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.

The original Community Line BRT plan included 3.3 miles of exclusive right-of-way on Pacific Avenue (SR 7), through Tacoma, Parkland, and Spanaway in Pierce County.

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.

The downscaled plan is deliverable on the project budget, but eliminates all the bus and BAT lanes.

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 downscaled BRT project could receive a Medium-Low overall project rating from the FTA; that would disqualify the project from $75 million in federal funds.

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.

The Stream BRT plan includes the Community Line (“BRT Route 1” above) and four additional proposed routes.

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.

The Enhanced Bus plan would add a limited-stop service which would not replace current Route 1. This service would save riders 11 to 14 minutes compared to the current Route 1, according to an unofficial estimate by Pierce Transit staff.

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.

26 Replies to “Pierce Transit Trying to Salvage BRT Project”

  1. As I have mentioned before, the solution to the budget blow-up (and also the the solution to at least 3 other things Pierce County claims, with minimal evidence, to want to solve) is blindingly obvious.

    Take. A. General. Purpose. Lane.

    1. I completely agree. Not only would that be good for transit, but it also makes the street easier to cross for pedestrians, and makes driving just slightly less convenient so maybe will attract some additional riders.

    2. Ah, highway 7 is controlled by the State . Just getting a stoplight and a pedestrian crossing proved to be impossible for the community……years before PT and ST started this stupid project.

      I’ve lived near Pacific Ave for decades. It is what it is. There’s no changing it ever. The clowns at Sound Transit should have known better.

    3. As you mentioned, the technical solution is pretty clear. What is the political solution? I believe that you have ties to the area – what do you think will take to get the decision makers to make it happen? Community organization, pressure from other candidates during the upcoming elections, voting new politicians into office, partnering with local businesses to provide united front? Something else?

      1. I don’t know the answer. to that. I’m doing what I can, both as a citizen, with comments and showing up to meetings, joining advocacy groups and otherwise. Meeting with planners, attempting to join commissions, partnering with Picture Pac Ave with a health impact assessment.


        Unfortunately, the city is not willing to push WSDOT or PT to reconsider the configuration between the curbs. They are focused only on the curb, out. Which I find very frustrating and borderline useless, obviously.

        WSDOT is committed to fulfilling their recent mandate to make state routes into complete streets, but I couldn’t get them to commit to anything on a project already in design.

        I haven’t gotten a good connection in PT planning yet to discuss this with.

        I am also dabbling in politics, but that is tricky, and not my strength. But I’m building connections.

      2. Thank you very much for the answer.

        I do not live in the specific area but I thought that anyone who does could potentially benefit from your insights. And thank you also for your engagement.

      3. That’s a good point about community organizing and businesses, though. I know someone who has done some community work in Parkland on safety. I should reach out. It’s pretty obvious that this road would need to change significantly if we were to have any hope of reaching both City and County Vision Zero objectives.

        Businesses might also be allies, because high speeds and taking parking rather than general purpose lanes is to their detriment. Whether they understand that is a different thing entirely.

        I need a staff. ;)

      4. They very likely wouldn’t see it right away, but the effort is still worth putting in, IMHO. It may not pay off right away but in the long run it can make the difference between next iteration of the project being successful or being opposed. And there may well be specific concerns worth taking into account (e.g. “Hey you don’t want a bus stop at this location, you want it over there because visibility is better and drivers won’t do stupid shit like mow pedestrians over in their attempt to get around the bus”) which can help advocate for the right things. That example is obviously contrived, of course – but it’s the sort of thing that’s cheap to listen to and try to incorporate and can help others become partners in the effort, rather than opponents.

        I really hope it pays off! And that you get some minions, of course ;)

    4. Unfortunately, the States ‘s 18th amendment makes taking a lane on SR7 essentially impossible. Transit isn’t a “highway purpose” (per litigation) so WSDOT cannot provide a GP lane without due compensation.

      1. Didn’t they take one on Pac Highway? That wasn’t the excuse I’ve heard. I’d love it ifvyou could provide some confirmatory evidence.

        Transit sure seems like the apitome of a highway use.

