The City's LRT plan has $3.4 billion in federal & provincial funding. Show your support for the plan.

Cities fight to avoid being left at station

Some communities cheer long-range transit plans, but others already feel left out.

By Jim Redden

Published in the Portland Tribune on Aug 20, 2009

Tigard Mayor Craig Dirksen believes a light-rail line from Portland to Sherwood could help relieve traffic congestion and attract development opportunities in his city.

Winners and losers are already emerging from the push to build future light-rail lines.

Tigard Mayor Craig Dirksen was thrilled when the Metro Council approved 16 potential lines for further study on June 25. One of the top priority lines designated by the regional government runs through Dirksen's city from Portland to Sherwood.

"This is very exciting," says Dirksen, who argues that such a line could relieve traffic congestion and attract development along Highway 99W in Tigard.

Portland Mayor Sam Adams said he was pleased that two Portland-related projects were top priorities: the line to Sherwood and another one to Gresham along Southeast Powell Boulevard.

"This will help lay the groundwork for the city and the region to seize opportunities for clean, green transit and the economic development opportunities that go along with it," Adams says.

But Forest Grove Mayor Richard Kidd had the opposite reaction when he saw that a line from Hillsboro to his city was far down the priority list. Kidd was so displeased that he plans to resign in October and run for an open seat on the Washington County Board of Commissioners, where he hopes to convince Metro to move Forest Grove up higher on the list.

"They're treating Forest Grove like a stepchild," says Kidd, who also believes his city needs a light-rail connection to grow. That light-rail line, Kidd says, would connect the city to Washington County's employment centers.

A long process

The emotional reactions to what is essentially a transportation planning document show the importance that many regional officials place on future transit lines. Since the first MAX light-rail line between Portland and Gresham opened in 1986, transit has evolved into something far more than just an energy-efficient way to move people around. Transit is seen as a catalyst for new housing and business development.

That faith was in abundance when TriMet held an Aug. 6 ceremony to mark introduction of 22 new-generation light-rail trains to its fleet. Dozens of regional officials rode a new train from Portland to Hillsboro, where speaker after speaker praised the MAX system for spurring development.

"This transportation system is so beneficial to business," said Beaverton Mayor Dennis Doyle, who hopes to build a new Triple-A baseball stadium for the Portland Beavers near a transit center in the heart of his city.

TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen understands the passions stirred up by the Metro Council's vote and wants everyone to understand that no final decisions have yet been made. Although he agrees the Portland-to-Sherwood line is a good place to start, Hansen believes Kidd is also right to work toward moving the Forest Grove connection higher up the list.

"We are at the very beginning of a long process," Hansen says. "The list will change when it's studied further."

The public will have a chance to comment on the list next month when Metro Chief Operating Officer Mike Jordan releases a report summarizing how much the region is expected to grow in coming decades - and how public investments, such as new transit lines, can influence where the growth occurs.

The report will include recommendations on other growth-related issues, too. It is scheduled to be released on Sept. 15, setting off a 30-day public comment period before the Metro Council begins adopting new policies for managing the expected growth.

Potential urban center

Surveying traffic jamming Highway 99W through Tigard one recent morning, Mayor Dirksen talked about the challenges of relieving rush hour congestion through his city.

"There's no one big solution that's going to fix everything," he said as commuters and freight trucks backed up at the busy Southwest Greenburg Road intersection.

At the same time, Dirksen believes that a new light-rail line from Portland to Sherwood would give drivers an alternative to the bumper-to-bumper traffic. He also believes such a line would spur growth if it passes through the Tigard Triangle, a large tract of property between Highway 99W and Highway 217. Although a number of big box stores are there, Dirksen believes a light-rail line would allow construction of high-density housing projects on vacant land in the area.

"Access to the Tigard Triangle is constructed, but it has the potential to become an urban center if it is served by light rail," Dirksen says.

As Hansen noted, however, the Metro Council did not approve a final plan to build 16 new light-rail lines on June 25. The council did not even approve preliminary alignments for the corridors in the top tier. No one - including Dirksen - knows exactly where any particular line would run.

Instead, the Regional High Capacity Transit System Plan approved by the council is actually a policy for choosing where to site transit corridors after the planned Portland-to-Milwaukie MAX light-rail line is completed in 2015. The corridors might not even carry light-rail trains. Metro also plans to study whether they could be better served by streetcars or express bus lines. (See definitions.)

The document approved by the council ranks 16 potential transit corridors in four tiers. The top one includes the Portland-to-Sherwood line, a Portland-to-Gresham line along Southeast Powell Boulevard and more frequent service on the new Westside Express Service commuter rail line between Beaverton and Wilsonville.

The Hillsboro-to-Forest Grove connection is included in the third tier, along with a Gresham-to-Troutdale line.

