The Powell-Division transit corridor continues to take shape. In three years of planning, the bus rapid transit format was chosen early on. Now the project has reached the point of “feeling the sting of losses and reductions,” as Metro co-chair Bob Stacey put it at the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project Steering Committee meeting September 26.

Public engagement surveys were conducted in the inner Division segment of the corridor (west of 82nd Avenue) over the summer. This step was considered essential to establish the locally preferred alternative—a key concept in the planning. Among those surveyed, 93 percent of respondents liked some or all of the project as proposed, and 34 percent were satisfied with it in its entirety.

Studies carried out before the June 1 committee meeting showed that the Southeast Powell Boulevard leg of the proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) route would lengthen travel time along the route, as compared to the current Line 4 bus service on Southeast Division Street. Surveys found a certain amount of resistance to a BRT route running exclusively on Division, but it was quite small. Powell was better suited to the new route in general, some objected, while others did not want to see the Line 4 bus disappear or were concerned about negative impacts of the new bus system.

TriMet borrowed an articulated bus from Vancouver’s C-TRAN, which is about to launch its Vine BRT line. Drivers made a round trip along the route to “try the fit,” with satisfactory results. Articulated buses are no wider than traditional buses, and the bend divides the chassis into sections that are shorter than a traditional bus, so they turn very compactly.

The project planners did some hard number-crunching over the summer, and they discovered that considerable financial replanning was in line. The project is too small for the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program, which supports initiatives with budgets of $300 million or over. That program also requires dedicated transit lanes, which would be completely unfeasible here, so scaling up was not an option.

The Small Starts program provides up to $100 million in federal funding for programs budgeted at less than $300 million. Funds are disbursed on a competitive basis. It was determined that there is a “tipping point” and “sweet spot” at $175 million, and the project would have a better chance of receiving funding with a budget of that size. The project as proposed came in at $225 million.

The funding solution favored by the project planners was to terminate the BRT route at the Gresham Transit Center, rather than continuing it to Mt. Hood Community College, shortening the route from 16 miles to 14 miles and bringing it in line with the size of most Small Start projects. Savings would amount to $24–33 million.

There are a number of arguments in favor of this move. Bus layover capacity already exists at the transit center. Three buses run between it and the community college every 15 minutes during peak hours and every 20 minutes otherwise. They have an average ridership of 300 people per weekday (compared to 9,000 along Division), even though MHCC has 1,000 more students than Portland State University, which is the most frequent commuter destination in the entire transit system. The argument that better service would attract more riders is not pertinent to the question of financing, since the Small Starts program takes into consideration the existing passenger load. Cutting part of the route downtown would decrease the project’s competitiveness for funding, as well as the line’s ridership, as the peak load point along the route is on the approach to downtown.

Regardless, a number of committee members expressed their opposition to cutting the route. Most vocal was MHCC representative Michael Calcagno, who painted the issue in terms of social justice and the project’s equity goal: “Reduce existing disparities, benefit current residents and businesses and enhance our diverse neighborhoods.” Gresham City Councilor Lori Stegmann called the change a “broken promise” and spoke of a longstanding policy of depriving east Portland of benefits.

Portland Community College Southeast President Jessica Howard reminded the committee of the original purpose of the route: creating an educational corridor. Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel objected that the case for making the change in the route has not been presented adequately. To avoid going into great detail at the meeting, and in the (often vain) hope of keeping comments short, the planners offered to discuss complex questions with committee members individually in meetings they rather infelicitously called “deep dive” sessions.

Project planners have located $58 million in funding so far, not counting the $100 million expected in federal money. Metro’s Regional Flexible Fund and TriMet will each provide $25 million. The City of Portland will pitch in $8 million.

The next steering committee meeting will be October 3 at 4:00 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints at 9901 Southeast Caruthers Street. At that time, the committee will vote on recommendations for the downtown segment of the BRT route, the Willamette River crossing point, the inner Portland route and the terminuses.