Streetcar in Dunthorpe? No way

  • Posted on: 17 August 2007
  • By: Amanda Fritz

Apparently it's Streetcar Week here on my blog.

The Lake Oswego Review reported yesterday that two groups are providing recommendations on a proposed Streetcar route from Portland to Lake Oswego. Rather than use existing rail right-of-way where the Shoreline Trolley runs, both committees are recommending building new tracks in the pavement of SW Macadam. The Willamette Shoreline right-of-way is already owned by the public, having been purchased by a consortium of jurisdictions in 1988 (Update: per information in the comments, the consortium of governments purchased the right-of-way for about $2 million. Its current value has been estimated as $50-75 million. Yay, jurisdictions!).

Trolley tracks to South Waterfront - how convenient

Yet apparently the political will to use it is lacking. The argument in the LO Review is that the Streetcar would be more of a development engine if placed on Macadam.

"The alignment, according to the Project Management Group report, would “leverage the most potential transit-supportive development, approximately 2.2 million square feet of total new development in Johns Landing.”

Right. More development in Johns Landing, "leveraged" by yet another huge public subsidy, no doubt. Like there isn't enough development and commercial activity going on along Macadam already.... and certainly enough traffic on that street, even before South Waterfront is built out. Can we get real? Oh, right -- the article continues:

"It would also “mitigate some of the potential property impacts associated with the use of the Shoreline Trolley right-of-way,” the group said."

Translation: affluent landowners along the waterfront don't want riff-raff riding past their homes in Streetcars.

Wanna bet who wins on this one?

The article continues:

"Early cost estimates are about $205 million for the streetcar and trail, with more than half coming from the federal government."

Sounds familiar.

Chris Smith covered the issue on Portland Transport in June. He noted, "If the alternative chosen is to run in Macadam through Johns Landing - avoiding the political challenge of running next to the existing condos and likely contribution to a higher development potential - the price is several minutes in travel time." The plethora of comments on that post is informative. One of them notes that putting the Streetcar along Macadam might force current users of the 35 and 36 bus lines to transfer to it. Again, sounds familiar.

The Portland to Lake Oswego route along the Shoreline right-of-way is a situation where a Streetcar or improved trolley service can stand alone, as transportation. It doesn't need to be justified by selling it as a development engine. Macadam is constrained by existing, functioning development on both sides - there's very little space to add capacity in extra lanes. The Willamette River is close nearby to the east, the hills form a barrier to the west. Drivers have no alternative direct routes between downtown Portland and Lake Oswego, and transportation planners have few other ideas to relieve gridlock -- other than a river ferry, or perhaps teleportation like on Star Trek. Adding a smooth Streetcar ride unimpeded by stop-and-go automobile traffic, running with frequent service, would provide a new transportation option attractive to commuters and shoppers, and really would help get people out of their cars. There is already PLENTY of new apartment/condominium development being built in the neighborhood formerly known as CTLH - Corbett-Terwilliger-Lair Hill, which changed its name to South Portland. How could anyone call that section of Macadam blighted, or in need of stimulus to increase development? The zoning has capacity, and market forces will encourage it to max out whether there is a Streetcar on Macadam or closer to the river.

And hey, here's a thought - the Streetcar route along the river would be a tourist attraction, just like the OHSU tram only more so because it would have places tourists actually want to visit at both ends, and interesting stops along the route, as well as a very cool ride. The businesses in the Water Tower could add a double-decker London bus shuttle or suchlike to carry shoppers from the railway-by-the-river to the shops. More fun for tourists! Spend the entire day seeing how many flavors of delightfully-different transportation options you can ride in Portland!

I would support putting public money into a fixed-rail service along the existing trolley alignment. Putting it on Macadam would add to already-severe congestion, both by adding vehicles in the right-of-way and by overloading adjacent development potential. And adding more buses there isn't going to help, because the street is slow and congested, and it's commonly accepted that rich people will ride Streetcars where they don't ride the bus.

WARNING: Your last chance to comment on this before it becomes a done deal may be imminent:

"[the committee]'s recommendation next goes to a steering committee, which meets from 3 to 5 p.m. Sept. 10 at Metro, 600 N.E. Grand Ave. The meeting is open to the public." [but note it doesn't say public testimony will be taken]

"Metro will review The Project Management Group’s recommendations. Ultimately, Metro will select the preferred alternative and conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS). The EIS will take about a year and a half."

And if you wait until that is done, very likely it will be too late. May already be too late, in fact. Dunthorpe has spoken.

Still, you can review information and provide input directly to Metro here. Might help, can't hurt.


