TriMet vs. Streetcar – NOT!

One of the sub-themes running through the Trib’s ReThinking Portland issue on transportation is the role and appropriateness of the Eastside Streetcar project (AKA the Streetcar Loop) and competition between Streetcar and other transit modes.

Nick Budnick swears to me that he wasn’t trying to stir up a feud between TriMet and Streetcar (OK, I believe you, Nick) but the casual reader might draw some inferences given coverage of a TriMet internal memo questioning TriMet’s role in the Loop project and another internal document showing that Fred Hansen removed a comment about “Streetcar’s political muscle” from remarks to the Streetcar Board. And then there are references to political leaders representing Milwaukie expressing concern about the project being in competition with the Milwaukie Light Rail project.

And, oh yeah, a headline saying “East-side streetcar sparks TriMet concern” (I know, another editor probably wrote the headline).

So let me tackle the issue head-on. I think Streetcar and TriMet have been and continue to be great partners.

Are there some issues? You bet. But they come out of core issues in our transportation challenges, not out of any relationship issues between the two organizations. Here are some of those issues:

  • The two different objectives of providing access versus providing mobility (which I discussed in my original post on the Trib issue).
  • The lack of a regional rail plan – while some may say that Streetcar is being opportunistic, the Trib coverage also points out that TriMet has been somewhat opportunistic in packaging whatever rail project they think they have the best shot of getting federal funding for.
  • The very real limits on the buying power of the payroll tax that funds transit operations in our region.

For the original Streetcar alignment, the case was easier. If Streetcar had not been built, TriMet would have needed to provide new service to the Pearl district. Giving Streetcar operations funding in lieu of that new service was not a stretch (at least in hindsight).

That’s not as strong an argument for the east side. There is some (if not great) north-south service on MLK/Grand and excellent east-west service across all the bridges). The rationale for the Streetcar Loop is two-fold:

  1. Create the kind of places where people can live, work and recreate with much less need for a car. The Lloyd District and the MLK/Grand corridor are rife with opportunities for these kinds of places, WITHOUT “Pearl-izing” the rest of the Central Eastside.
  2. Provide a core central city loop that becomes the anchor for spokes out into the neighborhoods and connections to town centers.

In fact, TriMet’s Fred Hansen understands this perfectly. He has been a very articulate spokesman to the Federal Transit Administration about the value of “the trip not taken” as Streetcar makes the case why federal funding should not depend entirely on mobility measures.

Indeed, you can go back to the Trib special issue and see this issue spelled out concretely in one of the graphics. It spells out how the type of environment dictates out much you are likely to use your car. Which environment has the least driving? Mixed use development with good transit – exactly the kind of environment that Streetcar creates.

So is the purpose of the payroll tax – and TriMet – the provision of transit mobility? Or is it the reduction of miles driven in single-occupancy vehicles?

That’s the question that’s up for discussion, mobility or access – not TriMet or Streetcar. Let’s answer that question with a strong regional plans for transportation (including a comprehensive rail plan) and land use. The implementation tools should then be a lot clearer.

My preference is to create access as often as possible, but also to provide mobility where access is not an efficient answer.

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