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Portland transit system still expanding

City's mass-transit system still expanding, 20 years later.

By Dylan Rivera

Published in the Honolulu Advertiser on July 7, 2008.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Welcome to Railtown USA, where light rail and streetcar lines crisscross the metro area.

The largest city in Oregon, Portland built one of the nation's first light rail lines in the mid-1980s, and since then has relentlessly expanded the system. Its three-line, 44-mile MAX light rail system is poised to expand by 50 percent in the next year and a half.

As Honolulu moves tentatively toward building a $3.7 billion rail system, Portland may have some lessons to share.

Every month or so, another magazine calls Portland the nation's "most sustainable city," usually citing its high mass-transit use. Federal transit dollars pour into the city at rates far exceeding the national average for cities its size. Every week or so, delegations from cities across the globe visit Portland to see the system firsthand.

"This feedback is great for our collective ego," says Sam Adams, a City Council member recently elected mayor. "But we need to stay humble in the knowledge that our transportation system does not adequately serve tens of thousands of Portlanders."

Portland's experience with rail exemplifies the congestion reduction, reduced driving and mixed-use development that rail-transit advocates often forecast.

But the system also exhibits blemishes.

Randal O'Toole of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., published a paper in 2007 titled "Debunking Portland," arguing that the region's land use and mass-transit policies promote congestion and waste money.

"Planners made housing unaffordable to force more people to live in multifamily housing or in homes on tiny lots," O'Toole wrote. "They allowed congestion to increase to near-gridlock levels to force more people to ride the region's expensive rail-transit lines."

Yet most analysts consider Portland's light rail system a success. Each weekday the light rail system eliminates 72,000 car trips, and as gas prices rise, that figure is growing. In the first quarter of 2008, the light rail system logged its highest annual growth rate in four years, not counting times when ice storms and new rail lines boosted ridership. popular option

While buses still account for two-thirds of Portland-area mass-transit rides, light rail attracts higher-income mass-transit riders who often shy away from buses. Weekday ridership on a North Portland rail line attracted 76 percent more rides a week in the first year it opened than the bus line it replaced — even though the rail cars come less frequently than the bus did.

A Portland-area commuter's average 38 hours a year of congestion delay would be eight hours longer if buses and rail service halted tomorrow, according to an influential national study by the Texas Transportation Institute. Portland saved more hours than larger metro areas such as Denver and San Jose, Calif.

While many cities, such as Honolulu, struggle to establish their first rail line, Portland's transit system continues to expand. In 2001, Portland opened the nation's first modern streetcar line, a four-mile route that runs on city streets from downtown to a nearby urban neighborhood. It has since been extended twice, and the city is planning for 75 miles more, connecting neighborhoods throughout the city.

Next year, the region's first commuter rail line will open in the western suburbs, sharing tracks with an existing freight rail line.

Perhaps because of the system's ubiquity in the Portland area, any failure is carefully scrutinized.

The region was stunned in November when a 71-year old man was severely beaten with a baseball bat at a light rail stop in Gresham, a suburb at the end of the region's initial 1986 line. That assault, and a spate of other violent incidents, led transit leaders to review safety policies, adding brighter lights to some dark older stations, and establishing suburban police precincts.

But the safety issue lingers with the public. Opponents of light rail have added crime to their list of complaints about it, even after the addition of more police and several months without a major incident. staying on schedule

One aspect of Portland's transit system that is admired by most cities is its ability to get projects completed on schedule and under budget.

Each of Portland's four light rail lines was finished on time or ahead of time, and on budget or under the budgeted cost.

How is that possible? Portland's TriMet transit agency doesn't go for conventional low-bid contracts. Instead, it structures "construction management general contractor" agreements that allow it to choose a construction contractor when a rail project is only 30 percent designed.

That brings in the contractor's expertise earlier in the construction process, allowing both the agency and the contractor to benefit from unforeseen cost savings and share the burden of unforeseen expenses, said TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen. Going with a low-bid contract can set up an agency for expensive change orders later, and litigation with contractors if things don't work out well, he said.

"Our view is 'No, you've got to manage those things,' " Hansen said. "The contractor knows that if we find something that's beyond everyone's control, we're going to find common ground. We're not out to take advantage of somebody and we don't want them taking advantage of us."

The one blemish on the TriMet transit agency's construction record was difficulty with boring a three-mile tunnel for one rail stop 260 feet underground, which ran over budget and was combined with an extension of the same line.

The revised larger tunnel and rail extension ended up with unspent reserve money, which the agency used to buy more trains and make service more frequent. challenges ahead

Another challenge that lingers for Portland is making good on the pledge to attract dense, mixed-use development near transit stations. The TriMet transit agency counts more than $6 billion in new development near its rail lines since the 1980 decision to build its first line, but that includes anything built near a station, regardless of whether the station was considered an attraction by the developers or not.

In many cases, developers have built commercial centers near a transit station, but facing a nearby parking lot, rather than the rail stop.

Mixed-use developments often sprout near light rail stations only with the help of tax breaks, development fee waivers and other incentives.

This willingness to invest public money — or at least forgo revenue — riles opponents, who say that smaller-scale development might have occurred without government help.

In mixed-use neighborhoods with good mass-transit service, residents drive on average about 10 miles a day, compared with more than double that in conventional suburbs, according to surveys by Metro, Portland's regional planning agency. Portland's mayor-elect sees more work ahead to bring more of those transit-oriented neighborhoods to fruition and fewer car-oriented ones.

"Every transit station in the city should be a vibrant micro-community with its own unique sense of place and identity," Adams said. "We need to maximize the return on our multibillion-dollar transit investments with station area development that makes walking, bicycling and transit the easiest and best set of travel choices."