BY BRIAN LIBBY
Attention all passengers: your train will be late in departing. Please seek alternate methods of transportation that clog the highways, keep your affluent bedroom community insulated, and encourage sprawl.
Whether you live just outside Portland in suburban Lake Oswego or any number of regions around the country, a recent series of budget skirmishes among elected officials and citizens is meaning that rail transit's promising alternative to sprawl, pollution, automobile congestion and global warming is coming (perhaps like an Amtrak ride) to an unnecessary stop in the middle of nowhere.
As Michael Cooper reports in Wednesday's New York Times, the recent budget deal reached by President Obama and Congress "will not only eliminate financing for high-speed rail this year, but will also take back some of the money that Congress approved for it last year."
Earlier this year in his State of the Union address, the president called for giving 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years. Obama had also proposed spending $53 billion on a high-speed rail program over the next six years. But these goals may now be in jeopardy, and possibly Obama's chance to be a father of high-speed rail in the United States as Dwight Eisenhower was for the interstate highway system.
"Roughly $10 billion has been approved for high-speed rail so far, but that money has been spread to dozens of projects around the country," Cooper writes. "If Congress does not approve more money, it is possible that the net result of all that spending will be better regular train service in many areas, and a small down payment on one bullet train, in California."
Yet, as a New York Times editorial argues, the budget agreement "...will hurt those on the economy’s lowest rungs. Many of those cuts, in particular, satisfy ancient Republican ideological urges but have little or no effect on the long-term budget deficit....Can Republicans actually prefer to consign Americans to crowded airports and choked highways?"
Ironically, the GOP presents itself as the party of business. But any business person knows you've got to spend money to make money, investing in resources that will, in turn, help generate revenue and, in the government's case, add to tax coffers. Those who simply complain about losing money are like losing players in the game of Monopoly: "I saved all my cash from passing 'Go'. Why are these people with the little hotels and houses bothering me? It's not fair!"
Don't take my word for it. And don't assume this is only a liberal position. Take the opinion of Patrick Hays, mayor of North Little Rock, Arkansas, not exactly a bastion of liberalism, in a recent US News editorial. "High-speed intercity passenger rail, as the term implies and as it operates daily around the world is, well, fast. It is also exceedingly safe, comfortable, dependable, and energy efficient," he writes. "Traveling at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour in some cases, these trains are the norm in parts of Europe and Asia and have become economic engines for the communities they serve."
Our economic engine? It happens to run through somebody's backyard.
Locally, the slash in rail funding and in commitments to its future could put the long-awaited Cascadia high speed rail line between Eugene and Vancouver, BC into an indefinite wait or kill the project altogether.
This isn't just the potential death of a dream about riding futuristic bullet trains like Japan and France built a generation ago. It's the loss of a key component in a holistic approach to transit in the Northwest. High speed rail would have been a better investment, for example, than the Columbia Crossing mega-bridge project. There's already two bridges to Vancouver, BC from Portland. What we need is to connect our largest cities in a matter that enhances economic viability. It's not just about reducing automobile congestion, although that would be a positive dividend. It's about creating an inter-urban infrastructure that aids long-term growth and encourages high-density development in central cities.
It's not just the national Republican party or their unhinged Tea Party stepchildren that have voraciously clamored to move backward. Take a look at Lake Oswego. This is the only bedroom community in the Portland metro area that already has rail tracks built (the old Willamette Shore trolley line) which can accommodate streetcars, and yet this is also the suburb complaining most vociferously against a streetcar extension being built to their front door.
Nevermind that streetcars are proven to be a successful economic development tool, bringing mixed use, pedestrian-friendly developments beside their tracks. Those trains might scare some poor person out for a walk. Or, worse yet, they might bring undesirably non-Lake Oswegans to Lake Oswego too easily.
"If fallout from a public hearing in Lake Oswego is any indication, the community is hoping the City Council derails plans to have a Portland streetcar extend into the city," writes Everton Bailey Jr. in The Oregonian.
