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Transit plan has to put safety first

The addition of MAX light-rail cars on the downtown transit mall must be accompanied by increased commitments and performances by TriMet, the downtown business community, the city of Portland and the Portland Development Commission.

We place pedestrian and driver safety at the top of that list. But the health and vitality of downtown as a vibrant and safe shopping, business and entertainment center also is very important. The effective operation and improvement of light-rail cars and buses within downtown (and throughout the region), along with reduced car and truck congestion on adjacent downtown streets, also must be priorities.

We expect that light rail can be added safely to the mall. But only if TriMet and the city ensure from Day One of operation that safety is their first Ñ and forever Ñ priority.

TriMet has made the pledge. The public should expect that commitment to be adhered to and improved upon. The city of Portland has an equal responsibility for safety. It must ensure that traffic signals and street lighting are strategically placed and kept in working order. Reducing the number of working street lights cannot ever be a money-saving measure. And city police officers must be visibly present and prompt to cite violators of safety laws.

But downtown is more than a street system or a transit mall. It should be a safe and attractive community gathering place; a robust shopping and economic marketplace; an entertainment destination and a place of which to be proud. Many aspects of the current bus transit mall fail these requirements.

Too many transients and panhandlers frequent the mall. Too many businesses have entrances that don't open onto the mall or storefronts that don't enrich the mall. Over the years, street surfaces and brick surfaces have decayed. For too many people, the transit mall doesn't feel safe. As a result, all of downtown suffers.

This can be changed, however. The addition of light rail on the transit mall must be accompanied by an expanded commitment from TriMet, the City Council, the PDC and the business community to improve the mall and adjoining downtown streets.

Already plans for the addition of light rail include the creation of a mall management group and about $500,000 annually to oversee and program activities at transit station centers on the mall, in much the same way that Pioneer Square operates. This effort will augment existing maintenance by the city and TriMet along with business-funded programs, such as Portland guides, enhanced security and cleaning efforts.

This is only a start. What is required is a business- and community-based strategy for downtown and the transit mall that provides not only for a vision for downtown but sets in motion actual accomplishments and improvements. This vision must be a priority of the City Council, aided by community and business leaders and supported by TriMet and the PDC.

Only then can the transit mall and Portland's downtown receive vitally needed attention and improvements.