The Non-intuitive Math of the Lake Oswego Streetcar

This morning the Oregonian editorialized against further development of the Lake Oswego to Portland streetcar project, citing the cost. That’s the new cost estimate of $208M (not including the value of the right-of-way we already own), not the $400M+ estimate that came out of the last round of the NEPA process.

Without getting into an argument about whether the project is a good idea or not (we’ve done that before, multiple times), I do want to take a moment to explain the math that keeps local policymakers intrigued.

Let’s assume for the moment that both numbers above ($208M construction plus $80M right-of-way) are accurate.

That gives us a total project “cost” (by the Federal way of reckoning) of $288M. Assuming a successful New Starts application, the Feds cough up half, leaving the locals with a $144M tab.

But wait! We get to count the value of the right-of-way toward the match – so suddenly for $64M in local cash, we can potentially have a $288M transit line.

There are still a lot of hoops that this project has to jump through, but that value proposition will continue to compel local electeds to look for ways to get through those hoops.

26 responses to “The Non-intuitive Math of the Lake Oswego Streetcar”

  1. The memory is very fuzzy, but years ago I read something about the immigrant founder of a successful retail giant who got his start selling things to people who didn’t need them for money that they didn’t have.

  2. While I support the line remaining in the public domain for excursion rides, I believe the rail connection from Lake Oswego to Milwaukie has more potential. A Wes-type shuttle train would readily connect to MAX in Milwaukie and Wes in Tualatin.

    I hear the new Sellwood Bridge will be streetcar ready. I’ve long suggested a McLaughlin underpass below Ochoco with simple exit/entry ramps. The Sellwood Streetcar line could turn south from Tacoma Street to Ochoco and a level crossing of McLaughlin and reach the nearest MAX station. Also, the Springwater rail line could thus access the UP main line. How’s that for mathematizzycal logic?

  3. Sixty-four million dollars to link the area south of the waterfront and Lake Oswego into the transit network is a very good deal.

    I have to admit I’m a bit skeptical of the $208 million tag with the need for a huge replacement trestle and the political kerfuffle of reserved ROW along Macadam, but it has the potential to be a very nice amenity for the corridor.

    Eventually it would make sense to push west on the rail line to the big farm on Iron Mountain, cross the road and go along the north edge of the farm, then dip into a tunnel to come up in the middle of Kruse Way, which is abysmally served. With stops along the lake I think many of the attorneys would take it downtown daily.

    Another extension west to the Tigard Transit center would link the south waterfront and Lake Oswego into the regional network to the west.

    There’s really no reason that the railroad needs it’s connection to UP to be in Milwaukee. It has a direct connection at Salem and several points south of there. So eventually the rail bridge could become a streetcar bridge and some cars from the west could go across the river to the Milwaukee TC and even possibly along the Springwater corridor to the Green Line at Flavel Street.

    Such an east-west connector would add significant value to the rail network. WES would be enhanced as would Milwaukee Light Rail, especially once it pushes on south to Oregon City.

    Of course there would need to be sidings added every couple of kilometers and stations to be built, and the tunnel to Kruse. It’s certainly blue-sky, but before too much longer gasoline will be $15/gallon and electric cars will no longer be subsidized by the manufacturers. People will need alternatives that serve the suburbs with efficient transit as well as the CBD.

  4. The question is: what do you get for your $64 million dollars?

    My opinion is mostly the same–as is, the project ought to be a low priority. Build a true rapid transit line to LO, one that offers a significant performance or reliability upgrade over the 35, yay. Local streetcar to Nevada Street, an obvious extension of the existing line, yay. But the current proposal, which replaces a mixed-traffic bus line with a partially-mixed-traffic streetcar line, and avoids using the available right-of-way for certain stretches, doesn’t excite me–and that’s even considering the funding math that provides a nice multiplier on the local cash contribution.

    The fact that the community to be served by the proposal–Lake O–is ambivalent about the project, isn’t a ringing endorsement. Perhaps LO will be ambivalent about any transit project–in which case we should spend our dollars serving communities that do want it.

    Were money no object, and the legal issues involved solvable, my preference would be for a LO/Milwaukie green bridge taking busses (and possibly even MAX–maybe even private autos for a fee) across the river; use the current ROW between Dunthorpe and LO for a trail, and run the Streetcar as far as Nevada Street or the Sellwood, as a local circulator route.

