The Powell-Division Transit and Development Project Steering Committee met for the second time this year on June 1. The meeting’s agenda was largely to present a progress report before a number of decisions are made on the project’s final shape.

A key decision was made ahead of the meeting. The bus rapid transit route will run along Southeast Division Street (like the existing Line 4 bus) and not shift to Southeast Powell Street between 52nd and 82nd avenues, after TriMet calculations determined—two years into the planning process—that transit along the proposed route would be eight to 11 minutes slower than existing system.

The committee is hammering out the details of a new transportation corridor that will stretch between downtown Portland and Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, replacing the overloaded resources riders currently have to deal with. Under discussion since 2013, it has been determined that the new mass transit will take the form of bus rapid transit (BRT).

TriMet Director of Planning and Policy Alan Lehto has described BRT as “using buses—rubber-tire technology—to try and make a more visible, more reliable, typically faster and often higher-capacity service than your standard bus service.” The system is frequently likened to light rail on wheels. In this case, 60-foot-long articulated buses are envisioned.

As a result of this change, particularly combined with the greater spacing of the new stops, the route will be accessible to somewhat fewer low-income riders. TriMet general manager Neil McFarlane was stoical about this fact. “Two corridors are being smushed,” he said, adding that the development of the BRT line along Division does not preclude improvements along Powell.

The straighter route, seven-block spacing of stops, boarding through all doors and priority signalization, which will enable buses to hold green lights to allow it to pass, will result in a 15–20 percent faster passage from 8th to 82nd avenues compared to the present for both buses and the cars following behind them. The system will fit on two-lane Division Street “with minor impacts” and “tailoring to location.” Several local residents of the inner Division neighborhood expressed concern about the impact of the project at the meeting. The problem of “bad parkers” on the narrow street was also mentioned.

Another result of not routing the new system along 82nd Avenue is considerable savings. “Two hundred million doesn’t allow a lot of right-of-way and construction,” committee co-chair and Metro Councilor Bob Stacey commented. Between four and 27 places of business will be spared as well. They had been slated for removal to make room for the BRT right of way and stations.

Stacey made the only specific reference to the budget during the meeting, although several members of the committee, including Mt. Hood Community College Board of Education Director Michael Calcagno, expressed the desire to “see the numbers.” Calcagno also suggested that it might be possible to find other sources of funding besides the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts program, which has a $75 million cap. The Oregonian reported earlier this year that the sources of the remaining funding have yet to be identified. The federal Transportation Department’s TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant was mentioned at the meeting.

The existing Line 4 bus on Division serves 9,000 passengers a day, making it the second most heavily used route after the MAX Blue Line. The committee has determined that inner Division Street needs greater transit capacity, which will be provided by the larger size of the new buses. Outer Division, home to more low-income residents and non-native English speakers, needs greater access. Elements of accessibility include distinctiveness of the stops to make them easy to find, weather protection at the stops, near-ground level vehicles for easier boarding and safer street crossings.

TriMet planner Lehto pointed out improvements that are being made in tandem with the BRT plans. Transit is a network, not a line, he said. More service is being added on North-South routes—the ones that intersect the route to Gresham. Infrastructural improvements were made on 181st and 182nd avenues in March, and 122nd Avenue, which sees 4,000 riders per day, will be upgraded in September.

Decisions made over the summer concern the approach to Division on both sides. Three surveys conducted last year showed that the public prefers to send the buses along Hogan Drive (242nd Avenue) in Gresham rather than Cleveland (223rd Avenue), between the Gresham Transit Center to the MHCC campus. An intergovernmental agreement has to be drawn up on land transfer/use for a bus rapid transit terminal on the campus.

There are more unresolved issues connected with the route to and through downtown Portland. Although the project originally envisioned linking MHCC with Portland State University, a survey taken in downtown Portland found more support for a terminus on the transit mall. Project manager Elizabeth Mros-O’Hara was enthusiastic about that option, pointing out that the stations are already in place and that the mall is the “heart” of downtown.

PCC Southeast Campus President Jessica Howard questioned whether turning the route away from the South Waterfront and PSU would be shortsighted. She characterized the waterfront as an emerging area that may have quite different transportation needs in 20 years. Furthermore, 40 percent of PSU graduates begin their studies at Portland Community College, so the originally conceived education corridor has merit for serving the community.

There are two bridges the BRT route could cross. The Hawthorne Bridge would provide the fastest access to the central part of downtown. As a drawbridge, it rises four times a day, but, under law, never during peak-use periods. This makes it an attractive alternative to the Tilikum Crossing bridge, which was originally the planned crossing.

Tilikum would take the BRT across the tracks used by the Union Pacific Railroad and the MAX Orange Line. While the MAX runs often (every 15 minutes throughout the day), it causes only very minor delays. Union Pacific trains hold up traffic for an average of ten minutes each time they run, but they can take up to 45 minutes. The only way around that serious drawback would be to build a bridge over the tracks—an undertaking that makes a $200 million budget seem paltry indeed.

Tilikum had a number of defenders, however. “So who uses Tilikum?” Upstream Public Health representative Heidi Guenin asked. She spoke of investing to make the new bridge accessible, and Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel also wanted to consider the Tilikum further. Howard suggested that a bridge over the railroad tracks might be money well spent.

The next step in the planning process, according to Metro Senior Public Involvement Spet Dana Lucero, is opinion gathering along inner Division Street using teams of multilingual students, an online survey and tables at community events. After the route is finalized over the summer, the question of locating BRT stops will be tackled. Construction is now due to begin in 2019, and the completion date has been pushed back from 2020 to 2021.

The next meeting of the steering committee takes place in September. Time and place have yet to be determined.