A streetcar in Hillsboro?

One of them things that make you go hmm…

The Oregonian is reporting on some planning work being done between TriMet and the city of Hillsboro, on the city’s plans for the Amberglen development. Amberglen is a proposed high-density community in eastern Hillsboro, in an 600-acre area boxed in by the MAX line, NW 185th, NW Walker, NW Cornell, and NW 205th. The area–currently occupied by OHSU’s west campus (formerly OCATE), a few office parks, and a lot of vacant land, is in an ideal location for intense, high-density development. Two MAX stops serve it, the Tanasbourne neighborhood is immediately to the north, and lots of intense development also exists around Willow Creek. There’s a fair bit of density to the west in the Quatama neigbhorhood (and a recently-cleared trailer park just to the south, along Baseline).

Naturally, with such major development in the works, it’s only natural that the city get involved with transportation authorities, including TriMet, to plan necessary infrastructure and services to support the project. But the item in the Oregonian‘s reporting that got lots of tongues clucking this evening, was the S-word.

You see, a Hillsboro planning director noted that one preferred transit option would be a streetcar (one that “moved faster than you can walk”–one wonders what that could refer to?), connecting with MAX at the Quatama stop, heading north bisecting the planning area, and then turning west to serve other points in Hillsboro. One idea had the streetcar turning west on Cornell; another had it continuing north to Evergreen (which would allow direct service to the Streets of Tanasbourne mall, and the new Kaiser hospital being built immediately to its north, and which opens this summer).

Needless to say… with all the recent service cuts, and the ongoing dispute between TriMet and its union, the notion that Hillsboro (which recently got into a spat with Beaverton about which city is should be forced to build moreis not providing enough affordable housing, and has managed to annoy Metro with its desire to California-ize its arterial streets) ought to be building streetcars strikes some, including myself, as impolitic.

A few thoughts:

  • Other interesting ideas have been proposed for the area. Here’s a proposal for so-called Personal Rapid Transit, apparently developed by a vendor of PRT systems. Whether planners are entertaining such an idea, I have no idea (but doubt it), but there you go.
  • In fairness to TriMet, I have yet to see any indication that TriMet is on board with this idea. TriMet’s Sean Batty noted the agencies were cooperating and that TriMet was “treating it seriously”, but didn’t say much more than that, at least not to the Oregonian reporter.
  • Both TriMet, and the city of Hillsboro, have had quite a bit of discussion of bus service improvements in the area*–and a good argument can be made that improving bus service ought to be a first step prior to putting rails on the ground. Other than MAX itself, there is no frequent service anything in the immediate vicinity (the only frequent service bus that’s even close is the 57). And other than the 52, which runs along 185th, N/S connectivity in the area is poor. One short-term suggestion, which I’ve made before and will make again: rather than ending the 88 at Willow Creek TC, have it head west on Baseline, north on 205th, right on Amberglen to Stucki, ending near the new hospital and a connection with the 47.
  • A major problem with streetcar circulators in general is that they can interfere with a bus grid–if you are going to put a streetcar in with a grid, ’tis better if the tracks form a component of the grid, rather than meandering in a circle around it. A more interesting idea for a streetcar line (and I offer this as a better alternative, not as something that I think that should be built–unless Hillsboro is coming up with all the money to build it, I can think of better uses for regional capital dollars) would be a line starting at PCC, running down the median of 185th, then west on Rock Creek Boulevard, south over US26 on a new structure extending NW 194th (this overpass could carry cars as well, and certainly with bike lanes, but no interchange with the freeway), then south on Stucki through the area, connecting with MAX at Quatama–then probably south to Baseline, west to Cornelius Pass, and then south to the South Hillsboro development–the city of Hillsboro’s other big future development project. That would be a useful N/S corridor, particular if it got some decent priority treatment. But of course, it would be useful to see a) some actual development in these areas, and b) running bus service along the corridor might be a good starting point.

