Photo of TriMet bus with few passengers.
TriMet Line 61 bus from Beaverton arrives at first stop on Marquam Hill with few passengers on Monday morning. (Photo: Lisa Caballero/BikePortland)

Last week, TriMet announced its proposed 2023-24 bus service changes. Most of this year’s service changes target lines west of the Willamette River, with the bulk of those running through southwest Portland, particularly Hillsdale and the Marquam Hill campus of the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and VA Hospital. Taken together the changes amount to a bold rethinking of area bus service.

The proposal arrives on the heels of TriMet’s Revised Forward Together Service Concept for reshaping regional bus service that, “will guide TriMet’s annual service improvements over the next 3-6 years.” Forward Together was done in partnership with Jarrett Walker + Associates, a Portland-based transit consulting company with national and international clients.

One of the most decisive changes proposed by the Service Concept is the discontinuation of five express lines from various points in the city to the Marquam Hill campus. Affected lines originate in Beaverton, Tigard, Barbur Blvd, the Hollywood transit center and Goose Hollow, and currently run with few stops between those points and the hill.

The Forward Together Summary by Area explains the reasoning behind this move to restructure access to Portland’s largest employer:

We received many comments that asked us to restore the existing structure of the 60s Marquam Hill expresses. In designing the pattern of services shown in the Service Concept, we were focused on making Marquam Hill easier to access for everyone, not just 9-to-5 workers.

Because the 60s expresses run only at rush hour, on weekdays, they are not relevant to a great portion of the Hill’s visitors and workers, who need to arrive at all times of the day. The Hill workers for whom rush hour services are most relevant are also more likely to be office and administrative workers, the same workers for whom working from home has persisted the longest, and is most likely to continue in some form in the future.

Ultimately, with the Service Concept’s twin goals to build ridership and improve equity, we cannot afford to offer a separate set of services that are useful for only a portion of the many people who need to travel to Marquam Hill. We believe that making Marquam Hill easily reachable all day long from the southwest part of the region is an important step in building ridership and enhacing access to this critical destination for people whose travel patterns do not neatly align with the traditional rush hour. For these reasons, we continue to suggest these changes to Marquam Hill services.

I quote at length from these paragraphs to give an idea of the quality of the work that has gone into the new Service Concept. It is thoughtful, well-researched and responsive to feedback.

On left is the current TriMet route map for Marquam Hill. On right is the proposed Forward together restructuring. (Source: TriMet)

The reconfiguration also reroutes Lines 56 and 43 through Hillsdale to Marquam Hill. Thus, Hillsdale, with its new Rose Lanes, becomes a key transfer point between buses continuing to downtown and the Hill-bound 43 and 56. This configuration achieves 15-minute service from Hillsdale to the hospitals “so that people coming from the southwest can reach the hill all day without having to go all the way downtown to transfer to Line 8.”

I reached out to Michael Harrison, OHSU’s director of local government and neighborhood relations, for comment about the OHSU-related changes. He replied that,

“Over the years, bus service to Marquam Hill has been particularly helpful to our on-campus employees who work a typical day schedule. This system has not always served our patients or employees who work early and swing shifts quite as well. Since COVID, many of our typical ‘office’ employees have shifted to telecommuting. While we are still analyzing the sweeping changes TriMet has proposed, we definitely agree with the overall approach they are taking to improving the equity and efficiency of the system.”

Three lines will serve Marquam Hill under the Forward Together plan. (Source: TriMet)

A visit to the VA hospital yesterday morning during rush hour—the first stop for several 60s-line buses —confirmed that those buses are arriving on the hill with only two or three passengers on board. Pre-covid, buses on the hill could be seen full of passengers. Forward Together’s bold redesign appears to be warranted.

Although I have focused on Hillsdale and Marquam Hill, this year’s service changes will modify twenty-one lines. So there is a lot I didn’t cover, and there is still much change to come over the remaining 2-5 years of the plan.

For readers who want to learn more, the Revised Service Concept by Area provides maps and a description and discussion of changes to thirty-one areas in the regional network, as well as the big ideas guiding the project. It also provides information about implementation and the possible effect of the bus operator shortage on roll-out.

TriMet will be holding 12 in-person and virtual events between January 14 and February 4 to answer questions and share information about the service changes, and also to gather feedback about a possible fare increase.

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