Downtown Portland at SW Third and Washington (image courtesy Cafe Unknown)
There may not be many buildings going up during the Great Recession, but transit is, well, moving along.
Anna Griffin's Saturday Oregonian column looked at streetcar investment in Portland today compared to the network that used to exist here. It all started with Griffin overhearing a man grumbling over his sushi at a local restaurant about streetcar costs, construction headaches, and lack of ridership.
"I'm right there with you, annoyed at the traffic backup as construction crews lay streetcar tracks on the bridge and skeptical about whether anyone but tourists will ride when it opens in 2012," Griffin wrote. "But let's make sure we're grumbling about the right thing -- like the fact that taxpayers are spending several hundred million dollars -- billions, if you consider what's happening nationally -- correcting planning mistakes of the past."
"A century ago we would have begun that rare night out by hopping on the neighborhood streetcar and using a network that went anywhere our little hearts might wander. Downtown for supper and a show. Council Crest to ride the carousel. Milwaukie, for whatever people did in Milwaukie back then. 'Anywhere you couldn't walk, you took the streetcar,' said Carl Abbott, an urban studies professor at Portland State."
In 1906, the Portland Railway Light and Power Company operated 40 lines over 172 miles of track. Amidst the rise of the automobile, suburbs and highway construction after World War II, Portland, like most all American cities, abandoned its streetcar system. Today we're spending $150 million to build 3.3 miles of streetcar on the east side and connect with the existing four-mile line on the west side of the Willamette River. But we still have a long, long way to go if we seek to match the extensiveness of the old system.
King's Cross Station, London (photo by Brian Libby)
Meanwhile, on another train front, Nathalie Weinstein reports in the Daily Journal of Commerce that the State of Oregon will not seek high-speed rail funding from the round of $2.1 billion in US Department of Transportation grants for high-speed rail corridor proposals, nor from the $245 million for specific construction projects within those corridors.
Though ODOT has several multi-million dollar rail projects on the boards, Betsy Imholt, ODOT rail study director, told Weinstein the transit department won’t apply for this round of fundingthe timeline for the grants, which must be applied for by Aug. 6, is too tight to find a 20 percent funding match from another group. She went on to explain that if ODOT had a 20 percent funding match from another source, it could apply for funding for studies to improve freight rail connections near the Rose Quarter and to improve the traffic flow of freight trains along the east bank of the Willamette River.
“All of ODOT’s money is legally tied to other projects and can’t be used for this,” Imholt said. “The money from road fees has to go back into roads. The timeline is just too fast to find a project partner.” In the meantime, ODOT is waiting to hear back on a US DOT grant it applied for in May to update the state’s rail plan, and to study the possibility of a high-speed rail line between Eugene and Portland.
What I wondered after reading about the non-application for high speed rail funding is, why don't we already have a plan in place? It's one thing for the state to simply have the funds or matching funds from another source. But why, in this Great Recession, are we seemingly wasting time and the chance to garner many millions in federal funding on merely studying the issue? I wish the state were ready to roll, both figuratively and literally. Let's not just contemplate high speed rail over the next decade. Let's make it happen.
It's not to say there isn't a place for study and preparation. But meanwhile, the Rose Quarter's future is being determined right now. Many have argued that a high-speed rail station makes sense in this location, both because the Rose Quarter is so centralized and because an east side location would be easier for a high speed train to negotiate. If we had an existing local and regional high speed rail plan in place, wouldn't this be a good time to dovetail those plans with a multimillion-dollar investment like the Rose Quarter?
On another transit front, an upcoming City Club discussion asks, "Do we need a regional bridge authority?"
Hawthorne Bridge, Portland (photo by Brian Libby)
"Portland metro area bridges - which connect multiple cities in several counties and are used daily by many of the region's 1.5 million residents - have a vital impact on our region's transportation," the club's announcement reads. "And yet, from replacing the crumbling Sellwood Bridge to doubts about Multnomah County's ability to fund bridges as well as other vital services, governance questions about bridge ownership, operation, use and funding continue to plague regional progress. City Club's recent report, Moving Forward: A Better Way to Govern Regional Transportation, recommended that many of these issues could be resolved by bringing area bridges under the control of a single bridge authority established by Metro."
On July 30, the City Club will host a Friday Forum discussion with Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury; Lynn Peterson, Chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners; and Mike Burton, Vice-Provost at PSU and former Metro Executive Officer about the pros and cons of a regional bridge authority, what actions might be needed to make this recommendation a reality and what other governance alternatives should be considered.
The Friday Forum will be held at The Governor Hotel at 614 SW 11th Avenue. Reserved lunches are $16 for members; $20 for nonmembers. Coffee/tea tickets are available at the door for $5 members/$10 non-members. General admission seats are available at the door, free for members/$5 for non-members.
Meanwhile, if the Portland area is struggling just to maintain the bridges it has, and to build a more extensive network of MAX trains and streetcars, do we really need the new Tri-Met bridge over the Willamette that is currently being planned? It would be wedged between the Ross Island and Marquam bridges. It would require many millions in transportation dollars that could (presumably) otherwise go to laying down more light rail and streetcar tracks. It has had a controversial design process in which one of the nation's most acclaimed bridge designers (Miguel Rosales) walked away with bitterness and frustration.
What if, instead, Tri-Met were to route MAX over the Hawthorne Bridge? Wouldn't that be cheaper and more effective? The location of the new bridge, after all, is far enough south of the downtown core that it wouldn't even make an effective way to cross the river unless one were headed to Sellwood, Milwaukie, or other parts south while much of Southeast Portland waits for a rail crossing of their own.