Light rail, as Pierce County is well aware, is expensive and time-consuming to build. So are street cars and heavy rail.
But one of the county's busiest transit routes is badly in need of a revamp so that it can more efficiently serve its riders with more frequent — and faster — trips. That's going to be even more true as Pierce County's population continues to grow across the next two decades.
With that in mind, Pierce Transit is looking at adding bus rapid transit along 14.4 miles of Pacific Avenue as a way to add capacity and soothe congestion while making trips quicker and more reliable.
Bus rapid transit is basically modernized, express bus service. The rides have fewer stops and run more frequently. The stations have countdown clocks and level boarding so it's easier for people with wheelchairs and bicycles to board. Stations also have kiosks where passengers can buy tickets, and fares are prepaid so riders aren't delayed while boarding. Buses get some degree of traffic signal priority, and in some cases, they drive in exclusive travel lanes.
All these things make the service faster, said Pierce Transit spokeswoman Rebecca Japhet. Bus rapid transit also comes at a fraction of the price of light rail or other transit options.
"We went through a pretty extensive process to gather public feedback about what people thought would be best in the corridor based on cost and features, and really it's very clear that the preferred method people wanted is bus rapid transit," Japhet said recently.
"It's quite a bit cheaper and faster to get in place than the other options. Light rail cost up to $200 million a mile; this is about $10 million a mile."
The project is far from a done deal. The Pierce Transit board still has to approve the project this summer, Japhet said. If it does, it then needs to decide on the details, including lane configurations, where the bus runs within the roadway in each segment of the corridor and station locations. The board also would need to decide where along that stretch the buses would have exclusive lanes — most likely in places with high congestion, like around the interchange with state Route 512.
"The plans currently outlined in the feasibility study don't call for the removal of any general purpose lanes on the corridor, so that's important for people to know," Japhet said.
Half of the $150 million project is slated to come from federal grant funding, which hasn't been secured. Japhet said Pierce Transit will apply for Federal Transit Administration grant money later this year.
The other half of the funding is coming from local sources: $60 million was set out for the project in Sound Transit 3, which voters approved in November 2016. Another $15 million is coming from the state.
Pierce Transit board member and county Councilman Rick Talbert said he's excited about the project and about the potential for economic development along that stretch of Pacific Avenue once it's up and running.
He also said the faster, more modern bus rapid transit service has a different psychological appeal that could lure new ridership to public transit.
"... obviously the cost is a large commitment of tax dollars, both federal, local and state ... but I think it's safe to say the board is excited about this new line of service," Talbert said. "Bus rapid transit has a physical feel that's different than traditional bus services that bring along with it the certainty of its existence, which then leads to transit-oriented development and commercial opportunities up and down the corridor."
That 14.4-mile portion of Pierce Transit Route 1 currently sees an average of 3,425 trips each weekday, Japhet said, and buses are often cramped. Bus rapid transit would bring bigger, articulated buses that hold about 100 passengers and would arrive every 10 minutes during most of the day, she said.
If everything is approved and federal funding is secured, Pierce Transit would start construction on the stations and transit lanes in 2020, with the goal of having bus rapid transit operational by fall 2022. Fares would probably be about the same as they are for local fixed route bus fares.
With faster, more reliable service, Pierce Transit expects that ridership on that route would increase, which could lead to fewer cars on that congested thoroughfare. When Vancouver implemented its bus rapid transit service, called Vine, transit ridership jumped 45 percent in one year, Japhet said.
"Based on what other communities have experienced," she said," we are confident there will be an increase."
Typically, Japhet said, bus rapid transit systems run between 15 and 30 percent faster than the local fixed route. The current fixed route takes as long as 55 minutes to ride from Spanaway to downtown Tacoma, she said.
Pierce County Councilman Jim McCune, whose council district includes Spanaway, said he wants to study the project further but is worried about potential impacts to traffic on that busy stretch of Pacific Avenue. He also wants to make sure parking is provided at the stations.
"If it would go into my area, I do not want to disrupt the traffic that is existing there," McCune said. "If they take lanes away, it's going to jam the traffic — we've already got enough traffic coming up the corridors."
Pierce Transit is still in the middle of a two-year study on the project. Those who want updates on the project can sign up at https://www.piercetransit.org/stayconnected/. If you want to send Pierce Transit your feedback, email firstname.lastname@example.org.