Overall, this appears to be planner-musing (and possibly trial-balloon launching), not something that is likely to happen in the near future. Hilllsboro still has quite a bit of planning to do, both in Amberglen and in South Hillsboro; and neither of these places will be built out until developers feel it is worthwhile to build. (Of course, developers have a well-deserved reputation for liking streetcars over bus service…) TriMet probably ought not be committing any of its resources to a new streetcar line–in Hillsboro or anywhere else–until it has other aspects of its house in better order. That said, there is a N/S corridor here with a lot of potential, particularly if the development does occur.

*depending on union cooperation.


20 responses to “A streetcar in Hillsboro?”

  1. Uh, yeah.

    Reserve the right-of-way for a streetcar, by all means. But run a bus on it. Maybe even a trolley bus. Put down rail once it’s clear the ridership is actually there.

  2. Last week in Council Charlie Hales implied that Machiavelli would have approved of streetcars.


    If Florence could do it, why not Hillsboro?

  3. Is there any value in pursuing an electric trollybus as a baby-step to full fledged streetcar? Could catenary lines used for such an interim trollybus be re-used for streetcar?

    With a more constrained funding environment, it seems like an alternate approach to implementing the streetcar concept/comp plan corridors could be useful.

  4. Nick,

    It’s a little hard to have ETB’s cross catenary light rail, which they would have to do at Quatama; the ETB wires have to be dead and insulated from ground through the crossing so that the wide pantographs on the LRT vehicles don’t ground their current. But so far as reusing the hangers for a streetcar replacement, no problem there. You wouldn’t even need to rehang the wire; just pull down the “return” so it doesn’t ground the streetcar pans.

    In San Francisco the historic cars on Market Street (PCC’s and Milan) actually share the hot wire of the inner pair of ETB wires. That means the trolley poles are very slightly angled to the vertical plane, but it’s not significant. Pantographs are more than wide enough to span the half foot offset.

  5. Having attended a few meetings in the Hillsboro area I had heard rumors about this project. I don’t think that the folks out there are in the mode of making small plans. I think the comments made here about running a bus on the suggested route to see if it attracts enough ridership to justify upgrading to streetcar seem appropriate, but I doubt that the patience exists for such a scheme

  6. Running a bus will not attrack the riders or the investment needed to make such a development happen. Please give an example, if I have got this wrong.
    And a dense new development will have to be built with private investment. Developers, lenders, etc., look at Streetcar, and can only conclude that you need something with a little “je ne sais quoi” to get things rolling.

  7. Running a bus will not attract the riders or the investment needed to make such a development happen.

    Busses have no problems attracting riders, generally; TriMet’s bus system remains well-ridden despite all of the service cuts, fare hikes, and other unpleasantness of recent years.

    Now whether riders in this part of Hillsboro–the neighborhods north of MAX are far more upscale than the housing along the 57–will ride a bus, is another question. If we’re going to make “folks won’t ride the bus”-style arguments, it would be nice for survey data to confirm that.

    And to what extent should developers be indirectly subsidized?

    How about a zipline from OHSU (on the hill) to downtown?

    They already have one. In fact, they have two such ziplines, rigged so that when one goes down the hill, the other comes back up. :)

  8. So is this a real plan that’s being seriously considered, or is this just a random idea that someone put forward as speculation? My guess is that it’s more like the latter.

    Even though I personally love the Portland streetcar, I don’t think it really makes sense for a smaller, low density town like Hillsboro.

    That Personal Rapid Transit sounds awesome, although it would probably cost a fortune.

  9. Running a bus will not attrack the riders or the investment needed to make such a development happen.

    What if it’s a really nice bus with Streetcar-like characteristics? I’m thinking EmX down in Eugene. According to Wikipedia, ridership in the EmX corridor doubled in the first year of EmX operation. Seems to me like a decent way to attract choice riders.

  10. Running a bus will not attract the riders or the investment needed to make such a development happen. Please give an example, if I have got this wrong.

    WOW!!! It’s pretty easy to dream big when it’s someone else’s money. It’s part of the reason why the government can’t come close to balancing the budget.

    So using your theory, would you replace the bus on most streets?

    Show me where in the world a suburb has built a streetcar? Dream on man. Lets focus on how we can make the bus more attractive to riders rather than spend billions of someone’s money laying rail on neighborhood streets.