  2. Construction aside, where is the money to operate this BRT line once it’s built? If Sound Transit is only paying for construction and Pierce Transit needs to pay for operations, I don’t see how it will be possible to get any frequency benefits over the existing route 1. Already, Pierce Transit is stretched very thin and route 1 is pretty much the only route in their entire system with even halfway decent frequency. Ideally, take advantage of faster running times to leverage more frequency out of the existing buses and drivers allocated to the route, but if the bus lanes are axed and travel time doesn’t decrease, that doesn’t work anymore.
    Nor is it possible to redirect resources into the SR-7 BRT from other routes, as other routes are already cut to the bone; to cut anything more, you have to start doing really drastic stuff like ending service at 6 PM instead of 8 PM or reducing service from once an hour to once every two hours.

    Also, that detour into Tacoma Dome is going to be a huge time sink – whatever time existing riders of route 1 save by stop consolidation/off-board fare payment/etc. is going to be wiped out by the detour and then some. If Sound Transit is going to insist on running Link all the way to Tacoma, the least they can do is continue it to downtown Tacoma, replacing the Tacoma Link streetcar, rather than detour the bus.

    1. In theory, the BRT improvements would make the line faster and more reliable, both of which would allow PT to either provide more service with the same platform hours or free up platform hours elsewhere in its network.

      If the capital project fails to deliver a BRT quality line, then there is really no operational benefit.

  3. I guess if they stick with 5 lanes they could still have some partial bus lanes before the intersection itself (given the middle lane isn’t used besides near the intersection for left turns) and just shift general purpose lanes over a bit.

    Alternatively if they have more money i napkin measures on google maps it looks like from most of the sidewalk to other sidewalk width it’s around 63 feet wide so they could potentially remove some of the grass median without impacting property and add in a “real” bus lane in at least one direction whenever near intersections (bus priority lane)

  4. The post mentions potential planning mistakes. “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.”

    Why would not PT, ST, Tacoma, and WSDOT begin the project by knowing the ROW dimensions.

    Why to the planners thinks that the deviation to the TDS is worthwhile?

    1. Hey Eddie,

      Good questions. For the first one, it’s hard to tell from the outside what exactly went wrong. Two main things have been mentioned: roundabouts and median stations.

      From the Pierce BRT website, “As the project team worked to lay out the BRT block by block as planned (including with new requirements, such as roundabouts), the number of impacted properties has risen significantly, not only affecting local property owners, but significantly increasing costs.”

      I would direct you to this lane diagram from December 2020 (https://www.piercetransit.org/file_viewer.php?id=5019). Compare to page 3 in the slides in the July 10th presentation (https://www.piercetransit.org/file_viewer.php?id=6794). Notably, the roundabout is added, and there is a lot more needed property around the roundabout.

      But roundabouts came up early in the process. In the alternatives analysis from November 2019, they already planned for four roundabouts to be built. So it does not quite make sense to me which of the requirements were new, aside from having the roundabout at 96th St, instead of 76th St.

      Also mentioned in the July 10th presentation: “Large median stations with a wide project footprint do not fit within the existing constrained corridor environment.”

      Median lanes and stations were also always the plan for the majority of the exclusive right-of-way in the initial plans. So it is unclear what was unanticipated about how much space they would take.

      Nor is it the combination of roundabouts plus median stations that is the problem, because 96th St is the only place where those are found at one intersection. The ten remaining median station pairs are away from roundabouts.

      In other words, it’s not clear what exactly changed in the plans between then and now.

      The second question: it is part of the vision of BRT serving regional transportation, because it links to Sound Transit there. And it may be a requirement of the ST3 funding. Not sure at the moment.

      1. Where is the roundabout requirement coming from? Is that a transit improvement, or a city of Tacoma requirement?

  5. Do it right or don’t do it. Would be crazy to spend hundreds of millions and end up with the exact same thing as now.

    1. @poncho,

      Concur. At $100M per mile, for little more than an express bus, this is the kind of transit project that gives all transit projects a black eye.

      They just need to hit “CANCEL”. For the benefit of all

  6. I’m not particularly impressed with the residential density nor the attractiveness of the non-residential destinations on this corridor. I get how it’s a relatively popular route for PT, but the corridor is nowhere near the activity of KCM’s RapidRide corridors. There are a few good destinations like UWT, Fred Meyer and Walmart, but it feels like there isn’t enough to me.

