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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 11.24.10




Out of Control

Big questions remain for LTD’s West Eugene EmX

By Paul Nicholson

Lacking an elected board, and largely dependent on tax subsidies, Lane Transit District is accountable to neither the public nor to the cold calculus of the marketplace. LTD has done a great job as a mission-driven organization promoting mass transit. But the only elected board that will ever be asked to assess whether the public interest will be served by the expansion of EmX on West 11th is Eugene’s mayor and council. They must not shirk this responsibility.

EmX is unique to Eugene-Springfield. According to LTD, EmX “operates like a bus, except it utilizes designated lanes that allow it to travel undeterred by traffic.” In fact, EmX is distinguished by off-bus fare collection; greater frequency of service; larger, articulated buses; bigger intervals between stops and partial control of traffic signals — but EmX runs on designated lanes only about 70 percent of the time. Lacking dedicated rights-of-way, it is really bus rapid transit (BRT) light. 

Have the first two EmX routes been a success? The Pioneer Parkway extension is too new to evaluate, but the Springfield to Eugene route has been in business since early 2007. LTD points to the doubling of ridership on EmX during the first two years when passengers rode free. However, ridership fell in 2009 when LTD began collecting fares. To LTD’s credit, ridership on the whole system has increased significantly. Passenger boardings increased about 16 percent during the three years before EmX and have increased about 20 percent during EmX’s first three years of operation

Here are five valid concerns that our local government should address in an open public process:

• LTD is proposing to more than double its capitalization in the next 10 years. For this to work, LTD would have to double fares from riders, and also double revenue from the local payroll tax that covers 75 percent of LTD’s operating costs. Doubling ridership would achieve the increase in fare revenue, but will Eugene-Springfield payrolls double in the next 10 years? If not, should local employers bear a substantially higher tax rate?

• LTD compares itself to other cities with BRT. However, we do not have full BRT, and all of the other communities that do are much larger. Where is the rigorous independent review that an experiment should have?

• LTD’s plans depend on West 11th becoming much more densely developed in the near future consistent with Eugene land use planning. West 11th property owners fear that they will be thrown under the bus in an attempt to artificially create a denser development on West 11th. Do we want to build $100 million system that requires high density on West 11th whether or not it happens in response to market forces?

• LTD’s budget woes have caused LTD to reduce or cancel a substantial part of its neighborhood service. Is diminishing neighborhood service undercutting LTD’s core mission?

• LTD suggests that in the long run, EmX will save money, but operating expenses have exploded since construction began on the first leg of EmX. From 2000-2005, operating costs increased about 5 percent per year, and since then, at an average rate of about 7 percent per year. When does an LTD “long run” begin?

Mayor Kitty Piercy characterizes critics of the plan as self-interested small businesses whose issues can be mitigated away. To those who complain that the real issues have not even been discussed, she airily proclaims that “this is all part of an integrated plan that we have been discussing for decades.” Ten years ago, we were talking in vague general terms about EmX routes out Coburg Road and on 6th or 7th Avenues. LTD’s ever-changing wish list has never met the minimum standards for a real plan. City Council should demand to know specifically what are the goals and objectives and public benefit that will be realized by this vast expenditure, and what are the benchmarks to assess the plan’s success or failure.

LTD has done a good job promoting mass transit. But Eugene’s city council is the one and only elected body that must approve LTD’s plans for West 11th. Therefore, our elected officials must look at the big picture. Council should ask LTD for a real plan, should consider the concerns of the critics and should reject unless it is plausible and in the public interest. 

Paul Nicholson owns Paul’s Bicycle Way of Life stores and is a former Eugene city councilor.