There are actually two separate decisions on what to do here: 1) Johns Landing decision: in Macadam, or in the rail right-of-way? There are enough pluses and minuses on this one that I would be very surprised if both options weren't carried into the environment impact statement phase. 2) What to do below Johns Landing: fundamentally Lake Oswego wants to use the rail right-of-way and Dunthorpe wants to run enhanced bus service on 43 (Streetcar won't work in 43 south of Johns Landing, the speeds are too high and we couldn't operate safely). I'm sure the rail option will continue in to the EIS phase, I don't know if the bus option will or not. The problem with any of the bus options is that they get slower and slower as 43 gets more congested over the next 20 years, and there's no realistic option to widen the road because of the geography (cliffs on both sides). The public hearing for the September steering committee decision was actually held last month and was well attended, but I'm sure you can still submit a comment card. P.S. Since it's Streetcar week on Amanda's blog, let me extend the invitation for everyone to come down to SW Lowell St at 11AM this morning to celebrate the opening of our newest extension!

By the way, the consortium of governments purchased the right-of-way for about $2M. Its current value has been estimated as $50-75M. Sometimes your tax dollars do get a payoff :-) And it's a gorgeous ride. If you've never taken the historic trolley, take your family out this summer for the ride.

The noisier neighbors, as far as I can tell, actually come from the Birdshill neighborhood. And while I have to agree that the right of way is preferable to running it down Macadam, it might be less about riff-raff than the fact that the corridor is extremely narrow in sections, running very close to the houses. We'll see what happens. The NIMBY affluents are hampered a bit by the fact that they actually live in Portland rather than LO in many cases, and the LO biz community seems like the idea of the streetcar going to Safeway or Albertson's. And West Linn doesn't want to see its ultimate fate affected by grouchy neighbors, either.

Thanks for the information, Chris - do you ever sleep??? Good reminder about the Lowell extension opening - it seems like a long time ago since I posted the information on South Waterfront. it might be less about riff-raff than the fact that the corridor is extremely narrow in sections, running very close to the houses Torrid Joe, your report sounds very like the concerns of those living under the tram on Gibbs. Maybe the cities can provide a limited time, take-it-or-leave it offer to buy out those houses at appraised value, to serve the greater public good.

I'm adding your point about the cost versus value of the right-of-way to the main post, Chris. So good to know.

Well, nobody on Gibbs has the tram going less than 10 feet above their house, but the R-O-W in places along the track I think is as little as 14 feet. As for buyouts--whooo! We're talking a million bucks a pop, there.

Some of the historic homes on Gibbs are likely close to a million in value. And those by the trolley line were likely built knowing the tracks are there and could be used again, unlike the homeowners on Gibbs who could not have conceived of having passengers in an overhead tram looking down through their bathroom skylights. There would need to be different methodology in setting up who pays for improved rail service along the trolley tracks. Clearly the adjacent property owners wouldn't benefit if the line is treated as transportation rather than to stimulate adjacent development, while other property owners more distant (at both ends of the line, and businesses along Macadam) would see the most gains. Despite the high cost both in dollars for the service and in impact to adjacent homes along the waterfront, this line seems the only viable solution I've heard to the problem how to get people in and out of South Waterfront and the rest of downtown Portland from the south, without further gumming up Macadam, Barbur, and the freeway. Just because the Streetcar has been seen as a development engine in the past, doesn't mean it has to be that in every case. Perhaps the Eastside Streetcar would cause less concern if the section to the north by the Convention Center were promoted as economic development, while the stretch down to OMSI was defined more as transportation for getting people there and to PCC.

Some of the historic homes on Gibbs are likely close to a million in value. And those by the trolley line were likely built knowing the tracks are there and could be used again, unlike the homeowners on Gibbs who could not have conceived of having passengers in an overhead tram looking down through their bathroom skylights. Well said. Reminds me of some friends who bought a house on a fairly busy street, and immediately started advocating for speed bumps and traffic diversion. If you didn't want to live near traffic, why did you buy that house? So very different from the situation of homeowners beneath a newly-conceived aerial tram.

Just because the Streetcar has been seen as a development engine in the past, doesn't mean it has to be that in every case. Hear, Hear! It seems to me that there are two paradigms when it comes to the transit debate: the first is "build transit to areas that developers might turn into places people will travel to". The other paradigm is "build transit to places that people travel to". I find the former far less compelling than the latter (especially when spending transit grant dollars), but I would gladly embrace it if there was some sort of balance between the two.

Amanda, your assessment is so correctly on target. How is it that streetcar advocates can not accept the fact that adding the tracks to high volume traffic arterials is counter productive to reducing congestion, and only makes snail rail a dysfunctional option? These back seat and self proclaimed transport planners are just too infatuated with social engineering rather than designing and recommending systems that really work and take people where they want to go. Using the existing shoreline alignment is far more people friendly than mixing trolleys with motor vehicles on a state inter-city highway. Furthermore, suggesting the streetcar is a development tool is a stereotype flawed response to the facts. Historically, development along the existing streetcar route has come at an expanded price tag not occurring without the City Council handing out property tax abatements to developers like free candy along with other generous tax breaks from both the City and PDC. New development will occur with or without a trolley, and probably occur much faster on its own and without subsidies if more roadway improvements were built that actually reduce congestion. Terry Parker

Update from the Lake Oswego Review last Thursday.