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Clang, clang -- a trolley may be in your future (The Oregonian)

Emboldened by the success of the downtown streetcar line, city leaders want to expand service into a network that would crisscross the city.

By Dylan Rivera

(Originally published in the Oregonian on October 29, 2007.)

The next big thing for your neighborhood: How about the Portland Streetcar?

Emboldened by the success of the downtown streetcar line, city leaders want to expand service into a network that would crisscross the city.

Unlike bus service, city planners say, a streetcar could generate business and political momentum for clusters of midrise housing and commercial centers that could spread the walkable feel of popular urban neighborhoods.

About 140 miles of the city's busiest streets show potential for new streetcar routes, said Patrick Sweeney, project manager for the Portland Office of Transportation. Those streets have dense enough housing, employment and shopping -- and are zoned for more.

In the next six months, the transportation office will rank potential routes based on neighborhood and business support. Technical details, such as relatively flat terrain and wide intersections for railcar turns, also will be evaluated.

The toughest nut to crack might be finding a combination of neighborhood support and property ripe for redevelopment that could help raise millions of dollars in private money for each extension.

At three open houses starting today, residents will have a chance to plead for or against a line in their neighborhoods.

"A community that has a corridor and advocates for their own corridor is so important to us," Sweeney said. "If they don't support it, we're not going to pick a fight with a neighborhood."

Streetcars could make more neighborhoods resemble the popular retail corridor along Southeast Belmont, built originally along a streetcar line in the early 20th century. Likely routes could include Northeast Sandy Boulevard, lined now with car dealerships, vacant lots and low-slung buildings.

Streetcar routes could help determine how the city grows and absorbs its share of the 1 million new people expected to move to the metro area by 2040, said city Commissioner Sam Adams, who oversees the transportation office.

"It's a tough but important goal to try to accommodate the next 300,000 Portlanders within a quarter-mile of transit," Adams said. "In doing so, that protects the single-family neighborhoods that we have. If we do it right, it stands to strengthen our main streets and town centers."

At the earliest, a handful of the strongest potential lines might be built from 2010 to 2020, Sweeney said. Much of the money would come from a new federal program known as Small Starts, designed to help pay for streetcars.

Portland's plan might be among the most ambitious in the nation, said Gloria Ohland, a spokeswoman for Reconnecting America, a nonprofit transit group based in Oakland, Calif. "Portland is certainly leading the way in this effort, and other cities are really looking to Portland for guidance."

But many questions remain.

If a streetcar would bring denser development, does it stand a chance in a city where neighborhood associations sometimes criticize even modest proposals for multistory buildings?

If a streetcar depends on financial contributions from developers, are there enough along each route who agree?

Initial indications say yes.

The City Council has given preliminary approval to a new line along Burnside and Couch streets downtown. Planners have tentatively placed a spur from East Burnside up Northeast Sandy to the Hollywood neighborhood on a regional transportation plan. That's a first step in seeking federal money.

Dozens of neighborhoods from all corners of Portland expressed desire for a streetcar line at an open house last summer, Adams said.

The Sullivan's Gulch neighborhood of Northeast Portland strongly supports an extension from the Lloyd District east along Northeast Broadway, said Peyton Snead, neighborhood association co-chairman. The streetcar could take traffic off Broadway, make pedestrian crossings safer and bring other amenities, he said.

Others are more skeptical.

Developer Joe Weston, who said his large piece of the Pearl District benefited greatly from the city's first streetcar line, questions whether eastside lines will prompt much redevelopment and business investment.

Weston, who owns about 20 blocks along Northeast Sandy, said the city should wait for the extension along Martin Luther King Boulevard and Grand Avenue to open in about four years to see whether investment follows.

But streetcars have become so popular that the city needs the plan it's about to embark on, said John Fregonese, a regional planner whose firm lost a bid to create the streetcar plan. "A plan allows you to examine these things in a logical way, and you can decide not to do it and you've only spent enough money for the plan."