Commuter Bus Priority For Vancouver, WA

In the wake of the Columbia River Crossing project abandonment, Clark County is at a crossroads. (Crossrivers?) For the western half of the county to continue growing it needs some amelioration to the daily standstill in the return commute and growing congestion in the morning.

Since Senators Benton and Rivers appear inadvertently to have given Portland exactly what it wanted but could not obtain during the negotiations for the CRC project design – no new general traffic capacity across the Columbia River – those of us living in Clark County are at a disadvantage. We need to bring something to the table which evinces a sincere belief that Portland CBD Express Bus and MAX-linked Bus Rapid Transit can divert a significant portion of new auto trips to transit before they will renew negotiations.

That describes the politics of the current situation fairly well. Senator Rivers and Representative Pike have been able to attract interest only from junior Republican officeholders in Oregon. The Democratic powers that be on that side of the river have as much as said, “You need to wait a decade while we work on our own transportation issues before we return to real negotiations.”
So Clark County needs to do something to alleviate the ever-lengthening snarls at the bridge by making transit more attractive. To prove we mean business, I have a suggested package of several things which could be done for a modest investment to give buses priority without removing existing general purpose capacity. I am fully aware that any proposal to convert lanes within Washington State is dead on arrival.

What I would like to propose is several specific “betterments” which would use the ramp lanes of I-5 on both sides of the river to provide bus “jumps”, paid for almost entirely by WSDOT and Clark County funds. Obviously, to do this we would have to get ODOT’s agreement, but as you will see, the projects are relatively benign for traffic flow on the Oregon side. On the Washington side there would be almost no penalty for general traffic at all, at least in the initial stages.

The Washington-side project can be done in stages, but the Oregon side projects should be done as a group or not at all.

The first stage Washington side project would add a new bus-only, camera- or gate-protected on-ramp which is connected to the middle (“SR14”) lane of Washington Street between the existing on-ramp from the left-hand lane and the cloverleaf from SR14. The ramp meter for SR14 would have to be moved back about three car lengths to accommodate the merge for the buses, but that’s a vanishingly trivial change given the length of the existing queues for the meter.

This ramp would give priority to routes 4, 44, 46, 47 and 105 at all times. If and when Fourth Plain BRT comes to Vancouver, route 4 would be replaced by the Delta Park shuttle.

However, the second stage of the project would be to add a pair of lighted signs above the second lane on Fifteenth Street between Main Street and Washington. It would be lighted during times of freeway congestion in the morning rush hour and would allow buses only to turn left onto Washington from the second lane of traffic. Since the right turn from the southbound Mill Plain off-ramp is “free” and both Fifteenth and Washington are synchronized one-way streets, the 134, 157, and 199 buses could deviate to the Fifth Street bus jump when congestion on the freeway is bad enough to warrant the detour.

Given the volume of residential construction in the I-5 catchment area I believe we can expect the morning commute to return to the levels of congestion typical before the third lane was added across the Vanport plain within no more than two or three years. The 99th Street TC buses often would exit at Main Street and travel the 71 route to Broadway and Mill Plain. They would typically turn left and use the Mill Plain southbound on-ramp, but the existence of the proposed bus jump at Fifth would mean they could turn right two blocks and follow the express route. That would avoid the sometimes long queues at the Mill Plain on-ramp.

The third and following stages on the Washington side of the river would be deferred until congestion throughout the corridor becomes such that even using the old Main Street bypass is of little benefit. It would first focus of by-passing the 99th Street southbound on-ramp by adding a new bus-only on-ramp just south of the northern exit from the bus loading area. It would also be camera- or gate-protected so that only buses could use it.

To improve the value of this ramp a fourth stage could be added at 39th Street. The southbound off-ramp to 39th takes a sharp curve immediately after it underpasses the street; this configuration was chosen because of the grades that would have been necessary to build a standard “diamond” interchange. However, the difference in elevation between the start of the curve and the southbound on-ramp just before it merges with the SR500 west to north flyover is only about eight feet. A bus-only camera- or gate-protected lane between them, and a ramp meter light for the 39th Street southbound on-ramp to stop vehicles when a bus comes, is entirely sound from an engineering standpoint. It would also put buses in the Fourth Plain/Mill Plain combined off-ramp.

And as a final portion of the project another short section of ramp between the southbound Fourth Plain off- and on-ramps could be added very inexpensively for buses only as shown below. These last two stages would only be completed if congestion returns to the epochal levels of the late 1990’s.

On the Oregon side the needed construction would consist of three “bridge lanes” between adjacent northbound on-ramps. Together they would extend the priority that now exists from northbound buses leaving Delta Park/Vanport all the way to the bridgehead.

They would not be cheap and the auto forces would probably squawk, but in fact the only adverse effect on auto traffic would be that cars would no longer be able to “cheat” the merge from Victory Boulevard. Because the on-ramp from the merge just north of the tunnel to the acceleration lane is effectively two lanes wide, often selfish drivers entering from Victory hug the jersey barrier between the on-ramp and the northbound Marine Drive off-ramp, passing cars which have completed the merge soon after the white point ends. Such drivers would be thwarted, because the existing single lane from Victory would be moved west a bit to force the merge earlier and a new right hand bus lane would begin in the widened break-down lane just to the east of the tunnel portal.

The bus lane would continue in the widened break-down lane until the difference in elevation between the Marine Drive off-ramp and the Victory Boulevard on-ramp has disappeared. At that point the jersey barriers between the ramp would be breached and a new bus-only lane between the two ramps would appear. The northbound Marine Drive off-ramp would probably have to be moved over six or so feet to accommodate this new lane, which would be separated from the off-ramp for a few hundred more feet. After an appropriate distance the jersey barrier on the I-5 side would begin again and at the same point the Jersey barrier between the off-ramp and the new bus lane would cease, to allow buses taking the Marine Drive off-ramp to transfer to the bus lane.

Then, about the point at which the lane for eastbound MLK and Marine Drive branches off, a Jersey barrier between the off-ramp to westbound Marine Drive and the new bus lane would begin. When the westbound Marine Drive off-ramp swings to the east to belly under the freeway, the new bus lane would go straight to a junction with the northbound Marine Drive on-ramp, just a few yards beyond the ramp meters lights, which would have to be moved back about five yards or so. The lights would be red when a bus approached.

The same sort of off-ramp-to-on-ramp slip would also happen between the northbound Hayden Island off- and on-ramps as shown below. Again, the ramp meters would have to be moved “upstream” a few yards.

The final element of the project would likely be the most controversial: the HOV lane in North Portland would move from the center lane to the right lane so that buses could easily exit from the main freeway at the northbound Marine Drive exit in order to access the slip ramps. This would probably slow the HOV lane marginally because cars using the ramps would have to be allowed in it through the off-ramp transition zones. There might be more “cheating”, though if the buses carried cameras as they do in San Francisco and photographed any car directly in front of the bus for proof of another occupant, the deterrent effect might eliminate cheating.

In any case, I believe that any delay would be more than made up in bypassing the mess around Marine Drive where the HOV lanes abruptly.

I believe that this set of projects, if fully implemented and supported by additional bus runs would divert enough riders to transit that the existing bridges would again become tolerable, at least for the decade and a half it will take to agree to a new design and realize it. And of course, with the exception of the Fifth Street bus ramp and the slip ramp on Hayden Island, both relatively inexpensive improvements, they’ll be permanent enhancements to transit in Clark County.

P.S.  This post was to have had maps illustrating the links proposed, but apparently STB has very reasonably disabled the Add Media button.  I hope that the text is clear enough so that when you look at Google Maps or Mapquest you can evaluate the proposed changes.