  5. So, could $80 million worth of simplier upgrades to the line be done for no additional local funding?

    And I think another way to put the funding equation would be “50% of the costs above $80 million”.

  6. When amoitizing the cost and value of the LO streetcar, I would recommend considering the tourism angle.

    When completed the Portland Streetcar (which in and of itself is popular with tourists – I have lots of anecdotes in this regard, with my own experience chatting with out-of-town people looking at Portland maps while riding the streetcar) will connect a few parts of the metro area that are great tourism draws.

    On the streetcar one would be able to go from Northwest 23rd / 21st, through the Pearl, into the Brewery Blocks (and Powells), Downtown, Harborplace Marina, South Waterfront and the Aerial Tram, and this new extension adding Johns Landing and the shopping and dining districts of downtown Lake Oswego – all via an incredibly scenic ride on a pleasant streetcar.

    This will also connect with the east side loop and OMSI, the Convention Center & Rose Garden / Memorial Colisem arenas, and Lloyd Center.

    Now I know that people like to poo-poo on tourism, but tourism dollars are valuable to a local economy, and Portland has some of the greatest most enjoyable parts of any city I have ever been to – so Portland should be capitalizing on that in every way possible.

    The shopping by streetcar aspect alone could pay for this thing, as the shopping districts of the Pearl and NW 23rd are connected to the Lake Oswego shops.

    This is the type of experience I wish every city had…

    (Now if OHSU and Doernbecher would get smart and put a destination restaurant on the hill – they could have killer views and use the profits to help fund their hospitals all while creating quite a draw for the Aerial Tram)

  7. I notice that the MAX Yellow Line had over 17K rides/weekday this fall, up almost 12%. That’s three times what the old 5 Interstate bus carried. MAX is not much faster in non peak than the old 5, but certainly faster and more reliable in the peaks as well as more comfortable and with much more capacity.
    Public ownership of a transit ROW is worth a great deal as that is the key to attracting riders with reliable service who otherwise are happy driving. Streetcar to LO could do this; consider that SoWa will some day have twice the current 10K jobs as well as triple the current # of residents.
    But LO has to want it bad enough to fight off the Dunthrope inspired opposition. If they chose not to, Portland should look to crossing the Sellwood Bridge and running Streetcar up Tacoma to the new MAX line…if that community so desires and will commit to an LID.
    But regardless keep the historic cars going up and down the line to LO to retain public ownership of the ROW for the day when reliable transit to LO is desired.

  8. The question is: what do you get for your $64 million dollars?

    How bout running the existing transit system and not imposing service cuts and fare increases on citizens?

  9. I agree with Scotty – either make this a true rapid transit line to LO or make it a purely local line through Johns Landing. The current hybrid makes no sense at all.

    Let’s say the project WAS a rapid streetcar line — sharing MAX tracks from Union Station to South Waterfront, going semi-local past OHSU, and then a mostly-single-track, limited-stop ride on the WST all the way to LO. What would that cost? Could we bring it in under $160 million?

    In other words, could we potentially get a good “rapid” line for “free” by simply putting up the ROW to secure an $80 million federal funding match?

  10. In other words, could we potentially get a good “rapid” line for “free” by simply putting up the ROW to secure an $80 million federal funding match?

    If it cost $160 million, I think there would still have to be $40 million of new purely local funding. The $80 million we’ve already “spent” preserving the right-of-way only gets us $80 million in actual construction funding. Any costs above that would be split 50-50 if I’m correct.

  11. Okay, good point. So we’d need to get the price down to $80 million in actual construction costs to get it “free”.

    That’s not actually far-fetched. I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but IIRC the eastside streetcar is being built for about $10 million per mile of track. Assuming limited double-tracking on a rail-ready right-of-way and no need to tear up and repave streets except at road crossings, a six mile long single-track line with perhaps two miles of double-tracking should come in around $80 million.

    That would still leave the need to purchase new streetcars, of course, and maybe some other fees. But given that the right-of-way is already there and graded for rail, is it unreasonable to keep construction costs under $10 million per mile?

  12. but IIRC the eastside streetcar is being built for about $10 million per mile of track.

    ~~~>In the next sentence- We are facing a very serious budget problem.

    What a con game. Too bad we are the ones being conned.

