Separate Ways

Jefferson Westside advocacy group butts heads with LTD
By: Sawley Vickrey

Ding. Ding.  “Dads’ Gates Station,” a monotone, robotic male voice says through the speakers.  The hum of the EmX hybrid-powered bus comes back to the forefront for a moment.  And then, “Doors open on the left,” the same voice says.  “Las puertas se abren a la izquierda,” a slightly-peppier woman’s voice says in Spanish.  The bus slows to a halt.  The left-side doors open, just as the robot man said they would.  It’s just after 4 p.m.  Those waiting on the crowded station platform spill onto the bus and pack the aisle.

EmX is a bus rapid transit system ran by Lane Transit District in Eugene and Springfield.  It operates in addition to the standard bus system, but its purpose is more direct and expedient transportation.  LTD plans to extend EmX to west Eugene in the near future. But first, one group wants to make sure its voice is heard.

Residents for Responsible Rapid Transit, or 3RT, a community advocacy group with roots in the Jefferson Westside neighborhood, has been at odds with LTD over a proposed extension of its bus rapid transit EmX line to west Eugene.

The relationship has been so rocky that some individuals of one organization speak with a tinge of annoyance or roll their eyes with the mention of the other. The not-so-perfect relationship has become what it is through time.  To understand it, one can only look at its history.

EmX’s role in Eugene

One of 3RT’s arguments is that bus rapid transit shouldn’t be in Eugene.  The group claims that it is meant for places with larger population centers than Eugene.  Curitiba, Brazil, whose Rede Integrada de Transporte bus rapid transit system helped mold LTD’s EmX concept, has a population of over 1.5 million.

Despite that difference, creating less congestion on the roads and reasonable travel times for public transportation are some of the goals paramount to LTD with EmX.  LTD sees problems with its regular buses getting stuck in traffic, in addition to making frequent stops.  Riders see cars moving faster than the bus.  Riders grow frustrated.  Riders stop taking the bus.  Its solution is EmX.

“We really need to make public transportation competitive with the vehicle,” says Cosette Rees, an LTD public relations specialist.  “[EmX] does that.  This accomplishes that.  And over time, it can make public transportation, to some extent, more attractive.”

Yet an EmX extension into west Eugene is something that 3RT doesn’t think is completely necessary.  Anthony Rosta, one of 3RT’s founding members, even doubts the west Eugene EmX line can sustain the same amount of ridership as the Green Line between Eugene and Springfield, which saw an average daily ridership of 6,000 last month.  But if it has to be done, 3RT wants it done properly.  “Do it right…or not at all!” its Web site proclaims.

“It’s federal tax money that we pay, so we don’t want to see it squandered because it is a very expensive project,” Rosta says.

Expensive, indeed.  LTD estimates that the western extension will run anywhere from $75 million to $100 million.  “In transportation, distance means time, which means money.  The shorter the distance you can do, the better off you are in terms of building a project,” says Tom Schwetz, LTD’s Director of Planning and Development.

The final route is still to be determined.

A glimpse into the future

Clearly, the final number that the check will read is going to depend on what final route alignment is decided.  That will be a joint decision among the Metropolitan Policy Committee, the Eugene City Council and the LTD Board of Directors later this year.

“What is our job, as far as public involvement goes, is to make sure the documents and the information are accessible to the public and that the public has an opportunity to understand them and to provide feedback to us. And our job beyond that is to provide that feedback to the decision makers.” Rees says.

The ultimate plan for LTD is 61 miles of EmX around the Eugene-Springfield area.  The Green Line was the first phase in this project, the soon-to-be-opened Gateway line in Springfield is the second, and the west Eugene line is set to the be the third.  But the rest is all part of the future.

That’s a future that Rosta doesn’t really see far into:  “I don’t think this system is even a 10 year value.”

That’s something else that LTD, naturally, begs to differ.

‘Obstructions to their process’

LTD says it tries to be very inclusive and transparent with the community, holding neighborhood workshops during the planning stages.  Rosta, who’s also a Jefferson Westside Neighbors Executive Board member, attended many of these workshops and has unfavorable memories from them.  He remembers what he considers empty answers to questions.  “We don’t know,” and, “We’re working on it,” are two answers he recalls.  Frustrations grew.

According to Rosta, 3RT and others at these workshops wondered why LTD couldn’t answer their simple questions, questions that would decide whether this project was worth investing in.  “Where are you going to run this?” “How many cars will it take off the road?”

Rosta says that at one workshop, LTD unveiled a new option for the route, one that even 3RT didn’t see coming.  Frustrations grew even more.  “It would seem like they hadn’t put a lot of thought into it, and they just put a line on paper and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” Rosta says.

LTD posits that’s the point of these workshops.  “It’s very important in the process, if we’re going to make a good decision, to make sure the public understands what it is that’s out there and that, if we’re going to make a decision, they need to provide input,” Schwetz says.

Rosta doesn’t buy it.  “I think they consider us obstructions to their process,” he says.  “They claim they want our input, but I’m personally not convinced they take heed of our input unless we make enough noise that we can affect the decision.”

‘A three-way win’

One central element of difference stems from the 3RT’s disagreement over environmental impacts created by the project, especially with LTD’s alternative option to construct the line along West 13th Avenue, leading into the Amazon Channel area between Oak Patch Road and City View Street.  Other potential locations for the EmX route include a West Sixth and West Seventh avenues pairing, West Seventh Place and West 11th Avenue west of Garfield Street.  (See below for a map of all alternatives.)

“We believe LTD would rather run it in the Amazon Channel area,” Rosta says.

The National Environment Policy Act requires LTD to provide analysis and reveal effects of all options under consideration in an Environmental Impact Statement, which the public will be able to comment on.  LTD is enlisting the help of several others during this process, including the Federal Transit Administration, the Lane Council of Governments, the city of Eugene and committees composed of community members.

“It’s certainly not LTD doing it by ourselves,” Rees says.

In fact, one of LTD’s current options along the Amazon was proposed by a desperate business owner who saw the potential of LTD taking property from business owners in the area.  The proposal involved moving the channel’s alignment to the south, which means the affected business owners would get to keep their property.  LTD  thought it would be an immense undertaking but still ran the idea by the city of Eugene.

The city, which now manages the channel for the United States Army Corps of Engineers, who constructed it in the 1950s, already had desires to enhance the Amazon Channel and give it more environmental value.  The city liked LTD’s proposal, which slightly shifts the channel’s alignment into unused adjacent land to the south of the existing configuration.  One problem: The city doesn’t have the funds to initiate such an exhaustive task.  LTD then came up with the offer of helping the city move the channel as part of its EmX project.

But not so fast.  Nothing has yet been set in stone, or pavement, for that matter.  This alternative, known as the “Amazon Restoration Alternative,” would be ideal, according to LTD, if a route along the Amazon is ultimately chosen.

“There’s kind of a three-way win because we get our space to run our EmX buses, and the businesses get to keep all their property, and the city gets to do its thing,” Schwetz says as he looks at satellite image of the area with plans digitally etched in.

The other option is straightforward: No moving of the channel. No keeping of property for the businesses.  LTD’s construction of a route would take place on the northern bank of the existing channel alignment.  Aqua Serene, Cole’s Furniture, Auto Craft: all would be adversely affected to some degree by this option.

Conflicting expectations

Ilona Koleszar, a member of 3RT, thinks an EmX line along the Amazon is detrimental to the environmental surroundings.  She wrote an opinion piece on behalf of 3RT for the January edition of the Jefferson Westside Neighbors newsletter.  She suggests that an EmX line would minimize the riparian habitat and strike animals with buses.  She adds that wastes and harmful materials from EmX buses will “accumulate and run down into the Amazon Creek.”

LTD has a different point of view.  Depending on the option chosen, LTD believes it can actually improve water quality in the channel.  The Amazon Restoration Alternative allows the channel’s banks to be dropped down to a less steep 12-to-one angle.  This allows for the water to be more spread out and can lead to the creation of a braided channel.

“That slows the water down and provides opportunities to cool the water,” Schwetz says.  “Those are the water quality elements.  It allows you to kind of clean the water as it flows through into the reservoir.”  Schwetz also adds that braiding can allow for an extensive riparian environment to develop.  Nonetheless, it seems like the Amazon Restoration Alternative would be an arduous effort.

“It doesn’t seem to us that they’re very concerned about how hard it will be.  They just want to do it,” Rosta says about constructing the route along the Amazon.

