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City getting serious about streetcars

by: David F. Ashton, Answering questions about the project was PDOT Senior Transit Planner Patrick Sweeney.

Although the new track system might take a decade to approve and build, streetcars could one day again be running up and down streets here in Inner Southeast Portland.

After the Streetcar Corridor open house sessions across the city last fall, planners from the Portland Office of Transportation (PDOT) have actively been working on their plans to lay down new trolley tracks.

'This is the Portland Streetcar System Plan Workshop,' said Patrick Sweeney, a senior transit planner with (PDOT), as he welcomed about 80 community members into the crowded Cleveland High School library this spring. 'Streetcars are an important initiative for PDOT and Transportation Commissioner Sam Adams.'

Sweeney asked how many business owners were in the meeting; two hands went up. He then wondered aloud how many present were homeowners or residents - this time a sea of hands floated up.

The reason for considering new streetcars, Sweeny said, is to set up a strategy to deal with the increased population growth likely over the next 20 years. 'We're expecting the Portland metro area's population to grow to over one million people by 2025 - a third of that, being absorbed by the City of Portland.

'The Streetcar System Plan has a lot of potential to help organize the future growth of Portland, as Portland grows,' the planner explained. 'The city is not going to be growing 'horizontally' anymore. The Streetcar System Plan is a way to help organize that growth along transit corridors. This can help take pressure off single-family neighborhoods.

'You might have feelings one way or another about infill policies. What the streetcars would do is help get more residents near higher-quality transit, and reduce greenhouse gases, and so on.'

Only two cities, Portland and Seattle, have modern streetcar systems, he noted.

Transportation Commissioner's objectives

Sweeney told the group that Portland's Transportation Commissioner, Sam Adams, helped the planning group identify project goals.

A successful Streetcar System will:

· Help the City implement its peak oil and sustainability strategies;

· Provide an organizing structure and catalyst for the City's future growth along streetcar corridors; and,

· Integrate streetcar corridors into the City's existing neighborhoods .

Further, a successful Streetcar Corridor was defined as one that will:

· Be a viable transit option with adequate ridership;

· Have (re)development potential; and,

· Demonstrate community support to make the changes necessary for a successful streetcar corridor.

'So, determining the level of community support here is what we'll talk about tonight,' Sweeney said.

Winnowing process underway

There are many corridors throughout the city along which streetcars lines could be built, explained Sweeney. 'The System Advisory Committee (SAC) is in the process of narrowing these corridors from about 200 miles of corridors for streetcars down 123 miles. From there, we'll try to choose the very best corridors.' Eventually, the SAC will winnow corridors down 75 miles, he added.

Project staff member Sharon Kelly stepped up to talk about funding. 'This $150 million project will be financed by a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant.'

The FTA will put up $75 million in matching funds per segment of the streetcar line; the City will fund the remainder. The existing streetcar line downtown was paid for by a Local Improvement District, she added.

Members of the group at the meeting peppered the presenters with many questions regarding potential streetcar routes.

Others asked about how the streetcars could impact on-street parking, bicycle routes, bus schedules and routes, and traffic congestion.

After the session, Metro Counselor Robert Liberty observed, 'People who came to the meeting asked good questions. They raised many concerns and issues about streetcars in Portland.'

Sweeney invited those present to join a 'district working group' that will consider streetcar lines in Southeast Portland. 'Your input will feed into the SAC.'

Citizens who accepted the invitation at that time have become involved in a two-month process. 'We put information in your hands; you can talk to your neighbors about it, read it and evaluate it, and ask us questions.'

At the end of their process, the district working group will be tasked to summarize and present a written report to the committee. The final screening process is scheduled to be completed by June.