The first leg of OB's bus tour takes us from Portland to Eugene, with stops at Lane County Transit, the storefront of a BRT critic and new wave mobility company Arcimoto.
I began my reporting on bus initiatives by taking MAX, not the bus, from my house in Northeast Portland to Union Station. Not an auspicious beginning.
But I'm representative of Portland transit trends. TriMet light rail ridership has steadily increased over the past few years, while bus ridership has fallen. But I was headed for Eugene, where new-fangled bus transit takes center stage.
Two views: A transit planner and a business owner talk about Bus Rapid Transit
POINT of interest
My first ride was on a POINT bus, a system operated in conjunction with Amtrak and managed by ODOT. POINT launched in 2009 to connect more riders to the Amtrak rail line from Eugene to Vancouver, BC.
Along with six other people, I boarded the 7 a.m. to Eugene, one of the Cascade POINT’s seven daily departures. POINT runs buses on five routes: the Cascades, Eastern (Bend-Ontario), High Desert (Redmond-Chemult), Northwest (Portland-Astoria) and Southwest (Klamath Falls-Brookings).
The POINT bus, managed by ODOT
The Cascades route paralleled the rail line most of the way. The bus was clean, comfortable and provided free, albeit slow Wi-Fi.
At the Salem Amtrak station, my fellow riders dwindled to myself and one other person. “VIPs, huh?” the driver said. The Cascade route serves about 7,000 people a year, but ridership has been declining over the years.
“Maybe it’s gas prices; maybe the economy is improving,” said POINT project manager Joel Manning. “It’s hard to point the finger at one cause.” The POINT Cascades Route costs ODOT around $500,000 to operate over a two-year period.
The Bolt Bus may also be cutting into POINT ridership. Bolt traverses the Portland-Eugene route for half the price — $15-$17. It is also 20 minutes faster but offers only two to four departure times daily.
Manning said the POINT’s rural routes have seen increased demand. He credits the uptick to better marketing.
The Emerald Express
Two and a half hours later, I arrived at the Eugene Station and set off in search of the EmX. In less than five minutes, I reached 6th Ave, where the Emerald articulated buses rushed by, one after the other. Exterior side panel display ads boldly proclaimed: “Every 10 minutes.”
The West Eugene EmX
EmX, Eugene’s nationally recognized Bus Rapid Transit system, is a bus that acts like light rail: The ride features dedicated lanes, stops that resemble train stations, frequent service and signal priority. Emx opened its first line, Franklin Boulevard, in 2007. The Lane Transit District added a Gateway line in 2010.
West Eugene is the third EmX extension. The line opened September 17.
I walked a few blocks down 6th avenue, following the West Eugene EmX route.
A map of the West EmX extension
I passed a lane marked “bus only” to reach the Sports Car Shop on West 6th Ave. Owner Bob Macherione was one of the more vocal opponents of the Emx, both the original build and the West extension.
Standing in a showroom displaying vintage Porches and MGs, Macherione ticked off a list of concerns: The new line bypassed low-income areas that benefitted more from the old fixed-route bus. The articulated buses guzzled gas, and were so heavy they destroyed the road, except where they could travel on expensive, reinforced concrete lanes. And the flashy Emerald buses, he said, mainly serve as a marketing tool to advertise the city’s green reputation.
BRT lanes outside Macherione's Sports Car Shop
He pointed to a 2003 FTA-sponsored study, which concluded, “BRT should serve demonstrated transit markets. Urban areas with more than a million residents and a central area employment of at least 75,000 are good candidates for BRT in North American cities. These areas generally have sufficient corridor ridership demands to allow frequent all-day service.”
Eugene’s population, at 166,575 in 2016, is nowhere near the density that the study recommended. A study from PSU's population center forecast that Lane county's total population will grow by 152,400 by 2065.
“I wanted to see a complete bus system for the entire community,” Marchione said. “This EmX took so many resources, fuel, and infrastructure; we lost a lot of our basic bus system.”
We walked outside, where gargantuan emerald buses roared past.
Charnelton EmX Station, part of the West Extension
My next stop was Glenwood, home of the Lane Transit District offices.
I had barely completed the EmX off-board fare collection process — a machine that resembled a downtown Portland parking meter — before the next bus arrived. I hopped on, straight through the back door. Off-board fare collection, two-door boarding, and a raised platform for walking straight onto the bus are key BRT features that speed up service.
The interior had the look and feel of a Tri Met bus — but this bus kept moving, and fast. We travelled the 3.5 miles down Franklin Boulevard in about 20 minutes, rocking passed reinforced concrete bus lanes, busways separated from traffic by planters, and traffic lights that gave us priority, only slowing significantly for stops. The stations resemble miniature train stations, with covered awnings and real-time arrival information. The entire experience felt like riding the MAX.
At the Lane Transit District offices in Glenwood, I met with Tom Schwetz, LTD’s planning and development director. He sketched a picture of the West extension on a whiteboard, outlining the route and stops.
The bus travelled so frequently between these points, he said, that it nearly eliminated the need for reading timetables. You could show up at any stop, and in minutes, see the bus coming your way.
“Research shows that with 10-minute service people don’t need a schedule,” Schewtz said.
