December’s Newspaper Essay

Start the Bus to a Rosy Future

 For a while I entertained the idea that Pullman plays Vancouver to Moscow’s Portland, and to a certain extent that is true. The political and cultural parallels are obvious enough, but the Vancouver-Portland relationship is both more complicated and more rancorous than Pullman and Moscow’s should ever be. Nevertheless, two cities which share a border will also share population, commerce, and a host of other things as well. The key element, as with wildlife habitat, is connectivity. But while a mere few miles of picturesque terrain separate Moscow and Pullman, Portland and Vancouver rest up against a different sort of border and barrier: the Columbia River.

 Space and time constraints prevent my telling the full story of the Columbia River bridges, including the often-delayed replacement proposal for the current Interstate 5 span. But at 130,000 cars per day, this corridor is an essential piece of the region’s infrastructure. It also puts the bicyclist in a precarious position: 72 feet above the river, on a narrow strip of concrete, for the 1,000-plus yards of the span. Further south on I-5, crossing the Willamette River, the bike lane is in the space between the northbound and southbound traffic lanes. It’s not the Bill Chipman Trail, I can tell you. It is more gauntlet than greenway, an ordeal to be endured rather than a jaunt to enjoy.

 Yet there is another way to get from Vancouver to Portland with a bike, and thereby explore the Rose city on two wheels. There is bus service between the two cities. It’s really rather clever: for less than the cost of parking and gas, you get to ride down the freeway while you nap, read, or what-have-you, and end up right downtown. Granted, the first time I tried it the bus was an hour late and marked as out of service, but we got through those bits well enough. Since there is not yet any commuter rail service across the river, the bus is a welcome option for those who cannot or prefer not to drive into Portland.

 I know some of my readers are old enough to remember when there was bus service between Pullman and Moscow, too. As I recall, it was sponsored by our local universities in an effort to reduce students’ dependence on cars for personal transportation. Has the situation changed so drastically? Has enrollment dropped so low that crowding the side streets of Pullman and Moscow with students’ personal vehicles is no longer a worry? I doubt it.

 Anyway, there are others in the community besides the undergraduates who would use the service, were it available. Teens, seniors, and graduate students could expand their retail and recreation options without driving. Biking in Moscow would no longer require biking to Moscow along the weather-dependent Chipman Trail route. It might even bring the airport closer, with a midpoint stop at Airport Road. In conversation with my friends and neighbors, the idea of bringing back the shuttle was universally popular. People were willing to pay, too. The sweet spot for fares, from what I heard around town, was between two and three dollars. Surely there is a way for this to work.

 University enrollment will grow again, and so will the town; the question is whether this growth will be smart and sustainable, or haphazard and ungainly. Do we want a rose garden or a blackberry patch? Smart transportation options will help keep the weeds at bay.

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