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Streetcar stays on track — barely

Survey suggests most citizens oppose streetcar

The proposed streetcar extension from Portland to Lake Oswego remains on track - for now.

The Lake Oswego City Council Tuesday reviewed results of a community survey gauging public opinion of the project, which has generated widespread controversy among property owners who live near the proposed route and a broader section of the public concerned about costs, the possible impact on local services and whether transit demand justifies the expense.

The survey results show a majority of citizens oppose the streetcar line. But council members agreed 4-3 that city staff should draft a plan for educating the community not only about the streetcar study but also about redevelopment plans in the Foothills district, a 107-acre area between downtown and the Willamette River.

Mayor Jack Hoffman said Foothills 'gives the city an opportunity to move forward into the next 20 to 30 years.

'It gives us an opportunity to keep schools strong,' he said. 'We need to tell our citizens the complete story.'

However, councilor Mike Kehoe suggested the survey results should lead the council down an off-ramp from the project.

'While we all want to make good decisions and be visionary where we can … at some point we have to listen to the citizens,' Kehoe said. 'I'd like to see a motion to stop spending any money on the streetcar immediately and stop working on this project.'

The council voted last spring to push ahead with analysis of the streetcar as the best way to solve traffic congestion problems on Highway 43, choosing it for additional study over enhanced bus service. The Portland City Council did the same.

Other involved government agencies have yet to weigh in, and both Portland and Lake Oswego leaders could still walk away from the project. They're now awaiting updated information about costs and financing options. The project has been estimated at $458 million, but engineers are now working to scale that back, and local agencies would only pay for a share of the overall price tag.

When the Lake Oswego council decided to move ahead with the streetcar, it also called for a community survey this fall and a citywide informational vote in May 2012.

Released last week, survey results show that of 300 people questioned, about 52 percent oppose the streetcar line, while about 40 percent favor the concept. Others were neutral or unsure about their opinions. The results have a margin of error of about 5 percent.

'The bottom line is no matter how you read it, at this time you have more people opposed to the streetcar than in support of it, given the information,' said Adam Davis of Davis, Hibbitts and Midghall Inc., the company that conducted the survey.

Generally, citizens weren't swayed by information about project costs. Respondents were asked twice whether they supported a streetcar: Once with some information about financing and costs possibly being scaled back, and once without any background.

'The information we shared with them doesn't look like it had that much of an impact on people's feelings,' Davis said. 'Part of that is people have got to have this information verified; there is a lot of negativity, a lot of skepticism and cynicism, around this information.

'The general opinion climate out there is very negative - the most negative I've seen in 30 years.'

Asked which transportation projects should rise as priorities given limited funding, respondents were most concerned about fixing and maintaining local roads and side streets.

'This is very much on the minds of people in Lake Oswego' as well as the Portland area, Davis said. 'That and sidewalks.'

The results also showed many people want more transportation options that don't require them to get in a car. Aside from city streets, respondents were most concerned about reducing traffic congestion between Lake Oswego and Portland. Many wanted more frequent public transit service between the cities and more bicycle and pedestrian paths.

'It's a wide variety of motivations now for people supporting those alternatives,' Davis said, noting some want to bike or walk for their health, while others might simply want to quit spending money on gas.

Reducing congestion in the Lake Grove area and improving parking options downtown ranked lower in urgency but were also considered medium priorities.

A handful of community members criticized the project Tuesday, and councilors Kehoe, Jeff Gudman and Mary Olson all wanted to back out of the streetcar study.

'To me (the survey data) is valuable enough to forego the cost of a vote and use the survey information instead,' Olson said.

'We've reached an exit ramp,' Gudman said. 'Let's take it and begin the orderly wind-down meeting obligations we have.'

But the mayor and councilors Donna Jordan, Sally Moncrieff and Bill Tierney opted to go forward with a May 2012 citywide vote.

Citing 'countless hours' officials have spent considering the streetcar line, Tierney said he would be 'very uncomfortable' not moving ahead with a vote. The survey shows 'a majority has concerns with the streetcar.'

'But it also shows strong support for the streetcar,' he said. 'I committed to a vote of the citizens in May and I think that is an important vote.'

'The streetcar doesn't operate in isolation,' Moncrieff said. 'It works with Foothills to make that a great neighborhood just like Mountain Park is a great planned neighborhood and just like Westlake is a great planned neighborhood. You can't stop growth, but you can plan how and where that growth will happen to benefit the community.'

Jordan said she worried that people needed more, or more accurate, details about the plan.

'There was a lot of information out there that was conflicting information,' she said. 'There were people who thought streetcar means we're going to have 25-story buildings in Foothills, but I wouldn't want that either, and that's not what we're looking at. If it meant we all of a sudden wouldn't be able to fund our police force, I would be concerned about that, but that's not what it means, either.'

After the meeting, asked whether a negative vote from citizens in May might lead the council to reverse course on the streetcar proposal, Hoffman's response was brief: 'Sure,' he said.

But for now, Hoffman said, he feels the conversation should focus on Foothills.

City staff members are set to come back before the council with a plan for public outreach in about three weeks.

To read the Lake Oswego Review's previous story about the streetcar survey, go to http://www.lakeoswegoreview.com/news/story.php?story_id=132130281647627000