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Critics give Lake Oswego streetcar a bumpy ride

Neighbors battle plan as supporters hope to cut Highway 43 traffic
by: JAIME VALDEZ Mayor Sam Adams, pictured here at a March 22 transportation-related event in South Waterfront, says the Portland portion of the streetcar extension from there to Lake Oswego is necessary for the city's future.

April could prove to be a critical month for a proposed streetcar line that is seen as essential by Portland's mayor, but is being fiercely opposed by some prominent Lake Oswego-area residents.

The line is just one option under consideration by the Lake Oswego to Portland Transit Project. But opposition already has made this proposal one of the most controversial transportation-planning efforts in the region.

The next set of decisions, scheduled for April, only involve which option to study further, but the fight already has the feel of a final showdown. Supporters and opponents are battling over cost estimates and potential environmental impacts.

Mayor Sam Adams says the proposed extension of the Portland Streetcar line is critical for his city's future. The Portland section will run from the southern end of the growing South Waterfront district along Southwest Macadam Avenue through the Johns Landing area to the Sellwood Bridge.

'The line has always been envisioned in the planning for South Waterfront's transportation needs. It will also allow the build-out of the Johns Landing neighborhood, which is necessary to help accommodate the 300,000 more people expected to move here by 2035,' says Adams, referring to the approximate number of new residents Portland is planning to receive over the next 24 years.

But the line is opposed by many residents in Lake Oswego and the Dunthorpe neighborhood between the two cities. Some have hired Portland lobbyist Len Bergstein to stop it.

'This is the wrong project in the wrong place at the wrong time,' Bergstein says.

The Lake Oswego and Portland city councils are scheduled next month to choose an option for dealing with growing congestion on Highway 43 between the two cities. The choices are an extension of the existing Portland Streetcar line, increased TriMet bus service in the transportation corridor, or doing nothing.

The streetcar is the most expensive alternative. It is estimated at up to $361.3 million, plus the donated value of existing rights of way between the two cities, appraised at up to $97 million.

In contrast, enhanced bus service would cost about $51.1 million.

Streetcar supporters such as Adams say the proposed line would do much more than offer an alternative means to travel between the two cities. They argue it also would support growth in the urban areas along the line, including new mixed-use developments on Southwest Macadam Avenue and an urban village in the Foothills District of Lake Oswego. They cite the success of the streetcar line in Portland, which is credited with helping to attract $3.5 billion in new development since 1997.

Although enhanced bus service costs less, studies suggest the additional runs will not take enough cars off the road to reduce congestion significantly during rush hours.

Streetcar opponents say the price of a new line is too high, especially considering the lingering effects of the recession and federal budget uncertainty. Some Lake Oswego residents also oppose redeveloping the Foothills District, claiming such growth would harm their city's small-town feel.

Many Dunthorpe residents say the line would be too close to some existing homes in their neighborhood north of Lake Oswego. They also worry about environmental hazards, including landslides in the area recently documented on maps published by the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries.

The Lake Oswego City Council is scheduled to choose a 'locally preferred option' for further study on April 19. The Portland City Council will vote the next day. Other governments will weigh in, including the Multnomah and Clackamas county boards of commissioners, TriMet and, eventually, Metro, the elected regional government.

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COURTESY OF METRO • The proposed Portland-to-Lake Oswego streetcar line would be an extension of the existing Portland streetcar line that stops in South Waterfront.

Neighborhood opposition

Metro is leading the process to choose the best means to improve transportation on Highway 43, which provides a primary connection between Portland and Lake Oswego along the Willamette River.

Highway 43 has grown increasingly congested, especially during rush hours. It also narrows from four lanes to two north of Lake Oswego - and because the two-lane portion of the highway is constructed through steep hills in a residential neighborhood, it cannot be easily widened. That is why other means of increasing capacity in the corridor are being explored.

