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OC sends wish list to Amtrak, TriMet

City officials want light rail, more Amtrak and more bus service as part of plans
by: Anthony Roberts The Amtrak stop in Oregon City seems to get plenty of use, both by Vancouver-to-Eugene Cascade Route travelers and by daily commuters. Oregon City officials have placed more train and bus service, along with light rail, on their wish list to TriMet and ODOT.

While light rail through Milwaukie seems inevitable, Oregon City's public transportation future is much more uncertain and crippled by budget cuts.

Metro sees a light rail extension to Oregon City as a regional priority, but a continuation of MAX tracks down Interstate 205 or McLoughlin Boulevard corridors is not next in line for funding. The most optimistic estimates put the First City on the map for light rail a decade out.

However, leaders in Oregon City aren't waiting for the Federal Transportation Administration to take notice of plans for an eventual light rail line. Oregon City officials are lobbying Amtrak for more train stops while begging TriMet to restore bus service that has been cut from the city's South End, while both face further funding cuts.

With the support of the other commissioners, Mayor Doug Neeley and Commissioner Jim Nicita co-signed a letter last week to Amtrak Government Affairs Director Robert Eaton to include Oregon City as a stop in the Coast Starlight route from Los Angeles to Seattle. Currently, only the Vancouver-to-Eugene Cascades route includes an Oregon City stop, forcing an approximately 30-minute drive to Portland from Willamette Falls.

'A stop in Oregon City would benefit Oregon City by bringing tourists from throughout the entire West Coast, and in turn benefit Amtrak and its passengers with the ability to stop and visit this amazing natural wonder, and our historic and vibrant downtown,' the letter stated.

Reached for comment about Oregon City's letter to Amtrak, Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition leader Brian Scott happened to be traveling on Amtrak at the time. Scott said he wished Oregon City luck in its transportation advocacy and hopes that the attention it brought could help the area reach the national stage.

'Strong local leadership can certainly strengthen a National Heritage Area nomination,' Scott said.

TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane met in mid-April with Neeley, City Manager David Frasher and Public Works Director Nancy Kraushaar to begin the discussion of future service and development opportunities. McFarlane wrote back to the city April 20 stating there might be ways for TriMet to make tweaks to routes or schedules to serve more people and prepare for when economic recovery rebounds with potential service upgrades.

'By all of us working together, I really think we can make strides in making our transit system - our communities - even better,' McFarlane wrote.

Neeley encouraged TriMet to consider the potential opportunity for transit to aid the development of the Blue Heron site and to return public transit service to the city's South End. TriMet Public Affairs Director Mary Fetsch responded this month that funding restrictions would prevent service expansions even if the developments were already secure.

'Additionally, TriMet staff followed up the discussion with Nancy about the proposed development behind the Oregon City Shopping Center and the development south of CCC,' Fetsch said. 'We're happy to evaluate the possibility of new service to both of these developments, but we can't do so until we have a better understanding of what the developments will be and what the street network will look like.'

The mayor wondered whether current schedules or routes could be rearranged so that they cover areas such as Park Place midday, or go to well-trafficked areas such as the South End or 7th Avenue at all, without any additional cost to the strapped TriMet budget.

'In that public housing development that's planned for expansion, there are a lot of people who don't have vehicles, so I often see them walking a few miles all the way downtown,' Neeley said.

Nicita suggested that if TriMet considered smaller buses with more frequency that go directly to Portland, the transit agency could provide better service at the same cost.

'It'd also be nice to have more bus routes within the fabric of Oregon City,' he said.

But citizens in the south metro area shouldn't get their hopes up about service increases anytime soon. Fetsch said any extension of service to a new area will cost money, and any time TriMet adds time to a route, it's faced with either degrading the frequency or needing to add an additional bus to the line to maintain the frequency.

'Given our lack of funding to expand service, we have no options at this time to expand service in the OC area,' Fetsch said. 'What's encouraging is that these type of discussions happen early on, so that transit and the development can go hand in hand and create the most vibrant connections in the community.'

TriMet assisted with scheduling of the historic trolley, Fetsch said, by providing arrival times for all buses at Oregon City's Transit Center for this past summer.

Light rail discussions in Oregon City are comparatively low-key, as Oregon City has a spot in the committees to plan the line through Milwaukie, but is not a voting member.

Neeley argues that the benefits of a light rail extension to Oregon City would outweigh any possible increase in crime, which he said the police department is well-equipped to address. Oregon City Police Chief Mike Conrad declined to comment.

Meanwhile, Nicita said he plans to continue his habit of commuting to Portland by Amtrak.

'If I can zip right downtown on the train for $58 bucks a month, it's cheaper than buying the TriMet pass,' he said.