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Our Opinion: Bus line gives Metro chance to get it right

For anyone who has driven east on Powell Boulevard in recent years, the need for some economic stimulus is readily apparent.

Poor planning in what is now East Portland and west Gresham resulted in an inordinately high amount of housing without the transportation infrastructure to match.

That, however, may change if plans for a high-capacity transit line come to fruition within just a few years. If done correctly, this new transit line would improve the appearance of blighted areas, encourage new development in Portland and Gresham and provide a shiny new form of transportation between Multnomah County’s two principal cities.

If planners have their way, a new transit line linking inner Southeast Portland and east Multnomah County could be in the design process as early as next year and under construction by 2018. Although no decisions have been made about a route or mode of transit, most everyone involved has talked openly about the potential for what could become the Portland area's first bus rapid transit (BRT) line.

For those who are unfamiliar with BRT, this isn’t your father’s bus service. Instead of a bus system that moves people, but succeeds in slowing down other traffic, a BRT system has a dedicated lane of travel so that it doesn’t interfere with existing traffic flow. BRT systems also typically feature off-board fare collection and street-level platforms, and they have priority at intersections. In many ways, it’s a light-rail system without the train.

But what makes the discussion of an eastside BRT so appealing is that it has proven to be an economic catalyst in areas where it has been constructed, at a fraction of the cost of light rail.

Similar systems are already in use in Eugene, Las Vegas and Cleveland, and one is being considered for Vancouver, Wash.

The construction of the Eugene BRT project came in at $6.25 million per mile and links downtown Eugene to Springfield and Gateway Mall. That cost is in stark contrast to the $180 million per mile that the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project will cost — and that figure doesn’t include the as-of-yet unnamed bridge crossing the Willamette River.

Preliminary discussions have centered on a potential transit route that could run down Powell Boulevard, turn north on 82nd Avenue, and then continue east on Division Street before taking another northward turn to connect with Mt. Hood Community College.

This may prove to be the most expeditious route, but it doesn’t address the most glaring problems in east Multnomah County. If ever there was a location in need of revitalization, Powell Boulevard certainly makes the cut. Yet the truly blighted areas on Powell are east of 82nd Avenue.

Existing bus traffic on Powell Boulevard already creates a traffic problem on that street. If the engineering can be worked out, it might make more sense to run a transit line farther east on Powell before making the cut north to Division. In the process, a new BRT line would add some much-needed economic stimulus to an area of Portland that desperately needs it.

Cleveland provides a good example of how Bus Rapid Transit can provide just such a stimulus. According to a report by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, Cleveland’s BRT project generated $114 in development for each transit dollar invested — a total of $5.8 billion.

Economic growth takes up-front investment. Southeast and East Portland has seen increased crime and homelessness. It has not enjoyed the same level of economic recovery experienced in the rest of the city.

BRT can have a positive influence, but it has to be done correctly with dedicated lanes, attractive stations and other permanent features that give developers confidence that the line is here to stay.

This also is a chance to correct some of the wrongs stemming from the less-than-visionary planning that went into the original 1986 light-rail line constructed between Portland and Gresham. That line should have had better connections to downtown Gresham, stronger design elements, more appropriate land-use surrounding it, and a full extension to Mt. Hood Community College.

Metro, which does long-range transit planning for the region, and TriMet, which operates the system, now have 28 years of experience in planning high-capacity transit. Although BRT is a new twist, planners for the two agencies — and planners for the cities of Portland and Gresham — should make sure they get it right this time around.