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West Eugene Parkway: Merging Visions

November 14th, 2005 by dk

Published in The Register-Guard on Wednesday, April 12, 2006.

Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy has done half a good deed in taking on the West Eugene Parkway controversy. She could have waited for the Bureau of Land Management or the Army Corps of Engineers to say finally what they have only hinted at so far: that the current plan doesn’t pass muster. Instead, Piercy chose to confront the controversy head-on, breaking a 4-4 city council tie and then taking her conviction to the regional body that allocates funding for transportation projects.

Mayor Piercy forthrightly says the current plan is disappointing to many in Eugene. She vows to work with anyone who can devise a better plan. Until that better plan emerges, her good deed will remain half done.

Everyone agrees that driving from Eugene’s center to its west end has become unpleasant. Everyone knows that Veneta plans to continue building houses for people who will look for work in Eugene, and there’s nothing Eugene can do about it. Everyone wants a solution to the traffic that doesn’t make Eugene into Anytown, USA.

The road to consensus stops there, with exit ramps to the right and left.

Half Eugene wants a solution that will fix the immediate problem: build the darn road. Half Eugene believes the quick solution simply invites a bigger problem: Los Angeles proved paving paradise won’t work. Half Eugene wants public transit and alternative modes to be part of the solution. Half Eugene insists that even tree-huggers drive cars, often alone. Half Eugene believes our West Eugene wetlands are our best civic success story. Half Eugene believes the West Eugene Parkway plans have already earned a prize for being ecologically sensitive.

Merging these visions and convictions require a skill every driver must learn. Two drivers must agree without ever speaking to answer a single question: “Who goes first?” Anything less than an agreement risks a collision. And any collision will surely slow everyone from reaching their destinations.

Chicago built the Kennedy Expressway in the early 1960s to link its downtown core with O’Hare International Airport 17 miles to the northwest. But when they built the road, Mayor Daley saw to it that they condemned enough extra land to have room for an eventual expansion of Chicago’s subway line. That extension didn’t get built for twenty years, but it was ready to go when traffic congestion required it.

Eugene’s bus rapid transit Em-X won’t start running until next fall, and its expansion plans are set until 2010, but there’s an important opportunity available here.

Bus rapid transit everywhere in the region must retrofit current roadways to meet its own needs. Traffic signal preference, passenger platforms, weaving in and out of traffic — all these factors must take into account businesses and traffic patterns that were in place long before Em-X was contemplated.

Here we have an opportunity to build a road to meet our immediate needs with a design that accommodates rapid transit from its inception. If the road-building process includes land and configuration for a later rapid transit line, both sides get to gamble their vision for the future is correct.

Call it “four and no more” and change the debate from whether a road gets built to where it gets built.

Roads produce a certain kind of growth. Light rail produces its own kind of growth. Young professionals snap up houses in Portland when they know they can walk to the train to get to work. Whatever form the West Eugene Parkway or its replacement takes, the vision should include both the people driving by and the people later who will want to stop along the way and call that neighborhood home. Nothing will promote nodal development more effectively than a transit line designed with nodes in mind.

Build four lanes of limited access roadway as soon as we can to link West Eugene with the downtown core. But in return, secure enough extra land to build a pure bus rapid transit line if and when the need arises.

Half don’t believe that need will arise anytime soon, so all they give up is a little greenway between or beside the traffic lanes. Half believe our congestion problems will return quickly and with a vengeance, but they will have the hardest part of a mass transit solution already accomplished.

If traffic congestion continues to frustrate us in the future, a pure example of bus rapid transit can be built and tested, before the roadway is expanded further.

We can avoid a collision, but each side must know when and how to nod and say to others “you go first.”

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  • 1 BillThePoet Nov 30, 2005 at 8:13 pm

    One of the strongest columns you’ve written, dk.

    We just voted down a tax increase here in upscale Alabama (snicker). The revenue was designed for projects like the one you described in Eugene. I was reflexively against the tax, but I argued with myself for a surprisingly long time, using many of the same arguments you articulated.

    My tie-breaking vote came from an unsubstantiated hypothesis (yes, I have those, too) that residents funding better roads is a subsidy to the landowners at each end of the project at the expense of the homeowners in the middle. Your LA observation is a dead-on example of the folly.

    My solution (unencumbered by actual calculations) was to set development impact fees at the prorated cost of the road + interest and a small profit. I think my system results in a go-as-you-pay neutral position on the goodness or badness of the growth itself. Your solution sort of does that, too. Extracting a premium for the quality of life for current and future residents along the entire route. Assuming you get a consensus on what the premium should be spent on, of course.

    Anyway, one of your best analyses ever.