Reviewing the Portland Freight Master Plan

We noted in passing a few weeks ago that the discussion draft (PDF, 5.5MB) of the Portland Freight Master Plan had been released.

It’s taken a few weeks to really absorb and internalize the contents of the plan. What’s the conclusion of the alternative transportation advocates? It doesn’t do any harm. Some neighborhood leaders were concerned that they would find freight routes barrelling through their communities. That’s not the case. The plan actually does a good job of identifying and classifying those streets and highways needed to move freight through our city.

And the plan also does a good job of articulating the difference between designing streets for 53 foot trailers, and ‘accommodating’ them for less frequent local deliveries (having watched some of those trailers try to turn off NW 23rd onto neighborhood streets – accommodating is something of a euphemism). What it does not do well – at least yet – is apply those distinct approaches to different classifications of streets and create design guidelines to actually implement them. Neighborhood leaders would do well to continue monitoring those developments – which are not likely until after this iteration of the plan has been adopted.

Perhaps the more important question is whether it really does anything to help the movement of goods and services? And even alternative transportation advocates understand that this movement is critical to our economy.

But I’m not sure this plan does much to help in the long term. Lack of investment in freight rail infrastructure pushes growth in goods movement to trucks, and trucks run into congestion primarily generated by passenger cars. Strategies to either give freight preferential treatment at keep points in the road network, or to reduce SOV travel in critical corridors, are not prominent in this plan.

Commissioner Sam Adams is contemplating a trip to Amsterdam this fall to understand how they do goods and services movement in a dense urban environment (and get ideas for how to make Portland the first Platinum Bicycle City in North America). Perhaps he’ll come back with some new thinking that can jump start creativity on this problem.

Meanwhile, we do see one likely long-term conflict that this plan highlights. Barbur and Powell Boulevards are both quite reasonably defined as important corridors in the freight network. But we know that TriMet has designs on these streets as future MAX routes. The freight community is still bristling over what they perceive as the ruining of Interstate Avenue for freight with the Yellow Line. Can we figure out how to make Barbur and Powell work for both freight and high capacity transit, or will we have to decide in the future which of these uses is more important?

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