Streetcar planning calls for patience
In the past month, even as an important traffic signal turned from yellow to green on the Portland streetcar's expansion plans, supporters and skeptics of the little trolley agree on one thing: It's time to slow down and figure out its next destination.
Over the past five years, the number of streetcar fans has grown - but so have the number of critics. And even officials at greater Portland's transit agency, TriMet, as well as the regional government, Metro, are increasingly asking how the streetcar fits in to the area's economic and transportation plans - as well as who should pay for it.
'You need to look at these things in terms of priorities,' said Metro President David Bragdon, a self-described streetcar enthusiast. 'It can't just be every impulsive idea becomes a streetcar line.'
His is more than an abstract question. While the streetcar remains popular with developers and 'smart growth' activists, how it expands will affect Portlanders - whether they get around town by trolley, car or bike.
For one thing, the money used by the city and TriMet to operate the streetcar line currently comes from funds that otherwise could be fixing potholes or providing better bus and light-rail service.
'That is a tradeoff, and folks need to be absolutely up front about it,' Commissioner Sam Adams said, referring to the city's contribution. 'That is money that otherwise would go toward maintenance of streets, roads and bridges in the city.'
Not only that, but two of the three most advanced plans for new lines would run on major thoroughfares, including on Burnside on the west side of the Willamette River, as well as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Grand Avenue on the east.
Such thoroughfares are like a city's circulation system, said Schnitzer Steel's Ann Gardner, who opposes putting the streetcar on them. 'You don't just let your circulation system get all gummed up - there are consequences.'
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Two recent developments have prompted the uptick in debate over the streetcar's future. The first is a proposal by Adams, who oversees the city's Office of Transportation, to add a streetcar to his plans for West Burnside and Northwest Couch, which he says would work better as a couplet of one-way streets.
'There are a lot of people who want streetcars in their neighborhoods who are concerned that Sam just jumped Burnside … in front of them' in expansion plans, said streetcar activist Chris Smith, following Adams' news conference.
Smith said a citywide plan is called for 'to see what kind of sequence makes sense.'
The second reason the streetcar debate is heating up is a markedly sunnier disposition in Washington, D.C., when it comes to funding streetcar projects.
'From what we've heard it's an exciting proposal,' said Wes Irvin, a Federal Transit Administration spokesman.
That tone is 'a big change,' Smith says. Previously, officials in the FTA had held rigidly to its traditional cost-effectiveness formula, and projects were required to have at least a medium rating. In an August e-mail, TriMet official Dave Unsworth said that the east-side loop 'will not come close.'
Streetcar supporters say the federal cost-effectiveness formula, which focuses on moving people quickly and efficiently, is unfair to the streetcar - and bad from the perspective of urban planning.
As Smith explains, 'The easier it is to move people from point A to point B, the harder it is to contain sprawl.'
Currently two projects head the list of streetcar expansion ideas. Each could qualify for as much as $75 million in federal construction funds.
The first is an east-side loop connecting the west-side streetcar to Northeast and Southeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Grand Avenue.
Another proposal would connect Lake Oswego to the South Waterfront District. Supporters also have talked about connecting to Hollywood, Milwaukie and St. Johns.
Now that federal construction funding is more likely, Adams said it's time to chart the streetcar's future. 'Future planning should be done in an integrated way,' he said.
TriMet wants others to fund
But officials say finding money to build the streetcar has never been the biggest problem. Rather, it's finding money to operate the streetcar once the lines have been built.
Compared with buses, streetcars cost 60 percent more to operate per vehicle hour. In the past, TriMet has picked up two-thirds of the operating cost using the region's payroll tax. The city has funded the remainder, using revenue from parking garages and street meters.
With future expansions, however, TriMet wants to split costs differently. In part that's because two of the three most advanced proposals are a marked departure from past plans for the streetcar.
The initial streetcar line added transit service to Northwest 21st and 23rd avenues and supplemented service downtown.
In a May e-mail, TriMet planner Dave Unsworth said the east-side loop 'looks to be more about land use than transportation,' and proposed that 'the development community' should be required to pay one-third of the operating expenses, through a local improvement district that taxes landowners.
'I think that's probably true,' Bragdon said when told of Unsworth's argument.
Streetcar seen as 'pixie dust'
Supporters of the streetcar have long said it is not about moving people, it is about connecting and transforming neighborhoods - with dense, mixed-use development that encourages people to make shorter trips because destinations are closer together.
The streetcar's status as a development tool is reflected in the nonprofit Portland Streetcar Inc.'s board of directors, which is dominated by landowners and developers who have helped pay for as well as profited from the construction of streetcar lines, including John Carroll, Hank Ashforth and Greg Goodman.
Supporters of the streetcar claim it is responsible for the bulk of downtown's recent development, citing a study that found $2.3 billion invested along the streetcar line in Portland since it opened.
Adams maintains the streetcar deserves credit for 'leveraging' that development, leading to increased property tax revenue.
Others are not convinced. TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen disagrees with the claim that it transforms neighborhoods and builds new ones. 'I don't think it transforms (neighborhoods),' he said. 'I think it enhances an existing neighborhood.'
P. Barton DeLacy, a longtime Portland real estate consultant and appraiser, said he is 'very skeptical' of the $2.3 billion figure for which streetcar activists claim credit.
DeLacy feels property tax breaks, such as those in the Pearl and South Waterfront, both formerly industrial land, are more responsible - not to mention the national economy that fueled booms in downtowns in many cities, not just Portland. 'I have a lot of questions,' he said.
John Fregonese, a planning consultant who is considered a national 'smart-growth' guru of Portland, told the Tribune that the real estate effects of the streetcar are'probably overhyped' by officials who view it as 'redevelopment pixie dust. … It's the new toy.'
But as for the streetcar skeptics who 'say it isn't solving a transportation problem,' Fregonese said, 'I think they are not looking at the land use-transportation connection' of how dense, mixed-use development reduces trips.
New lines compete with buses
Streetcar supporters say one of their goals is to slow down or 'calm' traffic on streets like Burnside and MLK Boulevard.
Smith says that by allowing commuters to pass through neighborhoods, rather than just make local trips, damages neighborhood livability. The goal of the east-side loop, he said, is to figure out 'how to make that corridor work for everybody.'
Smith does not foresee the streetcar needing its own lane on MLK and Grand, despite an internal TriMet e-mail saying it would be necessary to ensure service reliability in the face of future congestion.
Bragdon, for his part, thinks there needs to be a balance. 'There's a difference between traffic calming and just gumming everything up,' he said, adding that when it comes to transit, 'I think speed and reliability are important.'
Jarrett Walker, a transit advocate and transportation consultant who grew up in Portland and now works in Australia, has another concern; the streetcar saps funding from what he considers one of the best-designed bus networks in the world.
'Frequencies on most of the east-side grid are not much higher than when the network was implemented over 25 years ago,' he said. 'This should be shocking given how much the inner city has grown.'
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