Wednesday, February 08, 2006

TriMet: "How May We Inconvenience You Best?"

Thanks to the shockingly poor job done proofreading the federal budget, the Portland area just landed over $300 million in light rail improvements, plus more for Willamette commuter rail. As soon as Norman Mineta left the press room he was assuredly tackled, and his briefing papers ripped from him and read in shocked awe not seen since the use of the phrase "yellowcake from Niger." But assuming the decision of the judges is final, transportation officials will get 100 large on October 1st and start spreading the jing.

That Bush proposed over $1 billion in transit is the first semblance of pleasantness emanating from the White House in eons. And it's gotta kill the coterie of road-firsters in the area to hear the grantor say things like this about the commuter link:
The 14.7-mile Washington County commuter rail would run on mostly existing freight tracks between Wilsonville and the Beaverton Transit Center. Self-propelled diesel cars would run every 30 minutes with five stops. Officials expect 3,000 riders a day.

Federal officials said the commuter rail project rose to the top because it serves a rapidly growing suburban area, connects to the existing light-rail system, enhances good land-use polices and has a strong financial plan.

Portland is not the only city scoring good money for transit, but the way the federales have been treating P-town lately, I half expected them to just let Ted Stevens build a hovercraft ferry network with the money instead.

So the I-205 corridor will begin buzzing early next year, but because the trackline was hypothesized long ago, construction disruption could be lessened. Not so downtown, where the Transit Mall plan is likely to throw a little turmoil into an already complex transport network. TriMet knows it will be a headache to keep things running while the main bus arteries are reworked, and so they've put together some options for where the load can be shifted, and you may help decide. And just like the City itself, TriMet has an email service that lets you know about that kind of stuff automatically.

The first thing you should do is watch the video simulation of how they think the triple-use roadway system will work. Some issue has been made about the safety factor in having so much crossing of buses and trains, but I don't see it. First of all, other cities around the world (particularly in Holland) do all that the Transit Mall will do, AND add bike lanes to the mix. We're not stupid; I think Portlanders will figure it out.

Secondly, it's actually a smoother process than it is now, because there are cutout lanes that make "driving" vs "parking" more clearly delineated. Cars have it the best; they get the far left lane all the way down 5th/6th instead of having to get off in the middle as they do now. The buses and trains simply trade off blocks on who has the stop and who drives through, and weave back and forth as they go. The buses do that by themselves already, and do it on an understood system rather than crontrolled traffic. After a short transition, I think it will go fine. The north-south MAX may run a bit slower than east-west, but not intolerably so.

So what to do with the buses while the Transit Mall is under renovation? That's where you come in: what will piss you off and screw up your time in the City the least? The relocation options map took a long time for me to get a handle on, and maybe I'm just tired--but I'm usually pretty good with maps. Basically, the two options are to put almost all traffic on 3rd and 4th instead of 5th and 6th--taking the Mall and moving it east two blocks--or to split the traffic between those two but also 10th and 11th, where the streetcar will also run in a sort of test-drive situation for mixed use. Looking at the map, it helps to ignore the colored existing MAX lines, and focus on the green lines. The dark line is option 1; the lighter line option 2.

TriMet helpfully points out the pros and cons of each idea--essentially congestion versus level of disruption. Do you want your bus near where it was, or do you want to get home at the same time? A bit of a Hobson's choice, but at least some input is being solicited. I disclaim a bias against Option 2; my line would be moved to 10th street, further away from work. And I sleep on the bus--both ways--so another 10 minutes on top of an hour is just that much more shuteye. If you've got an opinion, go voice it.

One thing that the agency sort of glosses over is that several lines will become east-west lines near the southern end of downtown no matter which option is chosen. And what they REALLY gloss over is that those lines may stay there even after the Mall opens. Some lines projected for the change may work as well or better down there, but two I-5 South lines essentially drive away from the highway onramp as they pick up passengers. And they don't mention it, but who would be surprised if some of the 10th/11th buses stay where they are too? The whole point of the Transit Mall--where traffic was limited to buses so cars could avoid them elsewhere--starts to sound subverted at that point. Not all lines go up and down the Mall now either, but under Option 2 there would be several more lines NOT on the Mall, than on it.

These are the concerns of a transit system that has been showered with validation today, however. $400 million buys a lot of jobs in and out of the office, and opening up the Pearl District to downtown tourists is money in the pocket for that area. If you're one of the people who have been pushing ceaselessly for these items, your time to step up is not over. Now the vision has to be realized into something that will indeed be a boon rather than a boondoggle.

Update, 11AM 2/10:
In this morning's Trib, a bit of a (manufactured, if you ask me) kerfuffle about the plan. Portland Transport comments, and so do I down below...