January 29, 2008

EmX remarkably popular in first year

Signs of the times: Oil has hit the previously unimaginable price of $100 a barrel. The term “global warming” has become part of our vernacular. And the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to those warning of the perils of global disregard for Earth. In Lane County, however, one sign of the times is bright and green. Lane Transit District’s innovative EmX bus rapid transit has much to celebrate as we observe its first anniversary.

In its inaugural year, EmX had more than 1.4 million passenger boardings, far surpassing projections for the four-mile “Green Line” segment between Eugene and Springfield downtowns.

Ridership on EmX has increased an astonishing 70 percent compared with the number of boardings on the old Route 11, which previously served the route. EmX has been so successful, in fact, that it is the only U.S. project chosen for a 2008 Sustainable Transport Award from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York City. EmX shared honorable mention status with projects in Guatemala and Colombia, with top awards given to alternative transportation projects in Paris and London.

Credit for the success of EmX goes to Lane County residents and LTD’s volunteer board of directors, who took a long-view approach to transportation planning. The impetus for EmX was a look 20 years into the future to imagine what we’d all be wishing our community had done to prepare for its transportation needs. Fortunately, many of us predicted we’d be wishing for fast, convenient mass transit. As a result, we have the first leg of a visionary, far-sighted network that ultimately will serve our busiest areas.

Our community has made a commitment to encourage denser growth, and the more we increase density, the more vital mass transit becomes. By providing an efficient mode of transportation that strongly competes with the automobile, we improve our region’s livability, growth, air quality and business viability.

The next segment of EmX, scheduled to begin construction in 2009, will extend the current Green Line route beyond downtown Springfield to the Gateway area. The corridor will extend along Pioneer Parkway, Harlow Road, Gateway Street, International Way and RiverBend Drive. When completed in 2010, the extension will connect riders with many civic attractions and businesses, including Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend, Oregon Medical Labs, PacificSource, Symantec, Royal Caribbean and Gateway Mall. The extension will more than double the area EmX covers and will provide riders faster, more direct service.

In addition, we’re now in the earliest planning stages for a West Eugene EmX extension. Recognizing the traffic congestion in west Eugene and the opportunities for transit improvements to help make the area more livable, the Eugene City Council selected west Eugene as the city’s priority for the next EmX corridor study.

As in the past, LTD will follow the prescriptive process outlined in the National Environmental Protection Act to work in concert with our regional transportation planning partners, elected officials and jurisdictions to consider all options and alternatives for this extension. As always, that process will provide abundant opportunities for public input and oversight.

While we’re gratified by the overwhelming public response to EmX, LTD is becoming a victim of its own success. Converging circumstances — higher oil prices, global warming and convenient mass transit — have predisposed Lane County residents to seek mass transit. Total ridership throughout our system increased 17 percent last year, or 5 percent not counting EmX. This ridership surge is causing capacity problems. We’ll soon need to fund more service as new neighborhoods are created and as commercial development continues.

Another capacity issue facing LTD is the nation’s gray tidal wave. Every day, 10,000 Americans turn 65. Locally, that has translated to a 10 percent annual rate of growth for RideSource, which uses smaller vehicles to provide curb-to-curb service for elderly and disabled riders. Once again, we must anticipate trends and develop funding to meet growing demand.

It takes six to eight years, under the best of circumstances, to plan a single EmX route. So expanding funding for LTD’s fixed route and Ride­Source service will be a key focus in coming years.

Throughout our service area, we’re adding larger buses, and more buses at peak times. Still, these additions won’t carry us very far. To find funding solutions for additional service, we’ll need to engage in a public conversation and summon the creativity that has become our hallmark.

For today, though, we celebrate the anniversary and inaugural success of EmX. We are grateful to our community for its tremendous support of this ground-breaking mode of transportation and for its willingness to look into the future to envision transportation solutions that are convenient, predictable, reliable, fast — and green.

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