Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites

Streetcar: Its not easy to move into the future

Are you having trouble wrapping your head around $458 million?

We admit that we are.

That number is the current high-end estimate (in 2017 dollars) of what the costs would be to bring a new streetcar line down into Lake Oswego from Portland. The low-end estimate is $380 million. This is not the amount that Lake Oswego itself would be expected to shell out, but the overall cost that would be divided between the federal government and money from Portland, Clackamas and Multnomah counties, TriMet, Metro, the state and Lake Oswego.

Proponents of the project have indicated that 60 percent of the total would come from the feds; opponents suggest 50 percent would be more likely. Recent tax battles back in Washington, D.C. indicate that we are entering an unknown world with regard to federal dollars.

Our very first suggestion would be if we are to go forward all efforts should be made to trim that total down. Substantially down.

As the tumultuous turnout on the streetcar before the city council Tuesday evening clearly indicates, this is an issue that is divisive to the very core of our community: People have strong emotions on both sides and there appears to be little middle ground. Indeed, we need to look no further than our own city council to see how this split plays out: If Mary Olson, Mike Kehoe and Jeff Gudman can win the ear of just one more fellow councilor, they will be able to block the city's effort to support the streetcar.

Next Tuesday the council will vote on the Lake Oswego to Portland Transit Project steering committee's recommendation to support the streetcar option. If it goes along with the recommendation, it would lead to spending about $2.5 million from the city's Lake Oswego Redevelopment Agency to fund Lake Oswego's share for the next phase of planning for the project. That vote will be among many (the Portland City Council is scheduled to vote next Wednesday) that will be necessary to take the streetcar proposal to the next level.

To that end, we are inclined to suggest - with a number of caveats - that the city council take a bold step Tuesday and commit funds that hopefully will better show what's really going to be on the table and what the costs will be precisely. Once that knowledge is acquired, we would like to see a well-defined advisory vote of city residents (we are not as enchanted with a survey), on whether this is the direction citizens truly want to go.

While money spent is, well, money spent, this next series of steps does not lock the project in, but it will provide a much clearer picture of what is at stake. And what, precisely is that? Regional governments are evaluating the concept of expanding the Portland streetcar system into the suburbs. The proposed route generally follows the line of the Willamette Shore Trolley down from the area where the OHSU tram is located near the Willamette River through Johns Landing, along Highway 43, through Dunthorpe and into Lake Oswego. Back in the late 1980s, government entities - including Lake Oswego - decided to purchase that trolley track as a way of keeping alive the possible option of the streetcar.

In the process of bringing the streetcar into Lake Oswego, proponents suggest that the Foothills area below State Street along the Willamette would be developed, bringing in more population and businesses to help the city with its stagnant tax base. Opponents argue the cost is too high, it will disrupt life along the route, could bring crime into Lake Oswego and create new traffic issues, some of which would be linked to a parking garage that is part of the overall proposal.

There are red flags dominating this process. There also is the two-edged sword of misinformation and fear being used to help spread support for the various points of view. And there are the undeniable population projections that suggest the metro area will see an influx in growth and that planners should be prepared with places to put them and ways for them to navigate the area.

If, as proponents say, we have reached a 'once in a lifetime' moment for the streetcar to become a reality, then it's prudent for our city to generate the best-possible picture of what's at stake.

Among the issues that need to be sorted out are the following:

In the end, precisely how much would Lake Oswego's share of the streetcar really be: At this point in time, we can reluctantly support spending money now to help determine what the overall picture is going to be. But once we really know the precise numbers, will we be able to afford it? So far the city has spent around $265,000 on its portion of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and other costs. The next phase of planning, which is what the council will be voting on, includes money for the city's share of the Final Environmental Impact Statement and more defined engineering. Overall, all of this should cost the region $25 million and $2.5 million is estimated to be Lake Oswego's share.

Appraisal of the rail right-of-way: Only with a realistic number will leaders be able to better estimate future decisions. And the appraised value of the rail line will definitely impact local costs.

Development potential: The role of Foothills is intricately linked to this project. Many numbers have been thrown around and some aren't clear. There are possible sewer and floodplain issues that have to be resolved. Density questions persist. Traffic decisions must be made. How will infrastructure costs be paid for? Information relating to this should be available in September.

Streetcar operation: Who will operate it and at what cost? TriMet has been facing economic struggles recently and there could be issues for it down the road.

Environmental concerns: This has become a rallying cry on both sides. What's the reality?

We hope that for the good of the community the council can move forward on this (and other issues) in a civil way. There's way too much sniping and political grenade tossing going on in and out of city hall on this and other topics.

We get that this is an incredibly tough time in our country, state and city. We know that jobs have been lost, wages have been cut, fees have been raised and the city is repeatedly accused of spreading itself too thin and taking on too many costly projects.

We have reservations in supporting the city's vote to take the next look at the streetcar. We struggle with many of the same concerns that opponents bring up.

If, however, we don't take action to at least get a realistic look at what the big picture looks like, then we might be making a mistake that could provide a disservice to our very future. The next vote doesn't lock us into having a streetcar; but a no vote would go a long way towards ending our ability to find out what we would be getting into.

No doubt: $458 million is a lot of money. But if the total could be brought down, it might be the perfect amount for a brighter transportation future for Lake Oswego and the metro area. It might not. But let's try to find out first.