On a map included in the document, the 16 potential lines blanket the region, connecting all major cities and even such fast-growing population centers as the area around the Streets of Tanasborne retail center in Hillsboro. But there is no way that many of these lines will actually be built, at least not in the near future. For starters, their actual feasibility has not yet been determined.

Instead, Metro ranked them through a lengthy public process that included such criteria as potential ridership and perceived community support. As a result, the process was biased in favor of serving already urbanized areas that have relatively dense housing, as opposed to outlying areas with yet-to-be developed property.

Then there is the very real issue of cost. Building all the corridors as light-rail lines would cost an estimated $19 billion to $20 billion. Not accounting for inflation, that's still 10 times as much money as TriMet has spent on all of its MAX lines so far, counting the one from downtown Portland to Clackamas Town Center that opens in September. (See cost chart.)

"It is highly unlikely that more than two or three corridors will be developed over the next 30 years," says Carlotta Collette, the Metro councilor who has taken the lead on the project.

This explains why the priority rankings are so important. If only a handful of lines are going to be built in the foreseeable future, being in the top tier means everything.

Sending a message

Out in Forest Grove, Kidd believes extending the westside MAX line from Hillsboro to his city is a no-brainer. Oregon's Department of Transportation already owns a railroad right of way between the two cities. It is used by the Portland and Western Railroad, the same company that allowed TriMet to use the rail line from Beaverton to Wilsonville for its Westside Expess Service commuter train.

"It would be a true regional connection," Kidd says. "We don't have a lot of jobs in Forest Grove, but we could have a lot more housing for people working for the big employers in Hillsboro."

But Collette - who represents Metro District 2, which includes major cities in Clackamas County and portions of Southwest Portland - does not believe future transit decisions are so simple. As she sees it, many more factors must be considered, including the needs of the rest of the region.

According to Collette, when TriMet first began planning the regional light-rail system in the 1970s, choosing which areas to serve was relatively easy. A top priority was reaching all counties in the agency's service district - Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington. Another objective was providing service in all four directions.

When the line connecting downtown Portland to Clackamas County opens in September, TriMet will have achieved those goals. The first line, from Portland to Gresham, runs east and west in Multnomah County. The second line, which opened in 1998, runs east and west in Washington County. The Interstate line, which opened in 2004, runs north and south in Portland. The new line will run north and south in the third and final county.

Along the way, Metro also added in 2001 a line that runs from the Gateway Transit Center to the Portland International Airport. Next up is the downtown Portland-to-Milwaukie line, expected to open in 2015. It is estimated to cost $1.4 billion and will be funded by a mix of federal, state and local funds. TriMet expects the final $15 million to $16 million in local funds to be committed this fall.

But now, Collette argues, future transit corridors should do more than connect counties and points on a compass.

"Transportation should be connected to land use," Collette says. "Transit corridors are where we want growth to occur."

That philosophy - which is embraced by the rest of the Metro Council - has resulted in the transit corridor study being made part of a much larger discussion on the future of the region.

Under state law, Metro is responsible for managing growth in most of the tri-county region. Under that authority, it has made the corridor study part of a process called Making the Greatest Place - an effort to determine where and how the region will grow in coming decades.

"We want the corridor plan to send a message to businesses and developers - this is where growth is going to occur in the future," she says.

According to Collette, despite the priority rankings, Metro is a long way from deciding which lines should be built first. She says lines could move up the list if communities along them show they are committed to achieving the organization's goals by doing such things as rezoning the land near potential stations for high-density development.

Dirksen believes Metro got it right when the Portland-to-Sherwood corridor was ranked in the top tier.

"The population already exists in that corridor to support a transit line," he says. "In fact, without transit, traffic is going to get so bad that growth will stop because no one will be able to get anywhere."

Portland Mayor Sam Adams is likewise convinced Metro was right to rank the two Portland-related projects high.

"Both Barbur and Powell (boulevards) are longtime priority corridors for high-capacity transit in Portland," Adams says. "I am pleased to see them rank highly in Metro's study."

Kidd is equally convinced Metro made a mistake by ranking the Hillsboro-to-Forest Grove corridor lower, however.

"We have the potential to grow into the kind of place Metro is talking about if they will just provide us with the transit service we need," he says.

What is high-capacity transit?

"High-capacity transit" doesn't necessarily mean only light-rail trains. As defined in Metro's current Regional Transportation Plan, high-capacity transit "is characterized by carrying a larger volume of passengers using larger vehicles and/or more frequent service than a standard fixed-route bus system. It operates on a fixed guideway or within an exclusive right of way, to the extent possible. Service frequencies vary by type of service. Passenger infrastructure is provided at transit stations and station communities, including real-time schedule information, ticket machines, special lighting, benches, shelters, bicycle parking and commercial sieves. Using transit signal priority at at-grade crossing and/or intersections preserves speed and schedule reliability. Park-and-ride lots provide important and necessary access to the high-capacity transit network."