Mia Nelson in Register-Guard: Sift Through Rhetoric About Eugene Bus Rapid Transit

Eugene City Councilors will soon decide whether to proceed with an extension of the successful EmX bus rapid transit system. In an op-ed for the Register-Guard, our Willamette Valley Advocate explains why it's important to think very carefully about the decision's potential impact.

Read Mia Nelson's op-ed, which was published on Sunday, September 16, below. For more information on how you can show your support for Eugene's transit future, please visit yesemx.com.

Supporters of the west Eugene EmX bus rapid transit project often scratch their heads over opposition to building such an important community asset. EmX is not just another bus route dressed up in fancy clothes. It is a fundamentally better type of transit and a cornerstone of the Envision Eugene effort.

Part of the opposition stems from Lane Transit District’s inadequate communication with residents and business owners along the proposed route — some of whom first learned of the project by discovering workers measuring their property. LTD is highly respected by its peers as a bus operator, but fumbled its transition to infrastructure developer, unnecessarily damaging trust and creating entrenched enemies along the way.

Another reason is that LTD did not clearly explain the long-term vision for EmX and the role the west Eugene segment plays within the region’s broader future. The resulting information vacuum allowed opponents to saturate our civic discussion with divisive, misleading rhetoric.

EmX is fundamental to providing our community with a vibrant transit system and transportation choices. The west Eugene extension is a critical piece of the overall EmX system — which will one day be an interconnected network 61 miles long, serving the entire metro area. Without this leg, connections to River Road, Highway 99 and Coburg Road via the planned Beltline route will be impossible.

The west Eugene route makes sense as the next leg of the system. It already serves almost 30,000 jobs and 20,000 residents, and strategic reinvestment and redevelopment could add many thousands more. Veneta also has aggressive growth plans. EmX can help accommodate this additional traffic without increasing travel times for cars, while substantially reducing travel time for transit riders.

In addition, EmX facilitates redevelopment by boosting land values. A recent study of Pittsburgh’s similar system found that single-family homes 100 feet from a station were worth about $10,000 more than homes 1,000 feet away, all else being equal. Multifamily and commercial properties enjoy comparable price effects. These boosts make redevelopment more attractive, driving more efficient land-use patterns and reducing the need for future urban expansions onto farms and forestlands.

Eugene stands at a crossroads. There are only two choices.

We can take this opportunity to build the much-needed west Eugene EmX extension with federal funding and lottery dollars that already are available. Or we can do nothing, perhaps losing the possibility of ever building the project and leaving the future of the Envision Eugene effort in doubt. Before Eugene city councilors vote, they ought to be very clear about what our options — and obligations — will be in the aftermath if they say no.

There are many facets to the EmX opposition, but a common thread is the desire to prevent change. However, changes are coming anyway. Thousands more new residents will arrive, and the environmental, social, and financial consequences of car-centric living will mount. These changes, if unmitigated by EmX, will trigger even more onerous problems than the ones opponents now fear.

Business owners along the route are understandably concerned about construction impacts, access changes, condemnation of property, and repurposing of public property they have been using for free parking. But they may not realize that EmX’s impacts can be mitigated, and that without EmX, we’ll eventually need much more intrusive and expensive traffic mitigations, including new lanes.

Other critics are philosophically opposed to growth-related improvements and believe EmX will stimulate additional development. But killing EmX will not reduce growth pressures. It will instead magnify growth’s many negative impacts, such as increased automobile use, pollution and urban sprawl.

There also are ideological opponents who see transit as an unwarranted, wasteful government handout. But good transit enables greater self-sufficiency, not less. Lane County households spent about $600 million on gasoline last year; automobile costs gobbled up 20 percent of a typical household’s income. EmX can reduce these expenses.

Other factions are holding out for light rail or for an even wider multiway boulevard along West 11th. But stopping EmX will not make these projects, which have no viable funding mechanism, any more likely to happen.

Finally, it must be frankly acknowledged that at this point, some of the opposition is personal. The dysfunctional public process fueled anger, mistrust and a burning desire to see LTD — termed “arrogant bureaucrats” by opponents’ signs — fall flat on its face. While opponents are entitled to their emotions, their anger is not evidence that the project itself is flawed.

City councilors should sift through the rhetoric, recognize that the various groups of opponents have contradictory and self-defeating aims — some of which go against the public interest — and accept that there is no perfect solution that will make everyone happy.

The council should focus on the future, protect the interests of the larger community and pursue this west Eugene EmX opportunity to keep this community moving forward in the decades ahead.

For more information on how you can show your support for Eugene's transit future, please visit yesemx.com.