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Streetcar hitches a ride on Sellwood Bridge work

Portland goes ahead with plans despite loss of Lake Oswego line
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Tug boats keep three construction barges in place under the Sellwood Bridge, where work has started on a replacement bridge. It will cost an additional $3.5 million to make the new bridge

Multnomah County is still planning to spend an additional $3.5 million to prepare the replacement Sellwood Bridge to carry a future Portland Streetcar line, even though the reason for the work is no longer valid.

The money will pay for a thicker bridge deck, larger girders and foundations, and stronger light pole foundations to support overhead power lines.

The additional money was originally supposed to pay for a streetcar connection to the proposed Portland-to-Lake Oswego extension. But that project went off track early this month when City Councilor Bill Tierney, the swing vote on the Lake Oswego council, withdrew his support for the transit extension.

The money is included despite the fact that the $268.8 million replacement Sellwood Bridge project still has a $5 million funding gap.

Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, the county commission's point person on the project, justifies keeping the $3.5 million in the budget by calling it a reasonable investment.

'It's a relatively small amount of money to plan for the future,' she says.

Kafoury notes that Portland Mayor Sam Adams insisted the bridge be 'streetcar ready' in exchange for the city providing $73.5 million for the project. That is the second-highest contribution next to the county's $127 million.

Adams is a strong transit advocate who envisions a network of new streetcar lines someday linking different city neighborhoods. Although the county owns the aging bridge, the city is helping to pay for its replacement in a deal brokered by Adams and Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen.

Kafoury also notes that other major road projects have included money for future transit lines. For example, when the Interstate 205 freeway was being planned, Oregon's Department of Transportation bought additional rights of way used for future MAX lines to the Portland International Airport and to Clackamas Town Center.

Other funding sources include $30 million from the state for a new Highway 43 interchange, and $17.7 million from the federal government, leaving a $5 million gap the county is still working to close.

Alignment spares homes

The southern edge of the Portland Streetcar runs along Southwest Lowell Street in the South Waterfront neighborhood. The cost of extending it into Sellwood has not yet been estimated. But a lot of time has been spent studying how to extend the line from South Waterfront along Southwest Macadam Avenue to Nevada Street, just east of the Oregon Public Broadcasting building - a relatively short distance from the Sellwood Bridge.

The work was done as part of the planning process for the Portland-to-Lake Oswego line. However, such an extension is not discussed much in the Portland Streetcar Concept System Plan that is intended to guide future streetcar development. That's because city officials assumed that the Macadam extension was already scheduled to be built as part of the Lake Oswego extension.

Catherine Ciarlo, Adams' transportation policy director, says the Lake Oswego City Council's decision essentially means the Macadam extension must now compete with the other potential lines for approval. But the Macadam extension has two things the others don't. One is a detailed alignment supported by area property owners. The other is a potential financing plan.

The recently released refinement phase final report of the Lake Oswego extension includes an alignment that spares existing homes and potentially benefits businesses along Macadam, including the aging Johns Landing retail center. It was worked out during negotiations with residents and commercial property owners.

Ciarlo notes that ending the extension at Nevada Street would still provide service to the Johns Landing area.

The report estimates the cost of extending the line from Lowell to Macadam and Nevada at $90 million. It includes a financing plan that envisions 60 percent of the needed money - $56.9 million - coming from the Federal Transit Administration. The next-largest contribution would be nearly $16 million from Portland. Other possible funding sources include $10 million in state lottery funds, $3 million in regional transportation funds, $2.3 million in construction-period interest and $2 million in Oregon transportation funds.

Budget constraints loom

It would be difficult for the city to commit to any new streetcar line at this time. For starters, the Portland Bureau of Transportation is still looking for about $10 million to finish the eastside Portland Streetcar extension and run it over the coming Willamette River transit bridge in South Waterfront that is part of the coming Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line.

And PBOT is preparing to cut ongoing expenditures up to $16 million in each its next five annual budgets, in part because of lower-then-expected state gas tax revenue.

But, of course, the county is still committed to preparing the Sellwood Bridge for a streetcar line. In fact, the new interchange to be built at the west end of the bridge is being designed to accommodate the streetcar line.

As recently as last week, county transportation officials were discussing the line with residents of Macadam Bay, a floating home community on the Willamette River just north of the west end of the bridge. Their driveway must be moved to make way for the new interchange.

Discussions including the need to make sure the new driveway won't interfere with a future Portland Streetcar line to the bridge.