Wednesday, February 24, 2016

New Regional Transit Plan at Cherriots Board Thursday

On Thursday the 25th Jarrett Walker & Associates will present recommendations for the regional network to the Cherriots Board. This phase focuses on interurban transportation.

Detail of Regional Commute Shed; red note on Dallas added
But once again, by design or by accident, the analysis completely omits the biggest factor of all: The Proposed Third Bridge. (And in fact, text search of the study yields zero instances of the word "bridge" or "crossing"!*)

The latest study is for regional transit
What are the Proper Aims and Scope Here?

You may remember the first part of the service analysis when it was released during the summer of 2014. It was about urban service inside the Urban Growth Boundary, It didn't talk very much about the bridges or the Salem River Crossing, and that seemed like a huge, huge lacuna.

So here we are in its complement, a Regional Transit Plan for interurban transit outside of Salem's Urban Growth Boundary; and between Cherriots and the Consultants, the Salem River Crossing is not seen again to merit any discussion.

Two generations ago we were talking about the bridge...
The concept of the bridge has been around since at least the 1960s and we are hardly any closer to an actual plan for it. Even if the stars for the bridge were to align suddenly, its completion would be a generation off into the future. It's a long-term thing.

The Cherriots studies are short- and medium-term things, and the most substantial piece is a set of recommendations for immediate implementation.

So sure, that's a mismatch in planning horizons, and maybe you will say that it's wholly proper to ignore the long-term implications of a river crossing that remains quite hypothetical at the moment. You can't discuss everything, of course. A timely note on Walker's own blog addresses this. Though it was occasioned by a recent announcement in Brooklyn, it is relevant for most any plan.
We planners spend a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what to be specific about, and what can be left vague for now. Not out of any desire to mislead, but because it’s impossible to talk about all the details at once, and far too expensive to study them all at an early stage. We rely instead on our professional instincts: Which details are most likely to erupt into a problem — technical or political — down the line? Which other details can be noted and honored but left to a later phase to refine? These are some of the hardest calls that planners make.
The primary structural elements the study here did engage seem to be two-fold:
  • Tension in purpose between providing social services and commuting. CARTS arose in the 1980s as "a transportation service for elderly and disabled people," but now Cherriots operates it as a transit system and "There is a conflict between this social purpose of transit and the potential to maximize ridership on transit." The funding streams are also implicated in this conflict.
  • Tension in governance. "the [Cherriots] Board, which is the decision-making body for this network, is elected from districts entirely within the Salem-Keizer urban area."
But from here, there should be a third element, and whether the responsibility is with the initial directions and scope provided by Cherriots to Walker & Associates, or the decision is a "hard call that planners make," silence on the proposed Salem River Crossing seems like a big mistake.

At the very least, it is tacit approval that should be made explicit. Even when we silently assume that a bridge will be built, that is a policy choice and direction. More broadly, if the transit agency is at all serious about reducing drive-alone trips, it should discuss in more detail how its activities fit or do not fit with the larger regional goal for the Salem River Crossing. It should at least be referenced.

One Year: Whole bus system less than bridge debt service
from the Audit
The cost alone demands this. The audit of Cherriots the board will also be seeing at the meeting shows operating expenses of just under $40 million a year. Even though we know it's based on a big underestimate, the current sketch of a funding plan for the Salem River Crossing calls for debt service of about $45 million a year. A year of our whole bus system costs less than a year of bridge debt service would cost!

The Salem River Crossing dwarfs Cherriots! It's a big deal.

So whether we are talking magnitude of total budget, or climate change, or local transportation and land-use planning - from whatever angle you please, it seems like a giant mistake to be silent the Salem River Crossing. I just don't understand how it is possible to avoid it while making serious analytical statements about other things. That is an analytical renunciation that makes no sense and harms strategic planning in the Salem-Keizer area.

Bridge Crossings from the West Side outside of Salem

So, back to the particulars of the study. It turns out that a substantial chunk of bridge traffic originates in the area around Dallas (diagram at top).

Without drilling very far at all into the analysis, Dallas apparently presents some real problems, and service to Dallas represents a big trade-off in the proposed network:
[I]f someday the transfer at Rickreall can be made comfortable and reliable, or if 2X buses can turn off of Highway 22 safely, Dallas could have much more service to Salem than it does under this recommendation
From the final network recommendations:
Thus the final [recommended] network does not include this type of connection [requiring a transfer in Rickreall] between Dallas and Salem (and did not make use of the existing investment in 2X service).

Unfortunately, this means that Dallas has only two direct trips a day to its biggest destination (Salem-Keizer) and six trips a day to a less-important destination (Monmouth-Independence).
So it's important to recognize that it does not seem possible to "flip a switch" and improve service to Dallas in a simple way. There is little or no low-hanging fruit here. (Monmouth-Independence appears to get a small uptick from either five to six, or six to seven trips a day. It looked like maybe an inconsistency, but it's not important to straighten that out at the moment.)

But what is missing is how this level of service, or any changes to it, fits into a larger regional strategy of mobility that includes planning for (or trying to avoid) a very costly giant bridge and highway.

Investing in better service for Dallas has to be cheaper than investing in a giant bridge and highway! And in fact increasing "service frequency on the CARTS routes between downtown Salem and Rickreall, Monmouth, Dallas, and Independence" was a recommendation from the Salem River Crossing Alternate Modes Study.