  11. Show me where in the world a suburb has built a streetcar?
    Actually, streetcars built many suburbs:

    As I see it, the only problems with discussing buses in Hillsboro and adjoining area are as follows:
    1. Most of the routes are currently serviced by falling apart Flxible Metros that should have been retired years ago (but weren’t so that rail could be promoted);
    2. Spreading the myth that buses are an inferior form of transportation.

  12. I think these folks are serious – they briefed the Portland Streetcar Inc board last year. This is somewhere between when Earl put a “central city circulator” in the downtown plan and when the CAC was formed in 1991 to explore the idea of streetcar in Portland. So it’s probably 5-10 years before it could be realized.

    But I don’t think the question is “could a streetcar be useful in the suburbs”. I think the question is what scale and density of development would be possible/desirable in Hillsboro that would justify streetcar as one of the tools to create it?

    This is a huge jobs center (Intel) with lots of demand for housing to support it. If the will exists, it could be a very dense center. High density doesn’t have to be just in Portland’s central city. The 2040 plan is for a polycentric region.

  13. The streetcar exists primarily because it attracts people who don’t ride the bus. This is a cultural phenomenon. Long term planning (as mentioned above) will presume an admittedly hopeful, but precipitous change in this culture. Trimet and Metro’s job then includes developing a regional and practical transit system. Streetcars are neither.

    By all means retain a ROW, and assess residents’ views vis a vis intra- and inter-neighborhood transit, but plan a system that can be useful in the future.

    Planning for increased bus service and a future MAX matches our bills at the moment. Were I to want to go to the new baseball stadium or commute to Laika or Intel, I would want to get there quickly and with few transfers.

  14. Hey I love the bus, ride it every day, but if you want to develop a dense urban sort of community and attract serious private investment, you have to think seriously about putting in rails. I don’t think a bus line will do it.
    By the way the first section of Streetcar between NW and PSU was paid for in large part by adjacent property owners…no TriMet $, no federal $.
    I was out on NE Broadway killing some time on that way too fast three lane street with lots of retail that could use more customers. NE Broadway/Wiedler up to Hollywood could really use a streetcar line. The couplet desparately needs calming, there is a ton of land for more housing and three lanes of traffic is just too much for a civilized street. How about it Chris?

  15. Jason: buses are an inferior form of transportation. It’s not a myth.

    Ask anyone prone to motion sickness.

    That said, we shouldn’t always use the superior form of transportation; often it’s overkill.

    Limos are a superior form of transportation to private cars. Private airplanes are a superior form of transportation to commercial airplanes. It doesn’t mean we should have nothing but limos and private airplanes; they’re complete overkill much of the time.

    Subways are a superior form of transportation to rail with grade crossings. But it’s just not worth it to grade-separate a lot of places.

    Similarly, often a bus is *good enough* for the number of people who are going to be using it. Trains — including streetcars — really come into their own with high passenger counts.

  16. Jason: buses are an inferior form of transportation. It’s not a myth.

    Ask anyone prone to motion sickness.

    My wife cannot stand riding MAX, or any other train. But she had no problem (from a motion sickness perspective) riding the 94 bus.

    Of course, now we drive to work (actually she telecommutes three days, and rides with me in the car two days a week).

    Trains — including streetcars — really come into their own with high passenger counts.

    Of course MAX/Streetcar is not apples-to-apples with bus – for example, for several years rail riders were treated to a “free” (read: subsidized) ride downtown while bus riders were required to pay full fare; Streetcar fares are still lower than comparable bus fares; many bus routes were truncated to require a transfer to MAX bolstering ridership; TriMet has intentionally disinvested in the bus system, so that bus stops are highly inferior to highly developed MAX stops and the buses are old, unreliable and often lack air conditioning while MAX trains are air conditioned and newer. The “people prefer bus” argument is old and worn out, and filled with holes – show me where everything else equal where people would prefer rail to bus. That means – stop amenities and location equal, availability of service (frequency) equal, fares are equal, vehicle comfort is equal, etc. For TriMet to do that, it would need to establish a BRT line similar to EmX on a route paralelling a MAX line (say, on T.V. Highway or on Division or Powell, or on 82nd Avenue.) Since we don’t have that…

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