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.

, , ,

17 responses to “TriMet vs. Streetcar – NOT!”

  1. The very real limits on the buying power of the payroll tax that funds transit operations in our region

    Chris, what I heard at a meeting called by Metro and Milwaukie folks was that Tri-Met has said there’s money for operations for Light Rail to Milwaukie, OR –and that’s a big “OR”– for Streetcar. That doesn’t necessarily pit those projects against each other, but there IS a zero-sum game here, isn’t there? If the developers who will benefit from the Streetcar loop through our east side want to pay for it’s operations…awesome. But if those of us in transit deficient areas (like the overcrowded #14) have to watch our service deteriorate, while operating funds are spent for new development –hurting OUR access AND mobility– that’s a problem. It’s not good “access” when buses are full and they are passing you by.

    Maybe we just need a paradigm shift here that puts more of the burden on building and operating new transit infrastructure on those who benefit from it.

  2. The way I have heard Fred describe this is that if we use the traditional funding approaches, then then TriMet’s current financial model could support operations of ONE of the following three projects: Streetcar Loop, Milwaukie LRT, Lake Oswego Streetcar.

    There was a lot of discussion of this point in the process leading up to the adoption of the Locally Preferred Alternative for the Streetcar Loop. The ‘local work plan’ documents that were approved along with the LPA put pretty explicit demands on the project planning process around operating funding:

    Prior to applying for construction approval and funding, both the full capital
    costs and a 20-year operating plan will need to be finalized by the City of Portland and
    TriMet. This plan may need to identify new funding sources that reflect that the project is
    as much about development as it is about transportation. The goal of the funding plan
    should be to provide for streetcar operations in a manner that allows TriMet to implement
    its adopted five year service plan, fund operations of the South Corridor Phase II
    Milwaukie Light Rail Project, and meet other regional transit needs.

    [emphasis mine]

    One way to think about this is that we have a zero-sum game where we need to reslice the pie (payroll tax revenue).

    I prefer to think about this as an opportunity: we can see how we might have capital funding for more transit that we can afford to operate – so let’s get creative about how to grow the pie with other revenue sources. And looking at revenue sources specific to the corridors that benefit certainly seems like one logical avenue.

  3. do you think there’s any chance at all of the west-side river Streetcar gaining any steam over the next decade?

    I think Judie Hammerstad is a force of nature all by herself :-) And she’s not alone in supporting the LO Streetcar.

    Crossing the river twice to get from LO to downtown Portland seems a little wierd, but we’ll have to get the travel time modeling. The Metro Council has indicated that they’ll have their staff do some modeling on the spur scenario.

    Part of the reason LO wants the Streetcar so badly is they want their suburban version of the Pearl in the Foothills area. Not as dense as the Pearl of course, but they do see the potential for a new neighborhood that is dense by suburban standards. So again, it’s the access (development) vs. mobility question (see a theme developing here?).

  4. Oh, there’s no doubt LO people want it. The FTA complaint that was recently dismissed (and was the trigger for that LO Review article I cited) was basically a complaint that LO was railroading the whole plan (pun intended) to their benefit–shutting out players like Dunthorpe, Birdshill and West Linn.
    I assume WLers are as frustrated with State St./Hwy 43 as much as Oswegans, but they’re just getting on board and while I have to imagine they’d back it eventually, they would balk at being LO’s little brother in terms of amenities and stops, etc.

    While crossing the river twice to Portland does seem a little weird, there are all kinds of comparative benefits:

    * a southern river crossing that would truly link the two halves of Clackamas County

    * a pre-existing bridge that might ease some of the traffic burden on Sellwood and I-205

    * narrow right of way/existing development interference issues nearly disappear

    * faster LRT instead of streetcar; better integrated into the metro system IMO

    * rail transit link still possible down the road along the west bank

    Who owns the spur? Would there be significant usage rights fees or other issues involved?

  5. I believe it is imperative that the Streetcar group change itself to a public corporation and as soon as possible get into direct competition with Trimet. I bet we could even put them out of business, if ran efficiently.

  6. re operational funds for Eastside streetcar, Lloyd District already has paid parking, some of which could cover operations. How about paid parking in CEID? That should perhaps be the price that a district pays…put in paid parking…if they want Streetcar.
    re LO…I would guess that MAX LO via Milwaukie would be faster than Streetcar via the old westside SP line; well maybe a wash.
    Another thought, there is little question that Streetcar creates value while regular transit, read buses, is neutral or negative in this regard. There should be a way to capture some of the added value to pay for operations.
    The 14, meanwhile, needs articulated buses in the peak hour as per Jim Howell’s suggestion.

