Public Comment Draft of Streetcar System Plan Released

A forty-five day public comment period began yesterday on the Streetcar System Plan, leading to a Planning Commission hearing on August 14th and City Council consideration in September.

The plan, a 20-50 year vision of where Streetcars might run in Portland, has been 20 months in the making, with work by staff, a System Advisory Committee, neighborhood-based district working groups and several rounds of open houses and public surveys.

As a member of the System Advisory Committee I feel very good about the Streetcar network that is being recommended. The network would extend, mostly on the east side of the Willamette, out Sandy to the NE and Hawthorne/Belmont to Foster to the SE. Major N/S connections would exist on 82nd and 122nd, and branches would go North to St. Johns and perhaps South to the Sellwood Bridge (connecting to the Lake Oswego line).

In my mind, the interesting question is: which links to build first?

The plan identifies a core network, mostly in inner NE and SE Portland that based on traditional planning would probably make sense as the first step in building out a system.

But many on the System Advisory Committee and some of the district working groups members are wondering if the the traditional thought process is the best approach?

Developing the ‘inner’ network, while likely creating a great transit experience and development opportunities, would largely reinforce what are already existing relatively good land use patterns.

It would also reinforce the idea that public investment happens downtown and in the inner east side, not in Portland’s more far-flung neighborhoods.

Could Streetcar be applied in North Portland (a proposed corridor would run from St. John’s to the Yellow Line MAX on Lombard) or in outer East Portland (perhaps from Lents to the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood) to create vibrant pedestrian-friendly main streets and foster private investment in more sustainable development patterns?

An early goal established by the System Advisory Committee was equity, it’s hard to see how building a network from the center out delivers on that goal.

There’s no question that building from the edges in is much more challenging. The Portland Plan would need to supply land-use plans that would respond to Streetcar as a catalyst, and new approaches to funding would need to be developed. Tools like urban renewal that work at the center of the City are unlikely to be mainstays at the edges.

I hope the next few months will be an opportunity for a vibrant discussion on where public investment in Streetcar can bring the greatest short- and long-term benefit to Portland.

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