Sunday, October 9, 2011


EmX Agate Station (photo by Diderot's dreams via Wikipedia)

I’ve pretty much steered clear of the rancorous debate surrounding Lane Transit District’s proposed west Eugene extension of the EmX bus rapid transit system. It’s my natural tendency to avoid confrontation and conflict. The issues surrounding the project are complex, divisive, and not without costs. Not surprisingly, groups on all sides have politicized the West Eugene EmX Extension (WEEE) discussion. My comfort realm most definitely does not include politics.(1)

As a profession, architects are far from a predictable, homogenous bloc. We don’t always share the same opinions. On the other hand, we are by definition visionaries and as such are inclined toward imagining the future consequences of our decisions. We tend to be progressive rather than reactionary.

Most local design professionals believe resolution of the WEEE question will be a decisive turning point in efforts to improve our community’s livability. It’s clear that Eugene is at a watershed moment. Many of us feel we can no longer sit idly by.

AIA-Southwestern Oregon president Paul Dustrud, AIA, recently expressed his support for the West Eugene EmX Extension in a letter to the Register-Guard editor’s mailbag:

EmX line would help west Eugene
The recent news of a potential U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital with an option for a site in west Eugene brings a little hope.

The Willow Creek area has for years been a planned location for bio-tech, high-tech and clean industry. Along that line of thinking, a modern, efficient transportation system to service the area would be far superior to the notion of more gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing buses.

The opposition to Lane Transit District’s west Eugene EmX extension is odd. It seems to come from a very small but vocal minority who presume to speak for the rest of Eugene.

They appear to oppose growth, which would actually benefit them. There is no logic to their position — but hey, I live here, too.

As a citizen of Eugene I would like to see more jobs in Eugene. I would welcome almost any mechanism that would entice some new businesses to locate in west Eugene, especially if it meant people could get there and back each day with minimal time and trouble.

All the EmX projects built so far have improved the traffic corridors they serve; therefore, the effort to keep West 11th Avenue a clogged, aesthetically challenged gantlet seems medieval.

Paul Dustrud

Paul spoke on behalf of himself, not AIA-SWO, doing so in his characteristically plain-spoken way. As he concisely argued, Eugene’s continued growth and economic vitality will in part rely upon mitigation of worsening traffic congestion.(2)

Eric Gunderson, AIA also sees the economic benefit of adding the west Eugene EmX extension:

"Development thrives on transit. Property values are higher, restaurant seats fuller and rentals are occupied when near bus and train routes. Transit serves the corner grocery store, the café and the school. If we value vibrant neighborhoods, then EmX is a worthy investment."

Eric is a principal with PIVOT Architecture, which stands to directly benefit from the ongoing expansion of EmX.(3) Nevertheless, his assertion that an investment in rapid transit spurs development rings true. Transit advocates cite examples in many other cities of desirable outcomes nurtured by a public investment in light rail or BRT. It will only be a matter of time before Eugene/Springfield experiences a similar effect.

For the record, I too support Lane Transit District’s goal of a comprehensive bus rapid transit system within its service area. The WEEE is a necessary part of this system and essential to its expansion into the metro region’s main transportation arteries. Each new segment incrementally raises the effectiveness of the entire network.
Transit "cred:" my LTD annual pass

The Brazilian city of Curitba provided the blueprint for bus rapid transit systems worldwide. Like EmX, Curitiba’s pioneering BRT offers many of the same benefits as light rail at a fraction of the cost. It is made up of sections of dedicated bus lanes for most of the route, with normal roads in between. The vehicles are given signal priority via ground-loop signaling to the traffic control system, with special traffic signals at intersections. LTD ultimately hopes to emulate Curitba’s success and build numerous extensions to EmX in the years to come. The WEEE is a logical next step and the funding is all but assured.

