Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites

Do streetcar right or dont do it at all

The end of the line for the streetcar?

Consider two facts about the proposed streetcar and Bus Rapid Transit:

1. As planned, they'd increase downtown Lake Oswego congestion, with the streetcar being worse.

2. Neither would noticeably affect Highway 43 congestion.

How could this be? Metro predicts that BRT would provide 8,700 rides daily in 2025 and the streetcar 10,900. If thousands of commuters leave their cars, how could we not reduce congestion?

Metro's Lake Oswego to Portland Transit and Trail Alternatives Analysis assumes that vehicle hours spent on 43 will grow almost 50 percent faster than elsewhere. Why? Why wouldn't drivers just migrate to other routes? The answer is that we would.

Nobody has to take Highway 43 to Portland. We have options. We don't even have to use it to go to the Sellwood Bridge. We could take Terwilliger and Taylors Ferry. If it takes longer to use 43 than other roads, we'll just take another route. It's that simple.

It works the other way, too. If traffic drops on 43, we'll migrate from other routes until we find equilibrium. The effect ripples throughout the road system. Since Highway 43 carries a small minority of all commuters, major changes there are quickly absorbed and become hardly noticeable.

So if the proposed systems won't significantly affect 43 congestion, why would they increase it downtown? Two reasons: The minimal impact on Highway 43 and flawed project design.

The flaw is terminating the transit line in downtown Lake Oswego. Commuters will need to get between home and the terminus. Some could walk, use a bike or take feeder bus lines. Everyone else will need other means (i.e. private cars).

So LOAA includes 400 downtown park and ride spaces in the project.

Without a corresponding drop in traffic, every vehicle trying to get into or out of downtown during the crush just adds to congestion.

Feeder line lots won't solve the problem. Why should commuters bother waiting for a bus just to wait again at the terminus? Why not just drive in and bypass the feeder system entirely?

We could change project design.

We could move the streetcar terminus to Marylhurst or beyond. We could add two branches with one going up McVey and Stafford, and another on Country Club to Boones Ferry (perhaps eventually connecting with the new Wilsonville-Beaverton commuter rail line.) However, any of these would be costly and might never be justified. The downtown terminus is the streetcar's fatal flaw.

We could eliminate the BRT terminus, at least during commute hours, and continue the buses as we do today. This wouldn't cost a penny and might actually save money.

By the way, did you see the Lake Oswego Review (July19) headline - 'Proposed streetcar cheaper in long run'? Many things have to fall into place for that to happen, including:

1. Corridor transit ridership would have to grow a staggering 480 percent in the next 18 years. In the last 18 years, TriMet ridership grew only 34 percent.

2. TriMet would have to miss out on revolutionary advances in bus propulsion systems such as the diesel-electric hybrids available now, or plug-in hybrids and battery-electrics which almost certainly will be available in the next few years.

3. We'd have to ignore the fact that the streetcar option increases the cost of a much needed, safe and reasonably level Willamette corridor bicycle/pedestrian pathway from $7 to (more than) $58 million.

All this is so counterintuitive. It's hard to accept the fact that thousands of commuters choosing transit would actually lead to more congestion. It's especially difficult for those who've put in so much effort to bring streetcars to Lake Oswego.

Streetcars have advantages. They would speed up commutes, attract visitors and not burn petroleum. If done well, the project could be a real asset. It's just that we need to do it right or not at all.

R A Fontes is a resident of Lake Oswego.