EmX Promise Includes Less Waiting

Eugene City Councilor Betty Taylor changed her vote and this week endorsed the west Eugene EmX extension. She listed several reasons for her change of heart, but identified one above all others — 10-minute service.

If there’s one thing many Americans dislike more than riding a bus, it’s waiting half an hour to ride a bus.

Councilor Pat Farr also reversed course and endorsed the extension, but recalled a much longer wait. As we wait for the necessary approvals for the next EmX expansion to sort themselves out, it’s a good time to be reminded of the long route that got us here.

Farr first heard about bus rapid transit almost two decades ago. Some of Bill Clinton’s smartest transportation policy wonks had stumbled on two statistical oddities. They embarked on a type of Manhattan Project, working with quirks instead of quarks. If they could force a collision between these two anomalies, would their fusion create an undiscovered economic force?

Both the anomalies suggested that trains are nothing like busses, and yet they serve the same function. Could the distinction between the two be blurred, reaping the benefits of a train for the cost of a bus? Could a hybrid of the two modes of transportation — “light rail lite” — outperform either for efficiency and economic development?

Portland has become a national poster child for the economic development patterns spawned by light rail investment. Property values increase with proximity to a light rail station. Commuters see convenience, but urban planners see an expanding tax base. Light rail often can pay for itself.

Odd little datum detail No. 1: Rail attracts investment; busses do not. It’s not hard to see why. Traffic flows change and busses can adapt quickly. Trains cannot. The relative permanence of a rail line is what attracts development.

Or is it? That’s what these transportation wonks in the 1990s wanted to find out.

Here’s where quirky fact No. 2 comes into view. Every dollar of rail expansion can be done with a bus for only a dime, and guess where the extra 90 cents goes. Almost all of the additional expense is for the rail itself and the ground it’s set upon.

Clinton’s back room brains dreamed out loud. (That’s what Farr and others heard in the 1990s.) Let’s make a bus that looks all the world like a train and see if it will attract private development capital. If “bus rapid transit” can attract even one quarter the investments we see with light rail, we’ve more than doubled our leverage of public monies.

If it works, there may be a public transportation system that can be built for smaller metro areas, or sprawling larger ones, that will bring to their cities a net economic gain similar to light rail.

Somebody made a list of train-like features that could be added to busses: elevated platforms for universal access, sliding double doors on both sides, separating the conductor/driver from the passengers, scrolling displays with real-time arrival information, fewer stations that look more permanent, 10-minute service (eliminating “schedules”), a sleek, bullet-like vehicle design. They added everything they could, except the rail itself and “All Aboard!”

Has it worked? It’s too soon to know for sure. Early indications are good. Ridership has increased, for some of the reasons Taylor detailed. Missing a bus gives anyone a terrible feeling, but missing EmX means you’ll wait nine minutes and probably no more.

The unanswered question is whether development increases along EmX lines. Some student housing has followed the EmX lines. The VA clinic is rumored to favor a site near RiverBend, partly because of the access EmX can provide. The Glenwood Master Plan and Envision Eugene are counting on it.

If EmX expands the local tax base, community benefit will increase with each new line. Transportation, land use, and economic development initiatives will fuse together to propel us toward sustainable prosperity. And we’ll spend less time doing what we all like least — waiting.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.thats.dk. Kahle serves on the board of directors for Better Eugene-Springfield Transit.