The reasons to support investment in mass public transit are well-documented but are worth repeating here:
  • Public transportation provides personal mobility and freedom for people from every walk of life.
  • Access to public transportation gives people transportation options to get to work, go to school, visit friends, or go to a doctor’s office.
  • Public transportation provides access to job opportunities for millions of Americans.
  • The average household spends 18 cents of every dollar on transportation, and 94% of this goes to buying, maintaining, and operating cars, the largest expenditure after housing.
  • Public transportation provides an affordable, and for many, necessary, alternative to driving.
  • Households that are likely to use public transportation on a given day save more than $10,000 every year.
  • A single commuter switching his or her commute to public transportation can reduce a household’s carbon emissions by 10%, or up to 30% if he or she eliminates a second car. When compared to other household actions that limit CO, taking public transportation can be 10 times greater in reducing this harmful greenhouse gas.
Source: American Public Transit Association

LTD’s creation of a comprehensive EmX system is also central to the Eugene and Springfield city governments’ broader strategy of managing future growth and fostering transit-oriented development (TOD). The hoped-for results are decreased vehicle miles traveled, greater use of public transit, improved environmental quality, reduced sprawl, preserved open space, and development of mixed-use nodes where people live, work, shop, and play.

"No Build" sign in front of a West 11th Avenue business (photo from the website Our Money Our Transit)

A “No Build” movement to kill the West Eugene EmX Extension project emerged once it was clear that LTD intended to develop it as the system’s next segment. Initially, the resistance to the project was founded upon understandable fears about destructive impacts to businesses along the route. These include disruptions during construction and permanently dedicating parts of the roadway and adjoining private property to the EmX right-of-way. The concerns about adverse effects upon businesses remain; however, they have been co-opted by Tea Party acolytes, who regard the No Build campaign as part of their greater anti-government and property rights crusade. The WEEE is a convenient rallying point for those already predisposed to distrust of central planning in any form.

The No Build supporters can recite a litany of grievances. These include the aforementioned adverse impacts upon affected property owners. Others are that the earmarked federal funds should be dedicated to more worthy projects, greater numbers of conventional buses are less expensive to operate, and increased reliance upon EmX will result in cuts to existing system routes. Eugene Weekly reporter Alan Pittman fact-checked these negative claims in a feature article last November. The bottom line is that the validity of several assertions by the No Build campaign is open to question.(4)

WEEE alternatives; the 6th & 7th Avenue alignment (left) is the plan that will move forward (source: LTD)

A true BRT system is most efficient using dedicated lanes throughout. In its attempt to mitigate the project’s impacts and mollify its critics, LTD is proposing an ad-hoc arrangement of dedicated and mixed-traffic lanes. My fear is that LTD will be unable to construct a truly effective WEEE route in the face of determined opposition by the No Build campaign. If that is the outcome, nobody will have “won.” Ultimately, it all boils down to whether LTD can overcome the stridency of the NIMBY and No Build factions and secure the popular and political support necessary to ensure the success of the project.

I want to see a perfect EmX system, one that is wildly successful, with fast and frequent service throughout the metro area. A 21st century transit network would greatly enhance the prospects for achieving the utopian vision of compact, less car-reliant, sustainable cities. It’s easy for me to wish for an unencumbered WEEE—I don’t operate a business along one of the impacted corridors. I want our community to share this vision but I’m not so naive to think that all of us are alike or confront the same problems. Life just isn’t that simple.

What comes simply is the decision to be proactive. I need to step out of my comfort realm and become an advocate. I can throw my support behind the West Eugene EmX Extension project. If you are like-minded, I encourage you to do the same. Let’s not look back twenty years from now and lament missing an opportunity to demonstrate much-needed leadership.

(1) I did attend one of the public hearings regarding the project last winter to register my support for the west Eugene extension.

(2) Paul’s letter to the R-G prompted this blog post.

(3) PIVOT designed the majority of the stations along the first two legs of EmX.

(4) I am not a huge fan of Alan Pittman’s reporting. I believe he’s betrayed a tendency to confabulate and twist facts in the service of his personal agenda. In this instance though it’s difficult to imagine he has misrepresented LTD’s response to the No Build claims.


mrs random said...

I want a big "BUILD!" sign, myself.

Anonymous said...

The opposition is NOT the tea party, nor are they anti-transit.

I believe you are right about LTD mitigating the project to the point that it will resemble our current system. A true BRT system, by definition, requires exclusive dedicated bus lanes. There just isn't the room in West Eugene, without major constuction.

The EmX works great in Springfield because there was room for the bus lanes. This is probably why it is much more contested in West Eugene.