Light Rail’s Next Stop: Oregon City?

Putting aside the ongoing CRC discussion for a few minutes, an article in Thursday’s Oregonian briefly mentioned that the city of Oregon City has passed a resolution endorsing the Portland-Milwaukie light-rail line LPA that was chosen by the steering committee.

The resolution supports the Porter-Sherman Willamette River crossing, the Tillamook Branch alignment in Milwaukie and the Park Avenue terminus, which would provide better service to Clackamas County communities south of Milwaukie.


“What this plan says is that Oregon City is on the radar,” said Mayor Alice Norris. “The next light-rail extension needs to come to Oregon City.”

This is quite the reversal from ten years ago, when Clackamas County residents and officials couldn’t have been paid enough to “allow” light-rail to be built on their land. Now, Milwaukie and even Vancouver are both behind the idea of bringing light-rail to their cities, and even more suburban cities and urbanized areas of the counties will be lining up in the near future asking when they’re next. Oregon City is indeed squarely in the sights of not one but two future light-rail extensions: The Yellow Line (Milwaukie) and the Green Line (Clackamas). The Yellow Line will terminate seven miles north along 99E, while the Green Line will terminate eight miles north along I-205.

This raises an interesting question.

For those of us who’ve been paying attention for the last several years, we know that the next great light-rail expansions are rumored to be Powell and Barbur Blvds. Both of these projects are going to require massive capital investments due to the intensity of development along both of these state highways. By contrast, installing light-rail from Oak Grove to Oregon City might be a cakewalk.

One of the benefits touted by Vancouver officials about building light-rail in Clark County is that they’d only have to cross the river to tie in to a mature and expanding multi-billion dollar light-rail system spanning dozens of miles. Indeed, if transportation dollars are scarce (and they were even before the CRC gathered momentum), the light-rail expansions of the next two or three decades might consist primarily of new spur routes (i.e., Airport MAX) rather than entirely new routes (Westside MAX).

The questions that I pose to you are “where?” and “why there?” What potential spur routes could gain favor to the point of leapfrogging Barbur and Powell as the “next” expansion projects to follow Milwaukie and/or Vancouver? Or will Barbur and/or Powell prove high-priority enough to remain at the top of the list?

I know very well that investment in light-rail (for some, even it’s continued operation) is controversial to many individuals, and I don’t intend for this post to provide yet another forum for pro-rail vs. anti-rail (or pro-public transit vs. anti-public transit) commentary, as there are already more than enough venues catering to that discussion. In the near future we will have similar discussions about other transportation modes and where we need to be focusing our expansion/intensification efforts with respect to those modes. This time we will discuss light-rail expansion.

For purposes of this discussion, we are assuming that light-rail will be expanded in the future, but not at the cost of required investments in other parts of the transportation network (including but not limited to roads, bike lanes/boulevards, heavy rail, marine and air terminals, buses, and streetcar). I support a balanced transportation network and am not advocating that any light-rail expansion projects move forward that will create a situation that results in disinvestment in other parts of the transportation system by any agency. However, this is not a “pie-in-the-sky” scenario, either, where money is no object and reality is out the door. The question I ask you is really this: “To where does it make the most sense to expand the light-rail system next?” You can and should take land-use and density goals (not just current zoning and land uses) into consideration.

Is Ms. Norris being too optimistic about her city being “next,” or is that actually the most likely scenario? Or is it more likely that the first extension to Oregon City is along I-205 (linking an Amtrak station to the airport in one shot)? If so, would you also want to extend that line all the way to Tualatin to link to WES?

City gives its support to light-rail alignment

61 Responses to Light Rail’s Next Stop: Oregon City?