"Almost 150 people packed the council chambers in Lake Oswego City Hall on Tuesday, where the public made their last attempt to sway an upcoming council recommendation on a transit option connecting Lake Oswego to Portland. Of the more than 90 people who offered testimony, two-thirds were against a controversial streetcar proposal as the preferred alternative in the Lake Oswego to Portland Transit Project."
Next Tuesday the Lake Oswego City Council will votes on a recommendation made in February by the streetcar's citizen advisory committee and regional steering committee to go ahead the streetcar option. Bailey reports that Lake Oswego officials appear to be headed for a 4-3 vote in favor of the streetcar over the other two options: an enhanced bus plan and no transit improvement at all. Afterward, the Portland City Council is also scheduled to vote, and in coming months officials from Clackamas County, Multnomah County, will make recommendations, all in anticipation of a Metro Council final decision this summer.
"Yes, it would be nice to have a streetcar, in fact, the idea that it would be nice so far has been the strongest argument that I've heard today," said former candidate for governor Chris Dudley, in testimony at the Lake Oswego hearing (as quoted by Bailey). "But, in these uncertain economic times when we are struggling to pay for the necessities, we simply cannot justify paying for niceties."
It's a clever tactic by Dudley, and a common one used by conservatives and other streetcar foes: implying that this transit node is some sort of indulgent boutique item, when in reality streetcars, like subways, are the lifeblood of a negotiable, well functioning city. Perhaps Dudley could look to the Pearl District, where hundreds of millions of dollars were invested over the past decade, in large part because of the streetcar tracks built there. How much major building investments were made in Lake Oswego over the past decade?
And therein lies the rub. Dudley and others may make the reasonable argument that Portland and its suburbs already have difficulty affording the transit infrastructure our area already possesses. After all, the economy is still in the long process of rebounding, unemployment is high, and locals don't want to see their taxes raised. But specifically as it relates to a Lake Oswego streetcar line, I've long believed that this is about more than money. Lake Oswego could build a streetcar line more cheaply than any other suburb because of the existing Willamette Shore trolley tracks. Yet they are the most organized in opposition.
After all, transit encourages the economy, but there is a price of sorts: people from anywhere in Portland, unmentionables included, moving with ease into their idyllic picket-fenced small town.
However, just as Wisconsin and Florida's rejection of high speed rail makes California's line more of a viable future reality, so too ought Lake Oswego's streetcar opposition give reason for building lines elsewhere instead. The long-term streetcar line includes eastern spurs from the new Grand Avenue/Martin Luther King Boulevard line currently being built. If Lake Oswego doesn't want a streetcar, chances are that Belmont Street, Alberta Street, Division, Weidler or any other main East Side arterial will be happy to take it.
"The plans that you have been discussing have brought a schism in this community that I've never seen in my life," Alice Schlenker, who served as Lake Oswego mayor from 1988 to 1996, told her fellow citizens at the recent hearing. "I had City Hall full of people against whatever project we were doing many, many times but it did not create this schism, this break in the community."
"This is a community project that needs to be given very careful consideration,” she added. “I think this is one time when you need to listen to the citizens of Lake Oswego because we do deserve a continued livable community and we do always want a wonderful quality of life."
Funny, though, how "wonderful quality of life" can have different definitions. I'd define such a concept as a place with high density, mixed use development connected to other neighborhoods with rail transit. I wouldn't define quality of life as being stuck in rush-hour traffic on Highway 43 to Lake Oswego, looking to escape urbanity's melting pot for the comfort of my mock-Tudor mansion. It's one thing to oppose a streetcar because we simply can't afford it. But to imply that mass transit is a quality-of-life deterrent smacks of an obstinacy far more than financial.
[Editor's note: two photos taken by Everton Bailey for The Oregonian were removed at the paper's request.]