I-5 Project Leaders Select Light Rail as Transit Option for Columbia Crossing
Yesterday we covered the announcement that the freeway footprint for an expanded I-5 between Washington and Oregon had been narrowed down to two options: an expansion almost identical to the 2013 Columbia River Crossing project and an option with one less “auxiliary lane” in each direction. Along with this announcement, the project team also announced that they have narrowed the high-capacity transit options between Expo Station and Vancouver to one.
After researching 11 different options for light rail or bus rapid transit (BRT), the recommended option to go forward is a light rail line that is directly adjacent to I-5, avoid heading straight towards downtown Vancouver and ends at Evergreen Boulevard, right next to the Vancouver Public Library.
Since the failure of the Columbia River Crossing project a decade ago, C-TRAN has continued to build its rapid bus network, with the 4th Plain line opening in 2017 and the Mill Plain line currently under construction. So why was BRT not selected here? Mainly the ability of light rail to move more passengers. Capacity constraints on the BRT impact how many passengers can ride each bus, and most passengers will transfer to light rail at the Expo Center anyway, increasing travel time.
Significantly, the IBR team noted this week that their models currently predict more transit demand across the Columbia River than all of the options studied so far even allow. In other words, the model predicts that some people who want to use public transit will end up driving instead. “Transit demand exceeds peak capacity by one hour on all modes of transit crossing the river. The mode share figures shown assume that the one-hour excessive peak demand cannot be satisfied and has therefore been reduced to automatic mode,” said a presentation footnote.
But the choice to run the light rail directly along I-5 will likely draw a lot of scrutiny. Avoiding downtown Vancouver limits the pedestrian area of train stations, and having a massive freeway next to a light rail station meant to attract riders just isn’t ideal. But the fact that this alignment would have fewer property impacts has been cited as one of the main reasons it is moving forward. Additionally, a desire not to “duplicate” the BRT service that runs along Washington Street and Broadway was cited. But duplication is not necessarily a bad thing: it reduces transfers and facilitates the use of public transport. The downtown Portland transit mall works well because many services overlap.
At the IBR Equity Advisory Group meeting on Monday, Matt Hines of Enable Include raised concerns that the light rail route will not provide a direct connection to Clark College, which was planned as the northern light rail terminus under the Columbia River Crossing project. “The decision for high-capacity transit must reflect the need to connect Portland east of I-5 to Vancouver” as such a connection does not currently exist that is easy to use for people with disabilities , did he declare.
Of course, the light rail is a political symbol in addition to being a mode of transport. At a legislative committee meeting on Thursday, State Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-17), who represents Vancouver’s east end, signaled she was prepared to vote no on approving the light rail project included. Senator Wilson, pitching suggestions that TriMet’s light rail system is in poor financial health, has repeatedly expressed skepticism that light rail would have a lower cost per passenger because it has a higher capacity. “I don’t think laying tracks is cheaper in the long run than buying another bus. I don’t see how this ever plays out,’ she said.
Wilson was joined by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who represents all of Southwest Washington in Congress. “I couldn’t be more disappointed with today’s announcement that those responsible for replacing the I-5 Bridge are offering two final project options that do not include bus rapid transit, while the two would expand Portland’s light rail system into Clark County,” she wrote in a Facebook post. Thursday evening. “This decision runs counter to voters in Southwest Washington who have firmly and repeatedly rejected the introduction of Portland Light Rail in Washington State, as well as the enormous costs, limitations on river traffic and the public safety concerns that come with it.” Light rail bringing additional crime to an area is a conservative trope that comes up frequently in discussions of transit expansion here and elsewhere. But the decline of light rail in Clark County likely contributes to the final decision not to deviate from the I-5 footprint there.
Representatives from TriMet and C-TRAN have come out in favor of the option to finish at Evergreen, and it seems likely that many other elected officials who weigh in on the project as a whole will defer to those agencies when it comes to concerns high-capacity public transport alternatives. . Now the question is whether politics can derail the decision.
CORRECTION, 04/25 at 3:20 p.m.: This story initially misidentified Matt Hines of Activate Inclusion. We regret the error.