Anticipating the need to offer transportation alternatives, a coalition of governments bought an abandoned rail line from Southern Pacific Railroad in 1988 for $2 million. The Willamette Shoreline Consortium is made up of Metro, the cities of Lake Oswego and Portland, Clackamas and Multnomah counties, the Oregon Department of Transportation and TriMet. Since 1990, Lake Oswego has leased the right of way to operate a trolley service on the line, run by the Oregon Electric Railroad Historic Society.

Since the line was abandoned in 1929, homes and businesses have been built in or near the right of way. The closest include a number of condominiums in the Johns Landing area of Portland, several houses in the Dunthorpe neighborhood and a public storage facility at the south end of Lake Oswego.

After months of analysis, the Lake Oswego to Portland Transit Project Steering Committee was asked to recommend one of the three options for further study. The committee, made up of elected and appointed officials from each of the project jurisdictions, recommended the streetcar option on Feb. 28.

The proposed line would connect to an existing Portland Streetcar system in South Waterfront. Although Portland planners always have considered the line to be an important part of the future transportation system, the idea has been controversial from the start.

Early critics included residential property owners in the Johns Landing area. Opposition there softened after project staff recommended routing the streetcar around riverfront housing and onto Southwest Macadam Avenue. That proposal would carry the line past businesses that include the Water Tower retail and restaurant building between Corbett and Boundary streets. Now, many of the area residents support the streetcar alternative, saying it could revitalize the commercial district.

Others not happy with the project include homeowners in the Dunthorpe and Riverdale neighborhoods between the two cities. They believe the line threatens their quality of life and the environment in the hills it would run through. Partly in response, project staffers offered the option of running part of the line on portions of Southwest Riverwood Road, a residential street. Unlike the reaction in Johns Landing, however, this concession has not significantly reduced opposition.

The line does have its supporters, including the Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce.

Question of funds

When the proposed line reaches Lake Oswego, it runs along the western edge of the Foothills District, a 107-acre parcel that has been discussed as a potential infill project for several years. The district stretches between Highway 43 and the river from just south of E Avenue to Leonard Street, the road to the city's oldest homes. It includes a mix of small industrial businesses, office buildings, condominiums, apartments, a shopping center, a new riverfront park and a sewage treatment plant owned and operated by the city of Portland.

The Lake Oswego City Council has worked with property owners in the Foothills District to determine its redevelopment potential since 2003. The council hired Williams, Dame and White as project manager in 2008. The company had previously worked on projects in Portland's Pearl District and South Waterfront neighborhoods, both of which are served by Portland Streetcar lines. The council approved a predevelopment agreement with the company and some property owners last year.

Williams, Dame and White President Dike Dame says the proposed streetcar line is essential for fully redeveloping the Foothills District. Testifying before the Lake Oswego council last May, Dames said, 'Could something develop there without a streetcar? Sure. Will it really maximize the potential of the property, which I consider to be one of the best infill sites in metropolitan Portland? No. I don't think its very exciting without it. As a developer, that's how I look at it.'

Like the proposed streetcar line, the redevelopment project also is controversial. It is opposed by members of Keep Lake Oswego Livable, the citizens group that hired Bergstein to fight the streetcar line.

According to Bergstein, cost is a major reason for opposing the streetcar project. Project staff members expect the federal government to pay 60 percent, or up to $275 million, of the $361.3 million total, which includes property acquisition, construction and train purchases. The value of the rights of way will be donated as part of the local match. That leaves up to $86.3 million more that must be raised locally.

Bergstein, however, questions all the figures. He notes that the federal government is only paying 50 percent of the Portland-to-Milwaukie MAX project. Bergstein also says the right of way is worth far less than $97 million, meaning the local match must be much higher than $86.3 million.

'Where is the local match going to come from? Lake Oswego is looking at closing schools. Shouldn't that be a higher priority?' Bergstein asks.

Adams says communities that haven't been served by transit are often opposed at first to the introduction of new alternatives. 'Afterwards, they are satisfied with them,' he says.

The Lake Oswego Review contributed to this story.