The Valley's first rapid transit system could be a bus running alongside railroad tracks.

The Valley's first rapid transit system could be a bus running alongside railroad tracks.

As Southern Oregon's highways clog up, Rogue Valley Transit District is eyeing space once reserved for rail as promising real estate for a bus rapid transit system.

The transit district is still studying the concept, but its preliminary plan goes something like this: pave a thin road near the tracks, get a fleet of fast buses that make only a few stops in each town and get commuters aboard.

The buses would likely run between Ashland and Central Point and would theoretically be as fast as a car traveling the highway, said Paige Townsend, senior planner with RVTD.

The transit district has asked the city to reserve space on the Croman Mill property, located east of Tolman Creek Road, for a potential bus turnaround spot, because the property would likely be the most southern stop on the network. Although the Croman plans haven't yet been approved, city officials have penciled in the bus turnaround space.

Route details haven't yet been studied, but the buses could drive from a road near the tracks onto Highway 99 or 62 when there was room on the roads or when the tracks veered away from ideal drop-off points, Townsend said.

"One of the main features with the BRT is that it competes really well with using a private automobile," she said. "It would be even better if it could be faster, and hopefully it would be less stressful and more cost-effective."

RVTD is hoping to use results from a yearlong transportation study started in July by the Rogue Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization, a division of the Rogue Valley Council of Governments.

The study will help define exactly how much right-of-way is available alongside the railroad tracks. Townsend believes the tracks have a buffer of 12 to 16 feet in many areas.

The future of bus rapid transit — and commuter rail, another transportation option officials have discussed recently — depends on the population density findings of the study. Researchers will find out how many people would need to live or work in Southern Oregon in order to make commuter transit economical for the region.

Once RVTD has the data from the study, the organization will likely begin to study the feasibility of bus rapid transit more closely, Townsend said.

According to a timeline she's been given, the transit system could be created in as few as four years from now.

After researching the bus system for three to five years, RVTD will likely apply for grants from the Federal Transit Administration to fund the project, Townsend said. Then RVTD could spend another year or two working on securing a grant, and defining the terms of the grant, she said.

Of course, there's no guarantee the project would receive funding.

"It's competitive," Townsend said. "There are lots of urban areas that are bigger that ours.

"But we are certainly going to try."

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.