The art of persuasion

In order to get to the route along the Amazon Channel, LTD would have to use a route on West 13th Avenue east of Garfield Street, another option under consideration that 3RT isn’t pleased with.  Jefferson Westside Neighbors, along with the boards of Far West and Whiteaker neighborhoods, have also officially shared their disapproval of an EmX route on West 13th, according to Rosta.  3RT crafted its own concepts for the project.

“We came up with the idea that why not run it on Sixth and Seventh,” Rosta says.  “Sixth and Seventh are pretty dedicated to transportation anyway.”

LTD, however, wasn’t immediately thrilled with the notion, according to Rosta.  He says LTD didn’t think those streets would take the buses to where it wanted them to go.  He insisted to LTD that, if it ultimately wants to reach W. 11th, it can still do so by using Seventh Place.

3RT made its case well enough that the Sixth and Seventh avenues pairing to Seventh Place is one potential option for the final line.  Sixth and Seventh also have the possibility of connecting directly to a route on West 11th via Garfield Street.

The group was also very vocal about its dissatisfaction with LTD’s original proposition of running EmX on West 11th east of Garfield.  LTD again listened to the outcry by removing that segment of West 11th from consideration, demonstrating 3RT’s persuasive competence.

The doors close, and that familiar hum builds up as the bus sets out on its way.  Those who can find empty seats do so, while the rest take up space in the aisle.  Some gaze out the window.  Some sit quietly.  Some listen to an iPod.  Some sleep.  They’re all heading westward, toward Eugene Station.  It’s very likely that won’t be the EmX line’s last stop in the future.  But the question at the forefront is, which streets will ultimately hear that bus engine hum?

————–

A map of possible route options for the west Eugene EmX line.

From LTD.org. Click to enlarge (PDF)

3RT is not in favor of the Amazon Channel and West 13th Avenue options.  East of Garfield, it prefers the Sixth and Seventh avenues pairing.

SIDEBAR #1:

Notable events in EmX history

July 2003 – Groundbreaking takes place for the new LTD Springfield Station at Fifth and South A streets.  The Springfield Station is currently one of two terminus stations of the EmX “Green Line.”

July 2004 – Groundbreaking takes place on Franklin Boulevard in Eugene for the EmX line.

June 2005 – Construction of EmX Green Line along 11th Avenue begins.  At this time, the projected opening of the line is for fall 2006.

June 2006 – Bus manufacturer New Flyer in Winnipeg, Manitoba averts a strike by its workers.

July 2006 – Workers at New Flyer begin construction of six hybrid, 60-foot-long buses that will become EmX’s initial fleet.

September 2006 – LTD receives $5.4 million from the Oregon Department of Transportation.  This contribution will go toward the estimated $38 million cost of the future Pioneer Parkway EmX line in Springfield.

December 2006 – LTD holds training runs that teaches those with disabilities how to ride EmX.

January 2007 – EmX “Green Line” begins service.

May 2007 – Federal Transit Administration supplies $30 million to LTD for the Pioneer Parkway EmX line.

August 2007 – 17 people appointed to a West EmX subcommittee that will consult LTD on where and how to construct the line.

October 2007 – EmX sees a then-record of 6,189 riders on Halloween.

January 2008 – EmX “Green Line” wins the 2008 “sustainable transportation honorable mention” from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, based in New York City.  EmX was the only service in the United States honored.

March 2008 – An LTD board unanimously removes the West 11th Avenue option from its list of potential routes for EmX expansion into West Eugene.

February 2009 – LTD announces plans to cut down 286 trees along the future Pioneer Parkway-Gateway EmX line in Springfield as part of construction.

Summer 2010 – Draft Environmental Impact statement about western expansion of EmX becomes available for a 60-day public comment period.

Late 2010 – Metropolitan Policy Committee Eugene City Council and LTD board selects the preferred route for the West Eugene EmX line.

2011-12 (estimated) – LTD designs the route for the West Eugene EmX extension line.

2013-14 (estimated) – Construction takes place for the West Eugene EmX extension line.

2015 (estimated) – The route begins service.

SIDEBAR #2:

Photos of EmX and Amazon Channel area between Oak Patch Road and City View Street (click to enlarge).

About Sawley

Tortured but loyal fan of the Golden State Warriors, Oakland Raiders, Oakland A's, San Jose Sharks, Oregon Ducks and Chelsea FC. Life's easier with the R. Kelly Pandora station.
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