Critics say the EmX takes away lanes from cars, worsening congestion. In fact, Schwetz said, because the EmX extension runs through a state freight corridor, planners had to demonstrate that they could maintain the same throughput, the rate at which cars flow through a certain point on a street.
In other words, the extension had no effect on traffic along West 6th and 7th Ave. Though the bus lanes take away a lane in some places, engineers compensated by adding lanes near intersections, by far the cause of most traffic congestion.
Ridership on the West EmX extension has increased slowly since the system started running last month. During the first week, the extension averaged around 2,500 riders. Now it serves about 3,000 riders a day on weekdays, and drops to 1,900 on Saturdays; 1,600 on Sundays. After the west extension opened, EmX ridership jumped from 27% of the Eugene bus system to 35%, though this was probably because the new extension eliminated West Eugene’s fixed-route bus network.
It’s difficult to compare ridership between the old fixed-route bus and EmX because the routes are so different, an LTD spokesperson said.
Schwetz drew another map showing the connection between the West extension links and a rural bus route to Veneta, 15 miles West of Eugene. The EmX shortened that rural route, but by transferring to the EmX riders get faster service on the last leg of the trip. The cost savings have been reinvested in more frequent rural bus service.
EmX stations resemble train stations
Eugene planners caught their first glimpse of BRT in 1998, when FTA officials hosted a group of city planners on a trip to Curitiba, Brazil, the epicenter of the global BRT revolution. In the 1990s, Eugene planners concluded that BRT would cost ten times less than a comparable light rail system. Nowadays, BRT costs about half as much as light rail.
Local planners were also attracted by the flexibility of BRT, compared to rail. As the community grows and changes, the city can reroute buses.
“There’s so many different ways we can configure things,” said Schwetz. “When you do light rail, you don’t have the ability to run that vehicle in mixed traffic. It has to be light rail from beginning to end.”
BRT relies on a variety of features to optimize travel time: fixed guideways, Business Access/Transit (BAT) lanes, and mixed traffic corridors. Engineers can adjust the mix of features to account for changes.
West EmX Funding
Overall Project Cost: $100 million
Federal Small Starts: $75 million
Oregon Lottery Bonds: $17.8 million
Connect Oregon Grant: $1.6 million
Federal Formula Funds: $2 million
Local Funds: $3.4 million
A Federal Transportation Administration grant provided 75% of the funding for the entire EmX system. The money could only be used for BRT, not a traditional bus system. Critics like Macherione says the strings attached skewed city leaders’ perceptions of which mode was best.
Schwetz admitted many members of the public felt their opinions weren’t taken into account on this project, partly because regional planners were dead set on BRT. He hopes to improve the public engagement phase of future projects by beginning with more open-ended questions.
Tom Schwetz, planning and development director at LTD
“Rather than starting from the standpoint of we’re here to deliver what the region said they wanted 10 years ago,” he said, “we want to ask the community ‘what role can transit play?’”
To continue building out the system, Schwetz hopes to create a model like that of TriMet’s MAX Orange Line, in which around 50% of funding comes from a diverse portfolio of local sources.
“Federal funding has uncertain viability in the future,” he said. “If we want to do EmX again, we’re going to have to look more creatively where that funding can come from.”
Current FTA recommendations under the Trump Administration would cut all funding for the Small Starts program, jeopardizing projects like the EmX nationwide.
City leaders from around the country have descended on Eugene to learn from EmX
What’s next? EmX is a key part of Eugene’s Frequent Transit Network plan, which aims to provide 15-minute service or better along the city’s major arterials.
Planners from Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Nashville and other cities have visited Eugene to experience the system.
“It’s proof of concept for them,” Schwetz said. “They’re seeing how it could fit in their community.”
The future of transit
I caught the EmX back to the downtown offices of Arcimoto, an electric vehicle manufacturer that launched its IPO about a month ago.
CEO Mark Frohnmayer is making futuristic looking electric tricycles. But, while eating a taco salad from the shop next door, Frohnmayer said he thinks the future of transit hinges on the old fashioned bus, not rail. The bus uses the same infrastructure as electric vehicles and bikes, and can adapt to the changing transit needs of the community.
Arcimoto CEO Mark Frohnmayer and his prototype electric tricycle
In his vision, Frohnmayer hopes people eventually will ride onto bus stations on (possibly self-driving) electric tricycles like the ones Arcimoto will soon begin to manufacture. There, a long distance, rapid bus will make infrequent stops at stations with more electric trikes for riding the last mile.
Born and raised in Eugene, Frohnmayer sees EmX as a progressive transit solution.
“It was certainly expensive,” he said. “But Eugene needs a transit solution in that corridor that runs from the end of West 11th through Springfield. That’s our center, where we should be encouraging density of development.”
I was running late for the bus back to Portland. Fortunately, I hitched a ride with Frohnmayer on an Arcimoto prototype.
The latest Arcimoto FUV (Fun Utility Vehicle) prototype
At the Amtrak station, the PA system blared.
“The Cascades train has been delayed,” the announcer said. “But if you’re just going to Portland, there’s still plenty of space on the 2:45 bus.”
Follow me next week as I journey to the Salem West Connector, an on-demand bus system.