What would happen if a local, well-respected bar owner decided to open up a new taproom in a part of the city that has historically lacked any decent bar options, and promises to have “the world’s best selection of craft beers, wines, and spirits” and be open to everyone’s feedback regarding the menu? The locals would get excited of course, but they might get a little confused as to why the new bar is named “Craft Beer Central” if it is to serve such a multitude of offerings. Then, just before opening, the owner announces that the bar won’t actually serve anything other than PBR on tap, and knew this for a long time without telling anyone. At the soft opening, the few people who have remained enthused get one last letdown, as the new bar only serves one thing: a room-temperature Bud Light poured from a can into a frosted Base Camp pint glass. This is the story of the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project, albeit with public transit and not private libations.
After the results of the last two national election cycles, and the unhindered escalation of capital project costs in the United States, the local regional government, Metro, decided to finally push for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project in Portland. This was music to many local transit wonks’ gleeful ears who’ve wanted to try this modality in their own backyards for decades. Now, unlike the Southwest Corridor Plan which actually did due diligence on mode choice, the Powell-Division project was custom-tailored to exclude all options except BRT. In addition, despite having a very wide, all-encompassing project boundary, the name and meeting materials hinted that they wanted a Powell and Division only project from the very beginning. The preordained mode and corridor choice was immediately spun as a monetarily efficient, short turnaround, and equitable solution for an area that is mostly underfunded, historically quick fixed, and politically unequal to its more affluent neighboring communities.
Despite these criticisms, everything appeared to be running smoothly for this rapidly-advancing project, that is until news came out earlier this year that the new multi-million dollar effort would actually create longer commuting times than existing conditions. The jog down the preferred 82nd avenue, or other options, would add to the total travel distance and create unavoidable bottlenecks at critical junctions. On top of this, the steering committee had to finally publically acknowledge that it was politically impossible to add bus only lanes on either ODOT-controlled Powell or traffic-calmed inner Division, therefore completely negating the potential for actual BRT. Now, the steering committee has proposed a Division-only, Tilikum-ignoring articulated bus with fewer stops and protected bus stops as their ‘BRT project,’ but there is only one problem: it’s no longer a BRT project, not even close. Bus rapid transit has five major characteristics: dedicated bus-only ROW, center-running lanes, off-board fare collection, priority at intersections including no turn lanes across ROW, and platform level boarding for accessibility. The Powell-Division project has none of these features. None. Instead, it is now a ‘branded’ bus with a few extra seats. Minor things like signal priority, fewer stops, and larger bus shelters do not count as BRT, those are regular bus improvements, especially since this latest vision only scrapes 2-3 minutes off of the total commute time (they quote 15-20% (pdf) but off of only a portion of the total alignment, read How to Lie with Statistics). The steering committee and Metro are still pushing the BRT name, which is simply ludicrous, as this project will require higher operating costs and more capital expenditures for Trimet, an agency that needs neither of those things, without any actual benefits to transit riders except the line-on-a-map illusion of high-capacity transit.
If only the project could start over, perhaps as a grassroots campaign focused on needs first instead of purely transit-oriented development. There are so many cheaper and more expensive options out there that could actually make a real difference in Southeast Portland and Southwest Gresham: paved streets, sidewalks, bike lanes, public art, everyday architecture, through streets, regular bus shelters, school upgrades, parks, plazas, frequent service bus lines, or even actual BRT or light rail. The area already has light rail lines to branch off of or to be interconnected to, and many of the streets of outer Portland are dangerously wide, wide enough for all kinds of urban interventions. The only real limitations are individual creativity and community ambition, two things Portlanders are known to excel at. Is it time for Portland to step up and fund the improvements we actually need instead of scraping the bottom of the barrel and making due with what we find? Los Angeles, after Measure R’s success, has a new proposed $120 billion 60% transit and 40% roads package on the ballot, and Seattle has a third transit package worth $50 billion to be voted on in November. Both have shown that it is possible to create new dedicated funding streams for transit, and even though Portland is a smaller scale city, why would a smaller scale proposal not be possible here? The momentum could start right now, as we do have to decide soon if we’re okay with the warm Bud light in a chilled pint glass being offered to us or if we’d rather be served something else, perhaps something we might actually want and enjoy.