Trains may join transit mall mix

Downtown Portland plays a key role in latest plans for light-rail lines

Portland has always asked a lot of the downtown transit mall.

Now a quarter-century old, the mall was a key part in the revitalization of downtown. Today it serves many types of transportation, including buses, bikes, pedestrians and limited car traffic.

Soon, trains may be added to the list.

The transit mall plays a big role in plans for the two new light-rail lines to Clackamas County. One line would run down Interstate 205 from Gateway to Clackamas Town Center and another through Southeast Portland to Milwaukie. The project has been winning approval from local governments in recent months.

The new Clackamas County trains, however, would run into downtown Portland not along the Southwest Yamhill and Morrison streets alignment, already crowded with light rail's red and blue lines, but north and south along the transit mall on Southwest Fifth and Sixth avenues, from Union Station to perhaps as far south as Portland State University.

Officials say construction of the new alignment offers a perfect opportunity to rebuild the crumbling red brick mall with federal dollars.

'The mall's tired,' said Fred Hansen, TriMet's general manager. 'It's out-of-date and a bit worn. This is an opportunity to refurbish the mall and address the issues concerning retail.'

The Portland Business Alliance endorsed the rail project and the mall overhaul as a way to reinvigorate downtown, especially the areas north of West Burnside Street. A recent study by the group found business occupancy rates lower and turnover higher on the transit mall than on neighboring Southwest Fourth Avenue or Broadway.

'Improvements to the transit mall are critical,' the group said in a recent report. 'If the transit mall does not function optimally the entire metropolitan area transit system is jeopardized.'

The price tag for the Interstate 205 segment would run about $350 million, with another $150 million for the downtown portion, including rehabilitation of the transit mall.

Officials hope the federal government will pick up 60 percent of the cost. A few weeks ago, Hansen took Jenna Dorn, an Oregonian who heads the Federal Transit Administration, on a walking tour of the route. Officials will ask Oregon's congressional delegation to get the project on the waiting list for federal money.

'It's an opportunity to revitalize not only the mall but all downtown,' said Portland city Commissioner Jim Francesconi. 'Here we can use federal dollars instead of property taxes or income taxes.'

Where would the local share come from? Not from property taxes, income taxes or road maintenance fees, Francesconi said. No decisions have been made, but so far, officials have several options under discussion, including a local improvement district, systems development charges and tax increment financing. PSU already has said it would contribute to have the rail serve its campus, Hansen said.

There's no timeline yet for getting started, and many bureaucratic and political hurdles remain before construction can start.

The cost of operating the expanded light-rail system could come from additional payroll taxes. Earlier this year, the agency asked the state Legislature for permission to increase its payroll taxing authority by one-tenth of a percentage point over the next 10 years. The request passed the state Senate and is waiting action by the House.

TriMet, though, hasn't yet said when or whether it will invoke the authority, if granted. Payroll taxes provide the agency with 57 percent of its operating expenses.

No one yet knows what the renovated mall would look like. In January, Mayor Vera Katz convened a task force of business, transit and government leaders that will ask architects to envision how the mall could accommodate bikes, pedestrians, buses, light rail and maybe even a lane for cars.

There are many unanswered questions. Will the sidewalks have to shrink? What happens to the public art? Will TriMet's buses and trains get along with each other when forced to live on the same street?

On-street parking apparently won't be included. In recent years, merchants on the mall have said the lack of street parking hurts business. But on-street parking hasn't been a part of the discussions, said Francesconi, who oversees Portland's Office of Transportation.

'That's probably not achievable given all the other modes we need,' said Mike Salsgiver, lobbyist for the Portland Business Alliance. 'It's still on a list to discuss.'

Drawing a lesson from the Portland Streetcar, Hansen said he hopes the project would use a construction schedule that would lessen the impact on downtown businesses.

Instead of shutting down long sections of street for months on end, he hopes to see crews focus on one three-block segment at a time, get all the all work done in three or four weeks and then move on to another.

'We've learned a lot of lessons from the streetcar and Interstate MAX,' Hansen said.

Operating on the transit mall, Hansen said, gives light rail more room for expansion downtown. The east-west route along Yamhill and Morrison streets, he said, already is very busy. The yellow line along Interstate Avenue will use the east-west route when it opens next year but could switch to the transit mall alignment once it becomes available, he said.

Francesconi sees renovating the mall as a way to help all of downtown.

'We have crumbling bricks,' he said. 'It needs more nightlife. It needs more pedestrians. It needs more vitality. It needs more life. It needs a complete overhaul.'

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