Recently Commissioner Sam Adams has advocated for a new Portland streetcar line to the east side of the Willamette River, and to help pay for it the city is exploring expanding or extending the time frame of various urban renewal areas. And there is a sense of urgency to Adams' and others' efforts, because to secure matching federal funds for the streetcar, the city will have to come up with matching funding by an August 14 deadline. The Federal Transit Administration, spurred by Congressman Earl Blumenauer, has encouraged the region to apply for $75 million in matching funds. But how to get our own $75 million to be matched by the feds is difficult for our city's cash-strapped coffers.
However, some are opposed to more or expanded Urban Renewal Areas because they can sap funds from other efforts. For example, Multnomah County chair Ted Wheeler expressed reticence because the county would have to contribute. "We could open 250 beds at Wapato jail," he told the Portland Tribune's Nick Budnick last week. "Given the significant investment the county is making, we should have a direct say in how those dollars are spent."
If you look at the maps of where an east side Grand Avenue/MLK Boulevard streetcar would go, most all of it falls within the current borders of the Central Eastside URA, which extends from the Ross Island Bridge in the south to I-84 in the north, and the Willamette River east to 12th Avenue. The Oregon Convention Center URA extends north from I-84 where the CE URA ends, and extends down Grand and/or MLK all the way to North Portland boulevard.
But the bigger issue is duration. Currently the Central Eastside URA expires in 2018. In order to generate the funds needed on the local side for the streetcar, between $35 and $75 million as I understand it, the URA would have to be extended.
Wheeler is right that something is lost by manipulating URA areas to pay for infrastructure. It's a lot of money that could be used for other budget problems like education.
But Portland has long since gone down the light rail and streetcar path. We've got to keep the faith. And the streetcar is, as the URA fund-generating indicates, a pied piper of investment dollars. Developments spring up along most areas rail tracks happen. Besides, the Grand/MLK area between the Ross Island and Burnside bridges is really an untapped resource. We don't want to scare away all the small businesses in the industrial portion, but these two boulevards are aready zoned for high-density housing but haven't been taken advantage of. A streetcar would change that.
Besides, what's with all the streetcars so far being on the west Side? A few weeks ago I happened to be in South Waterfront on the first day of the new streetcar there. It was empty. Would that have happened with a streetcar on, say, Hawthorne?
Although I agree with Adams on the adding of a Grand/MLK streetcar line, there's just one problem: its attachment to another effort of the Commissioner's -- the Burnside couplet.
I see the Burnside couplet as a 1970s-style effort to move more automobiles. It won't help traffic heading east on Burnside from the West Hills, because there's already the bottleneck of the tunnel feeding into Burnside. Meanwhile, the great "barrier" that some call Burnside will effectively be doubled by making Couch more of an auto-oriented street. I think the couplet plan is contrary to the pedestrian oriented planning that has long been a tradition here. I like Adams, but this plan sucks.
I plan to write a separate post in the days ahead about the couplet plan, but I felt it necessary to bring it into this discussion about Urban Renewal Areas as well.
Whether it's the streetcar or URAs, we also have to remember that neither City Council members nor the Portland Development Commission are planners. Portland has a long history of laudable city planning, and we need to remember that plans like the streetcar or a proposed couplet are not for elected officials or development agencies to put forward without it fitting into comprehensive city-wide plans. It's a shame we haven't had a Central City Plan update that's in step with the Grand/MLK streetcar efforts and the Burnside couplet efforts.