Presumably the consultants here are only doing what Cherriots asks them to do. So as long as Cherriots insists on supporting the insanity of the giant bridge and highway, they are going to entrench path dependence on an eventual bridge: The more we starve transit to Dallas today, the more a "need" for the bridge will seem natural and inevitable in the future.

Even if under current funding it is not possible to expand service to Dallas, bridge crossing is a huge context for this analysis and it should have a place. We should be making decisions today with explicit reference to the prospect of a bridge - either to forestall or eliminate it, on the one hand, or to support it outright on the other.

Of course there is much more in the study, and the criticism here is an instance of cherry-picking. It may be that in every other way the study is wonderful. (Regional transit is not at all the focus here, so I am agnostic about the rest. I just want to pick at this one detail, it's true. But it's a big detail!)

Between Jarrett Walker & Associates and Cherriots, our local transit agency has failed us badly. Not to include analysis of the Salem River Crossing as part of the context is an implied endorsement and choice for the Salem River Crossing. Both regional climate change goals and regional funding environments require that we look for more effective alternatives and less costly alternatives. So of course the belief here is that we should seek ways to forestall or eliminate the "need" for a giant bridge and highway. Even if an analytical piece including the Salem River Crossing makes no actual difference in the concrete short-term recommendations for service realignment, it should totally inform and shape medium- and longer-term recommendations and strategy.

It's just depressing and frustrating to see our transit agency so in thrall to autoism and the Salem River Crossing.

Other Items

The free pilot period for the West Salem Connector on-demand service ended last year, and with fares in place since December 1st, ridership has gone down from the peak in early fall.

Since Nov, it's below goal of 45 boardings/day
Whether it's service in Dallas or service in the hills of West Salem, until we stop subsidizing drive-alone trips with free parking and no tolls, transit may not be perceived as a very good deal.

The Salem Area Mass Transit District Board of Directors meets Thursday, February 25th, at 6:30pm, in Courthouse Square, the Senator Hearing Room, 555 Court St NE.

* In the prior Existing Conditions Report, there is only one mention of the bridge, and it seems to suppose the Salem River Crossing doesn't exist:
Marion and Polk transit networks are naturally separable because they meet only at the Salem Transit Center, and they are unlikely to ever meet elsewhere because there is only one bridge that transit routes between the counties would take. This makes it easy for both counties’ networks to meet at one point without having any need for greater geographical entanglement. It is not clear that any network coherence would be lost if the two parts of the network were governed separately.


Anonymous said...

"It's just depressing and frustrating to see our transit agency so in thrall to autoism and the Salem River Crossing."

I don't get where this is the case? Why would this study even mention some potential project that has not been funded? Even if the bridge were built, it would not change how the Polk county routes run, as they go to downtown Salem.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Well, the West Salem Business District Action plan thought it was reasonable not just to "mention some potential project that has not been funded," but to plan around the best available footprint of the Salem River Crossing's current Preferred Alternative. So this is not some strange, out-of-the-blue move in local planning.

But this preference does come down to priors, probably. In our Comprehensive Plan there is high-level policy language:

"Local governments within the Salem Urban Area shall develop multimodal plans, services, and programs that decrease reliance on the SOV [single-occupant vehicle]...The implementation of transportation system and demand management measures, enhance transit service, and provision for bicycle and pedestrian facilities shall be pursued as a first choice for accomodating travel demand and relieving congestion in a travel corridor, before widening projects are constructed."

Here we seek a maximalist interpretation and enactment of this. Embrace it with gusto, act like it really matters!

In the way Cherriots has supported the Salem River Crossing, they have seemed to adopt a minimalist interpretation of that.

There's not a single objectively right answer here on the Regional Transit Plan. It is clear that the planning horizons for the Plan are much nearer-term than the horizon for the Salem River Crossing. Just in rejiggering routes for the next year or two, the prospect of the Salem River Crossing is not likely very relevant.

It is, as you suggest, very defensible to ignore it for those short-term recommendations.

But omitting a larger discussion of it is a move unworthy of a first-class transit agency dedicated to reducing drive-alone trips, and inconsistent with a strong interpretation of our policy goals in the Comprehensive Plan.

Even if the SRC makes no effective difference in the short-term recommendations, it is factor that deserves much fuller consideration for the medium- and longer-term outlook.

This is opinion, not fact, of course, and it may not be possible to persuade you, especially if you are not already convinced of the harm of the SRC.

Anonymous said...

Certainly not a pro-SRC voice here. My point is why even give the monster power by acknowledging that it might exist, when you don't need to here?

I can't make the leap from SRC's omission in the plan to any kind of support for the crossing. An explicit repudiation of the SRC in this document seems out of scope. And if you are going to start down that road, what other pie-in-the-sky projects should Cherriots include that they don't want?

Just because a plan that covers both sides of the river happens to exist in the same window of time that there is some political discussion of the SRC doesn't mean it should be all about that.

My takeaway from this plan is that there is a pretty skeletal level of transit service in the region. Some tweaks will help a bit, but we really just need more resources. Sounds a lot like the story inside of the UGB.

Anonymous said...

"I can't make the leap from SRC's omission in the plan to any kind of support for the crossing. An explicit repudiation of the SRC in this document seems out of scope. And if you are going to start down that road, what other pie-in-the-sky projects should Cherriots include that they don't want?"

Perfect response. Cherriots has nothing to gain from opposing the SRC. They are already a marginal organization in this town. Opposing the SRC would only isolate them even more.