laying tracks

The 2009 Portland Streetcar draft expansion plan highlighting priority lines to be considered for development. Oh, how ambitious we were. (City of Portland)

Making news this week, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales announced that the city is going to push ahead with plans to create a new streetcar line along NE MLK and Killingsworth to PCC Cascade. This is the first mention of any new streetcar activity since the creation of the Streetcar System Plan in 2009. The entire system plan was created in a vastly different political and economic climate, as we have an entirely new Mayor, Transportation head, and a budget cutting obsessed government. Back in 2009, relatively not so long ago, the Close-the-Loop project passed funding hurdles, the Portland-Lake Oswego Streetcar appeared imminent, and we had a new local source for US built streetcars at Oregon Iron Works. Politically, a small but vocal national voice has reached the metro area, creating a negative stigma for any new rail transit projects and a strong reaction to government spending on domestic and social issues (namely city life).

Now it looks like Hales, one of the Portland Streetcar’s original creators, has his eyes set on expanding service into Northeast Portland along the slowly reviving MLK Boulevard corridor. Unlike other expansions, this line will go outside the central city and away from high-end condo development. Inner Northeast has historically seen few city investments, and was a former red lined area that city planners took advantage of in the past to plow through highways, hospitals and arenas. The 2009 citywide concept plan designated a line from Broadway to Lombard along MLK as a potential next-in-line for implementation, and the new idea announced this week is of similar vein except turning off MLK to NE Killingsworth prior to Lombard and ending at PCC Cascade instead (a wise move as PCC is a major transit anchor). According to the city (pdf), the 2 mile extension would cost $60-70 million (in 2009 dollars) to reach Killingsworth along MLK, which means a slightly higher amount would be needed to reach PCC. Potential funding for such a line could come from the existing Urban Renewal District that encompasses the chosen alignment, with the new tax dollars coming in from the recent redevelopment activity seen on MLK.

Portland has a long history of rail transit, most of which has been paved over (City of Portland)

Streetcars are an interesting urban design tool, as most of Portland proper was created by them (see image above) and their ability to move people greater distances than the traditional foot cities of yore. Now, we are looking to replace the old-school suburb builders as a means to creating the originally intended walkable neighborhoods of the 1890-1930’s. The more and more we can move toward a livable, slow city the better, and Streetcars offer a mix of nostalgia and needed infrastructure to support the kinds of continued investments needed to keep Portland moving toward the originally intended street use. Most see the unfinished Central Loop line as a failure as it has so-far low ridership levels, but already we have seen an influx of building loans get signed along the line including the new Lloyd District apartments and multiple Burnside Bridgehead projects. The Lloyd District and the Central Eastside have seen many development proposals in the past two decades, but very few actually could achieve the funding necessary. Perhaps the streetcar line, and its history in Portland of attracting investment capital, was the linchpin for the banks to approve such loans. Once the Loop is closed, completed with the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail line’s new bridge in 2015, the line is expected to greatly increase its ridership numbers as it connects the Central Eastside to the South Waterfront, which could mean further investments on the Southern end of the Loop line. This is key, as the proposed MLK line could potentially continue past Broadway to OMSI instead of directly connecting to Downtown across the Broadway Bridge (as noted in the 2009 plan).

There is, of course, some push to stop or change how we build streetcar lines as they tend to create dangerous situations for bicycles. However, my personal experiences in the Netherlands and Germany lead me to believe there is a way to balance the two modes of transport without precluding either one. The real culprit, as far as space-making is concerned, is the personal automobile and its dominance over our daily activities, streetscape, community, and general way of life.

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