    The overall price tag however is quite low, especially when there are about 64 stops (32 stops at two directions) . At $311M that’s only $5M per stop — and I’m assuming that new vehicles are a chunk of the project budget anyway.

    I went back a reread what ST3 promised. It promised merely
    “Bus capital enhancements for speed, reliability and convenience along Pacific Avenue/ SR 7.” (Aside: Is any stop not on Pacific Avenue/ SR 7 outside of ST3 funds eligibility?)

    So while I don’t see that upgrading the service and stops will attract more riders, I don’t see the funding burden to be that significant. It’s like buying a small $1 cookie for your kid as you pay for a $20 sheet cake (think TDLE) and a whole $10 apple pie (think Sounder South upgrades and garages) at the bakery.

    In general, I feel like Pierce should have had a better subarea expenditure plan before ST3 went for a vote. The missing discussion to me was never analyzing how the Pierce subarea would get the most value from the dollars coming from ST3 as a subarea expenditure package. To continue with the bakery analogy, the process was instead about as simple and rushed as asking a few elected officials what items sounded tastiest on the way to the store. The cost increases for TDLE are now approaching $1B alone, several times greater than this entire project — illustrating how that other project dwarfs the other Pierce ST3 expenditures.

    1. The Sixth Avenue portion of Route 1 gets greater ridership being it goes through a more urbanized area. PT didn’t want to open the can of worms that would have been required to acquire property and change street configurations along that stretch. Any other explanation is P.R. spin.

      They should just overlay an express version of Route 1 (including Sixth Avenue) with signal priority and call it a day.

    2. I have never ridden route 1. But I have driven the portion of the route south of SR-512 several times on the way to Mt. Rainier. In the time it takes to drive from one end to the other, I do see people waiting for and boarding the bus; even though the land use looks abysmal for transit, at least the bus runs in a straight line down the obvious arterial road, with no detours, and runs with decent’ish frequency. The line definitely does get ridden.

  7. The route is 14 miles long. It probably should have been funded as just a short segment of high quality transit in the most congested area with later extensions. Do we know of any high quality (urban non-freeway) BRT project that started with this much length? Disregarding higher than projected inflation, the $150million-ish orriginal ST3 estimate was never enough for 14 miles of high capacity transit.

    The choice to eschew left side bus doors was also strange. That meant every center running station had to be constructed twice with a separate station for northbound and southbound busses. With left side doors a single platform could serve both directions. Busses with doors on the left do cost more, so the savings may not have been significant, just kind of a head scratcher. The real challenge was how many miles were covered by a single project.

    1. The difference is, when they needed to take a general lane of traffic, they took a general lane of traffic. They didn’t try to take 300+ parcels of front yards, parking lots and houses. That’s inane.

      And Albuquerque is 5 times more of a car town than Tacoma. It took lanes of bloody route 66, for Edsel’s sake. We are clearly too timid to survive.

      1. Even Houston, of all cities, took lanes of general purpose traffic to make room for their light rail downtown. They did not resort to running the trains in mixed traffic or demolishing skyscrapers to widen the street.

  8. Stream BRT in Pierce is dead. MOBI is dead.

    “Enhanced bus service,” basically a commuter express route 1 in mixed traffic, just passed. The express (morning and evenings, limited stops, 20 minute frequency, terminates at Tacoma Dome) will be online in the spring of 2024.

    This is pretty disappointing. It wasn’t a great way to spend half a billion (with the new MOBI), but it was investment. This enhanced service was a service that they supplied 30 years ago, with a piece of cardboard in the window.


    Pacific Avenue Enhanced Bus Option

    -High-Capacity Transit Service Characteristics
    -Spanaway Transit Center to Tacoma Dome Station
    -Connections to local and regional services at east/west corridors
    -Timed Sounder connections
    -An addition to existing Route 1
    -Peak commute
    -commute-hour service – weekday mornings & afternoons
    -Stops at 14 major bus stops
    – saves 28 mins travel time RT
    -Uses existing bus stops; all will have shelters (2 require upgrade)
    -Utilizes existing 40 ft fleet
    -Completes Transit Signal Priority (TSP)
    -Target March 2024 service change to begin service

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