How To Prevent Having an Ex-EmX

Lane Transit District is in a pickle, to use the technical term. At the behest of the Eugene City Council, it has spent more than two years and a bunch of federal dollars to study the feasibility of an EmX line to serve West Eugene. A number of business owners along West 11th Avenue have done their own study and determined they’d rather not face the disruptions and confusion that may be caused by constructed improvements outside their front doors.

Not far beneath the surface, those opposed to the project are unhappy with how LTD has managed this discovery phase. Some business owners are up in arms about what the plans might do to their businesses, but the “no build” movement has been fueled by activists and meddlers behind and beneath the scenes.

Meanwhile, floating above the on-the-ground issues are the funding authorities who have been willing to pay for a futuristic “bus rapid transit” system that replicates many of the benefits of light rail for a smaller community at a much lower cost. They also have voiced concerns.

United States Representative Peter DeFazio will require strong community support for the system as a condition for his help. State legislators have earmarked lottery dollars for the “local match” portion, but those funds are getting more scarce.

What’s a mass transit agency to do?

Turning back doesn’t look good. Funding mechanisms have their own timetables, so starting over delays everything by several years. Admitting that the money already spent has been wasted could also damage LTD’s credibility, diminishing its chance of successfully competing when new rounds of funding become available.

But plowing forward doesn’t look any better. Right or wrong, those objecting to the current trajectory will have no difficulty getting themselves heard at higher levels, if only because Eugene has a reputation for being a fertile valley for sowing discontents.

None of LTD’s choices are optimal, but they can still move the project forward with some creative adaptations. Bus rapid transit is designed to be something between a bus and a train. The West 11th route will have to resemble more a bus in the short run, mechanically and politically. If the “no build” voices get little more than a new-and-improved bus service past their protest signs, that should assuage much of the fear.

It also won’t do much good, since the buses have to deal with traffic the same way cars do, without dedicated lanes and stoplight preference. But if that’s the best that can be gotten in the short run, better to settle and move the project forward.

Here’s where the creativity will require multiple and simultaneous initiatives. LTD must show the community better how the whole system eventually will work. The excitement comes from how the pieces fit together, imagining how to build new things from the component parts. Focusing on each leg of the system’s expansion has been like unwrapping individual tinker toys.

LTD should unveil the next three sections of the system all at once, not unlike a season’s worth of football uniforms for the Oregon Ducks. Then comes “mix and match” time. Ask the community which part they want next. Some will be easier than others. Highway 99 has plenty of width and alternative transportation to the airport would be a grand new transportation link. That area of town might ask to be first.

An EmX line down Coburg would complete the Gateway loop but will be more difficult to build without disrupting businesses, so delay that leg and invite those owners to the meetings held with businesses along Highway 99. If both sides can learn to work together on an easy part, then we’re better equipped when implementation gets harder. A line south from the airport to the west Eugene terminus would close the second loop. By then all sides might be ready to return and upgrade the West 11th route to become quicker, better, and more train-like.

The system still will be built in pieces, but if everyone knows better how their piece fits into the whole, we can feel pulled toward a better future, not just pushed beyond our present comfort zones.

Don Kahle ( writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs at Tinker toys may have been his favorite Christmas presents. His children got (almost) as many Lego sets as they requested.