  7. The 14, meanwhile, needs articulated buses in the peak hour as per Jim Howell’s suggestion.

    I can’t remember if Jim Howell said they’d gotten skinnier, but last time they tried to go articulated, the lanes were too narrow. Frankly, they’re too narrow for regular Trui-Met buses as well…but, hey, I know, how about a Streetcar on the #14 line?!

    Nah…too many Tri-Met customers! The streetcars’s for turning vacant lots into, well, you SEE what we get. Just LOOK at all those riders from South Waterfront!

    Anyway, the #14 will be losing a lot of folks anyway once they realize the line no longer takes them anywhere downtown further than Second, and the ride home will be the Nightmare On Morrison Street.

    Am I keeping my bitterness in check?

  8. Re: Frank’s bitterness (the 14-Hawthorne) & Streetcar.

    Hawthorne, IMHO, is the rightful recipient of the first Eastside E/W Streetcar extension. The Hawthorne Bridge was strengthened explicitly to support this service (thank you, Charlie Hales):
    * It’s probably the only way to deal with the capacity issues up Hawthorne
    * A Streetcar every 3-4 minutes during rush hour would just about have double the capacity of a regular bus every 3-4 minutes, due to the different interior seating arrangements & additional vehicle length.
    * There probably still is room on Hawthorne for additional development density increases, specifically at the Fred Meyer, Safeway, Daily Grind & other sites where there are existing 1-2 story buildings adjacent to surface parking that could be replaced by 3-4 story buildings with structured/underground parking.
    * The Hawthorne District would probably need to form a LID and accept parking metering/residential parking permits to fund construction & operation of the Streetcar — unless somebody can see a better way?

    All that being said, the region probably does need to look at a more inclusive regional rail plan, one that looks at commuter rail to far-flung places like Hood River, St. Helens, McMinnville, etc. while also examining MAX to… Powell/Foster, Milwaukie/Oregon City (or would OC be better-served by commuter rail), Barbur Blvd., etc. Not to mention Vancouver.

  9. I believe it is imperative that the Streetcar group change itself to a public corporation and as soon as possible get into direct competition with Trimet.

    I’m trying to foster cooperation here, not a hostile takeover :-)

  10. Thanks Chris for addressing this issue. I was wondering about it.

    Also, what’s interesting about Line 14 is that it now has about 3 times the service during rush hour as any other time. And if anybody thinks the Morrison Bridge is bad, try the Ross Island.

  11. if anybody thinks the Morrison Bridge is bad, try the Ross Island.

    The point is there’s no reason for the Hawthorne bus line to go over the Morrison. It adds at least 19 minutes or so to what, for me, is currently about a 10 minute commute. That’s TRIPLE the time for you non-math majors out there…

  12. A Lenny said: “How about paid parking in CEID? That should perhaps be the price that a district pays…put in paid parking…if they want Streetcar.

    B AND paid bicycle parking too! – else the streetcar should really support itself.

  13. Terry – paid bicycle parking???


    Come on, that is complete fantasy!!

    I like the Hawthorne Blvd Streetcar concept…. Especially if it had semi-exclusive lanes in the middle of the blvd. Taxis, buses and streetcars, or any community vehicle really, could use the center lanes. Fast speeds and frequent headways would be a great way to further connect close in SE with the central city.

  14. Now that Sam wants a Streetcar on Burnside, it jumps the line…and should run out Burnside to at least 28th, if the business/property owners are ready to do an LID (capital costs) and put in paid parking (operational costs).
    Plans are fun, but you have to go where the opportunities lie as was done with Airport and Interstate MAX.

  15. I think Terry Parker should be taxed $1.25 every time he pees and flushes it down the city’s sewer system. You know, system useage charges and all…

  16. Vindaloo –

    As much as I frequently disagree with Terry on this site, I think you’ve chosen the wrong analogy.

    Portland residents are billed for sewer based on their non-Summer water usage, whether it is flushed or not. And, of course, we are metered and pay for water consumption based on the number of units consumed.

    Thus, Terry is already paying a pretty direct usage charge, although it doesn’t amount to $1.25/flush.

    – Bob R.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *