Lessons Learned from the Transit Mall

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reporting on developments in the Transit Mall saga, and posing questions for discussion. Of course, I’ve also been integrating this in my mind and have reached some tentative conclusions. So here goes one transit advocate’s take…

It’s going to happen

TriMet has scheduled another Steering Committee meeting for March 16th, and from the agenda items (“Moving Forward”, “Ramping Up for Construction”) it’s pretty clear TriMet is not having second thoughts. And I also think it’s pretty clear that none of the governments that endorsed the Locally Preferred Alternative is going to change its mind at this point. It is possible that the Federal Transit Administration could use some of the noise and heat to slow things down, and I think that would be unfortunate.

It’s a compromise, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing

There’s no question in my mind that this plan is far from perfect. I suspect that the business community will not get as much benefit from the auto lane as they hope, so the costs of this approach may exceed the benefits. But it’s necessary to have this important constituency (and funder) buy into the plan. It also seems pretty likely to me that this plan puts a cap on the number of buses that can operate on the mall.

But it’s not like we haven’t compromised before. The whole design of Light Rail downtown, where it operates more like a streetcar than high-speed commuter service is a kind of compromise, but the system still works.

As a transit advocate, it seems to me the overall goal is to keep expanding the network, and yielding the network benefits. Remember, the value of a network grows as the square of the number of nodes. Even imperfect nodes increase the value of the network. Waiting until we can fund a subway is not the answer. This is a case where the perfect can definitely be the enemy of the good.

And in the end, I am not worried about TriMet being able to operate it safely. I am confident they can figure out the operating procedures.

Citizen participation is more effective the earlier it happens

I learned this when I served on a City Club committee in the ’90s, studying ways to create residential density. One take-away was that a lot of energy goes into stopping or altering individual projects, when it would be much more effectively applied at the time when zoning was being established. There is a tendency for citizens to focus on the immediate: “they’re going to build what in my neighborhood?”, when they key parameters were determined much earlier.

A friend recently asked me “when was the mall alignment really decided”? Technically it happened when the City, County and Metro adopted the Locally Preferred Alternative. But in reality it happened in phases much earlier. Some of the decision making goes back to the South-North project, some goes as far back as the Downtown Plan. And each of these decisions has ripples. For example, one early concept might have put light rail on 10th and 11th, but when that was discarded as a preferred option, Streetcar was put there, eliminating that decision from reconsideration. The result is that when the time came to finalize the choice two years ago, many of the alternatives to the Mall were no longer feasible, either because they are not fiscally viable (e.g., subway) or have been precluded by other decisions.

So my perspective: it’s not perfect, but it’s still a very good thing for the region, and if you want to have an impact get involved early and often in regional planning decisions. The upcoming Regional Transportation Plan update is likely to be one of those watershed opportunities. And it would be an excellent venue for thinking through the real bottleneck in our light rail network: the Steel Bridge.

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