On July 10, the Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners gathered to examine a new plan for the Pacific Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, which would build the first line in Pierce County’s “Stream” BRT network. The hope was that this would be a workable solution to the financial problems that have been growing for the project. However, the transit benefit has been watered down in the new plan, and financial risks remain. Because of these problems, the project’s future looks uncertain.
The Pacific Avenue BRT project was initiated with funding from the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure. The project planned to add a BRT line, named the “Community Line,” on Pacific Ave (SR 7), with exclusive right-of-way, wider stop spacing, advance fare payment, level boarding, and other amenities. It would run with 10-minute frequency from Downtown Tacoma to Spanaway, with a deviation to serve Tacoma Dome Station.
However, the cost of the project expanded due to COVID-related delays, inflation, and planning mistakes. The initial concept planned for 3.3 miles of bus lanes and business-access-and-transit (BAT) lanes to be added to Pacific Avenue without reducing general-purpose lanes. But new lanes and stations turned out to require unplanned road widening, which would add major costs for buying neighboring land. Converting general-purpose lanes to bus lanes to avoid these costs never seemed to be on the table. By early 2023, the project estimate had increased to $311 million, a total that exceeded the available budget by over $100 million.
In May and June, project staff closed this funding gap by significantly reducing the scope of the project. The downscaled plans no longer add the bus or BAT lanes that would have allowed buses to bypass traffic. New station amenities would be cut to half the stops or fewer. While the plan offers options to add roundabouts or a four-block section of BAT lanes, both those are paltry in comparison to the original plan.
I could not find estimates for how much time the original plan would save transit riders. But considering the major and worsening congestion on this section of Pacific Avenue, the loss of exclusive lanes is damning to buses. All bus services depend on their right-of-way, and the congestion here will make any future bus service increasingly unreliable, slow, and expensive to operate. Since this is Pierce County’s most popular bus line, the loss of potential improvements is a blow to transit futures in the region.
The cuts to transit benefits also put the project’s federal funding at risk. The Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) grades projects based on a number of factors, including mobility improvements and environmental benefits, which have been negatively affected by the downscaling. The project must maintain a rating of Medium or better to receive the grant that has been earmarked for the project. Project staff believe that the downscaled plan would merit a Medium rating. But there is risk that it could fail to qualify, which would take away $75 million in federal funding. Citing financial risk and lack of transit upside, the Pierce Transit commissioners chose to defer a decision on the downscaled plan at the July 10 meeting.
The foundering state of Pierce County’s first BRT line is a disappointing turn for the area’s public transit. Not only would Pacific Avenue riders have less to look forward to, but the failure of this project would mean the loss of the first of five planned Stream BRT lines. One commissioner voiced his unwillingness to move forward with other Stream lines while the Community Line is on hold, citing equity concerns, even though other planned lines seem to also score well on equity measures. The delay in the Community Line may foreshadow an overall slowdown in Tacoma’s implementation of BRT.
Perhaps seeking to suggest a palatable transit improvement on Pacific Avenue, Pierce Transit presented an “Enhanced Bus” option that would provide a service similar to BRT without needing grant funds. This service would be a limited-stop bus with transit signal priority and would provide similar travel time improvements to the downgraded BRT project: savings of 11 to 14 minutes over a one-way trip. At the meeting, headways for the service were proposed to be between 10 and 20 minutes. The service would overlay and not replace Route 1. Preserving the local route reduces coverage gaps, maintaining access by riders with mobility impairments or who do not want to walk as far.
Going forward, the Pacific Avenue BRT project will await an updated rating from the FTA, which will clarify whether federal funding can be maintained. Pierce Transit CEO Mike Griffus described Enhanced Bus as a precursor to BRT on the corridor, not an alternative. However, he also specified that federal grants can only be earned once for a given corridor. If they proceed with the downscaled BRT project, they will not be able to get another federal grant to add transit improvements later. Given the commissioners’ disappointed reception to the downscaled plan, it seems possible they could delay the Community Line until some future time when a better transit project can be designed. WSDOT is planning a Complete Streets project for the coming years, and it was suggested that this could provide an opportunity for more meaningful transit or pedestrian improvements.
For the time being, it is important for Pierce Transit customers to know that the new limited-stop service could arrive on Pacific Avenue by the end of the year, according to Griffus. However, the Community Line seems to be on hold as commissioners decide whether the modest improvements of the downscaled BRT project are worth it.