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Portland rail link is still possible

Streetcar effort stays on table
by: Submitted art,

A federal complaint that could have blocked the Portland Streetcar's route to Lake Oswego has been dismissed, paving the way for further study of a possible rail link to Portland. Locally, at least, the drive to bring the streetcar south to Lake Oswego is still alive.

Metro officials say public process has yet to give a green light to the proposal, however. Despite local enthusiasm, they say a possible streetcar link is still months from a final decision.

Metro Councilor Brian Newman, a Lake Oswego resident representing urban Clackamas County, said the streetcar must prove sensible for the region before Metro would approve it or ask for federal funds for construction. As public inquiry into transit op-tions on High-way 43 moves to a next phase, more input from West Linn could change a dialogue in which Lake Os-wego has had a strong voice favoring the streetcar.

'Ultimately this will be decided by the Metro Council,' Newman said, adding Lake Oswego's eagerness for the streetcar has propelled a needed study of the Highway 43 corridor.

'But it doesn't mean Lake Oswego gets what it wants,' he said.

Because a potential streetcar line depends on ridership from West Linn, the streetcar proposal could lose steam or gain it as that city comes to the table in the next phase of public inquiry.

Currently, the streetcar proposal is in the hands of a citizen committee with interests along Highway 43. Lake Oswego has pushed Metro to assemble such a group to study the potential of the publicly owned rail line between the city's downtown and Portland's South Waterfront.

With support from the Federal Transportation Administration, the citizen group, known as LOPAC (Lake Oswego to Portland Project Advisory Committee), continues to probe streetcar as a potential fix for traffic problems on Highway 43, along with buses. LOPAC has also studied other options.

With LOPAC recommendations planned by February, a Metro steering committee will next take the reins of the project, providing input to the Metro Council. Newman said he plans to weigh input from West Linn on equal footing with the recommendations when the council sets priorities.

For Lake Oswego, Mayor Judie Hammerstad said public ownership of the rail makes streetcar a smart move in the corridor, particularly because buses will face the same traffic issues that currently impede cars.

Additionally, she said, 'Bus doesn't work as well in that people are drawn to the streetcar and will ride it as an alternative when they won't ride bus.'

Streetcar also has potential as a catalyst to economic development, she said. With redevelopment proposed at a potential streetcar terminus in Foothills, Hammerstad said both projects could be mutually beneficial.

As the process rolls forward, West Linn officials are watching closely to see whether streetcar looks favorable compared to buses for their commuters as well.

Officials there remain concerned that a streetcar could add transit time, lessen convenience for riders and come with parking problems at a transit center based in Lake Oswego.

'I don't think West Linn will oppose the streetcar but what West Linn will present will be the impacts of the design of the project on the commuters of West Linn,' said Mayor Norm King.

'One thing we'll be looking for is if the analysis took into account all alternatives,' King said.

Like other agencies, King said West Linn is waiting to see how ridership and streetcar costs will compare with buses. Those figures are due out within weeks and will influence how West Linn approaches testimony.

Newman said the figures must show that a streetcar would be cost-effective and practical for riders for the Metro Council to support it. The regional benefits of streetcar also must outweigh the potential impacts to neighborhoods on the rail.

'We're trying to take a real neutral view on what's best for this corridor. It's not clear it's gong to be streetcar,' Newman said. 'If this is going to benefit Lake Oswego to the detriment of riders south of Lake Oswego, then that's not going to fly.'

In Lake Oswego, a local committee known as DTAAC (Downtown Transit Alternatives Advisory Committee) has already held its own public hearings and officially recommended streetcar as a best-fit for the town.

That stance has made some neighbors squeamish. Opposition to streetcar, if approved, is expected from areas of the Dunthorpe and Birdshill neighborhoods, which lie just north of Lake Oswego on the streetcar's proposed route through Portland.

Hammerstad said while balancing neighborhood interests with transportation needs can be difficult, the location of the public rail line can't be moved and is the same location where streetcars once ran.

She said weighing the issue will require an objective look at the 'possible negative effect on a few people with a possibly positive effect on tens of thousands of people.'

The streetcar's potential path to Lake Oswego is likely to be paved with opposition from those few.

In September, Birdshill resident Charles 'Skip' Ormsby filed a complaint with the FTA charging three public officials - Newman, Hammerstad and TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen - with dealing in secret to bring the streetcar through the neighborhood. The FTA dismissed Ormsby's complaint.

In Dunthorpe, some residents have threatened to take a fight against streetcar to a courtroom. Others have shown support. Meanwhile, Metro officials aim to approve projects with the most benefits for the region long-term.

Metro Council President David Bragdon, eyeing potential problems for streetcar, said he would weigh its obstacles against regional transportation needs while setting project priorities.

'I think we need to do some modeling on what the ridership would be but my hunch is that the studies would show that the projected ridership - based on population, demographics, current ridership, etc. - in that market would be less than on the Portland-Milwaukie or Portland-Tigard (Barbur) line.'

If streetcar to Lake Oswego does become a priority, Metro would seek FTA funding for about 50 percent of the project. The rest would come from a likely combination of local grants, Metro funds, taxes on properties along the streetcar or through monies net by a redevelopment district in Lake Oswego.

Such a district remains a possibility in Foothills, but city officials still differ as to how much the proposed redevelopment should be allowed to drive transportation needs.

Nick Budnick of the Pamplin Media Group contributed to this story.