliable trips for bus riders, according to officials. Multiple doors would provide faster boarding and high level coordinated traffic signals could make trips 15 – 20 percent shorter than current commutes.
Objections were strongest at a Richmond landuse meeting. A resident spoke passionately of the hardship a reduction of stops would cause her disabled husband, “Don’t the 26% who have longer to walk matter?” Another spoke of the irony of seeking federal funds for rapid transit on a street shrunk down to two-lanes. “Where is the R in BRT if there is no dedicated lane?”
Proposal details call for replacing the busy Line 4 Division route between SE 8th and 82nd with longer buses that accommodate 60 percent more people with fewer riders being passed up by full buses. Implementation is targeted for 2021.
“Everyone’s first reaction is that you can’t possibly fit anything else on Division,” said PBOT representative Jean Senechal Biggs. “By spacing station stops farther apart, we can deliver quick trips and reliability.”
The trade-off is fewer stops along inner Division. Line 4 currently has 26 stops between SE 8th and 82nd. BRT would reduce station stops to 11, still enabling a majority of riders to use the stop they have now. That means more than a quarter of current riders will need to travel additional blocks to stations.
Members of the Hosford-Abernethy and Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Associations were quick to point out that extra blocks could present significant hardships for elderly and disabled passengers, especially in inclement weather.
Of particular note to HAND, is an eight block stretch without stops between SE 20th and 26th containing streets and places that were misidentified as only six blocks. “This kind of mistake shakes our confidence in the plan,” said a board member.
Likewise, Mt. Tabor residents were concerned about the stretch between SE 51st and 60th that contains public schools.
Others pointed out the narrow nature of Division with its new bioswales, building boom and already limited parking. Some streetscape and infrastructure construction such as curb extensions and relocating storm water corridors would be needed, according to Senechal Biggs and roughly a dozen parking spots would be removed.
Critics claim the buses would block more traffic and increase engine idling. Metro’s Dana Lucero countered that the rapid transit buses of the future will be no wider – just longer, than current vehicles.
Recalling Tri-Met debacles of the past, several residents expressed concerns about using what is commonly known as articulated buses.
A Buckman resident claimed earlier incarnations fell apart. At a HAND meeting, Metro’s Bob Stacey admitted that the articulated buses used decades ago were a disaster, but assured NA members that new “vastly superior” highly maneuverable technology is currently used successfully in Seattle and other Northwest cities.
Mt. Tabor resident John Laursen is unconvinced, warning that the public could be sold a costly, flawed bill of goods that disguises the bendy buses as longer rather than articulated.
“The articulated buses never ever worked as promised… they could not turn corners easily and in the effort to do so they blocked traffic. They spent far more time being repaired in the garage than they actually did on the street.”
Ultimately, he claims, Tri-Met took them out of service, sued the manufacturer and reached a settlement. Nonetheless, he said, taxpayers absorbed a tremendous loss.
Calling the situation an “enormous boondoggle”, he said, “I don’t at all believe the claim that new technology has somehow miraculously repealed the laws of physics that made it impossible for the damn things to turn corners.”
Of concern to HAND board member Linda Nettekoven is the rail connections west of SE 12th, where traffic already experiences lengthy backups. Working around the new Orange Line is also a problem. The interchanges will need further study to find solutions.
Nettekoven and Richmond Neighborhood’s Heather FlintChatto have a vested interest as tireless volunteer catalysts behind the Division Design Initiative’s design and development guidelines.
FlintChatto says she is still considering the implications of BRT on Division and hasn’t decided whether to be excited or apprehensive about the proposal.
As for growing congestion on Powell Blvd., Lucero and Biggs said the City has not forsaken the corridor. While no option is perfect, the priority for now is Division St. Final decisions have yet to be made and millions in funding have yet to be secured.
Whatever the outcome, this historic intragovernmental partnership is the first attempt between Metro, Portland and Gresham to connect the two regional cities with rapid transit.
FlintChatto hopes transit leaders will continue to seek visionary ways to improve Powell’s transportation boondoggle. “Powell deserves to be a grand boulevard,” she says. Elevated light rail is an option some have suggested to increase livability and allow greater density along Powell.
Metro wants to know what you think about the Division St. proposal. It has a three minute survey open through September 9 online at oregonmetro.gov/powelldivision.