  13. Will the amount of right-of-way that gets used affect the FTA’s value of it?

    I mean, if the streetcar was put along Macadam Ave for the entire distance, it seems the right-of-way should count as $0

  14. I wonder how many mid-day shoppers and out of town visitors ride the 35 to LO. I see many of these riders on MAX and Streetcar. The rail route to LO is pretty cool…tunnel, trestle, big villas, river views. Someone will figure out how to run the Vintage Trolley cars there if the Streetcar deal falls through to maintain public ROW ownership for the next generation if nothing else.

  15. Lenny’s right: as a tourist excursion it’s a pretty fun ride. What would it cost to just connect the single WST track into the existing streetcar tracks, put in overhead wire, and then build a few platforms along the way? Basically, that’s one block of track and roughly six miles of overhead wire, plus a few bare-bones platforms. We already have four Vintage Trolleys. Even with several stops, a single car should be able make the loop from South Waterfront to Lake Oswego once an hour.

    There are a few stops along the way that would make for a shopper/tourist excursion. Put one somewhere in the northern part of Johns Landing for shopping and dining, Willamette Park for scenery, the Sellwood Bridge, maybe Dunthorpe for the Elk Rock Gardens, and of course Lake Oswego for shopping and sightseeing.

    For that matter, if the line was electrified the line might be able to use rolling stock from the Oregon Electric Railway Museum if they have the right kind of collectors. I think the Vintage Trolley barn is full, but maybe there would be room to store a few classic trolleys in the new roundhouse next to OMSI, with track connecting directly into the streetcar loop from there.

  16. I once asked about a similar strategy. It could work as a tourist line so long as it did not share service with the modern streetcar vehicles or MAX during a given time frame. Federal safety requirements do not let the older historic cars operate on the same tracks as modern, heavier cars, at least not on lines that aren’t grandfathered in somehow. (The “Vintage Trolleys” that can operate on MAX lines in fact have modern steel frames, and that prevents them from being perfect visual replicas of the original cars.)

    But, if there were sufficient public support and funds, the Willamette Shore line could be upgraded to use overhead electrical and terminate at a station directly adjacent to the modern streetcar in the South Waterfront, still operated as a tourist attraction. It could even be a same-platform transfer. But to share tracks would require some kind of waiver from the feds.

  17. Federal safety requirements do not let the older historic cars operate on the same tracks as modern, heavier cars, at least not on lines that aren’t grandfathered in somehow.

    I thought things like that only applied on freight lines, and not on isolated transit ones.

    But if they can be made accessible and other issues taken care of, the Vintage Trolleys could be the solution. They are capable of running through South Waterfront and directly connecting to MAX.

    As for storage, there’s already a barn in Lake Oswego, and a new one could easily be built. In addition, I would think they could use the MAX connection to reach existing storage spaces.

  18. Good point. I forgot about the Lake Oswego trolley barn. IIRC, it has room for two trolleys. So, a single connecting track to the streetcar line in South Waterfront would be sufficient. Keep whichever two trolleys are in operation — either the replica Vintage Trolleys or actual heritage streetcars — at the barn. Run them on the WST on alternating days, with the northernmost station one block from the southernmost Streetcar stop.

    Keep any other heritage streetcars at either the Vintage Trolley barn or the Portland Streetcar yard, and do maintenance on them at one of those sites. Whenever there’s a need to swap one out, do it in the middle of the night. I can’t imagine there would be any problem with moving a historic car on MAX or Streetcar tracks that are otherwise empty.

    All this seems pretty inexpensive from a capital standpoint. I bet if the line is run by a non-profit using retired operators on minimum wage, the operating costs could be kept pretty low too.

  19. A shopping only service to LO certainly sounds like fun. But there had better be some commuter component to whatever is being considered or else the skeptics will have a field day! Or else persuade the lottery to pay the local share!

  20. A River ferry has been looked at a number of times. After South/North lost in ’98, Metro looked at everything BUT light rail to Clackamas County, including a ferry. A more recent study was sponsored by the City as part of River Renaissance, etc. For a lot of reasons it just does not pencil…cost of landings, parking, transit connections, river speed limits, etc.
    Like it or not, Streetcar to LO on a publicly owned ROW is about as good a deal as we will ever get for upgrading transit in that corridor.

  21. Only $16 billion to get to the moon? That’s a bargain–it’s gonna cost $100 billion to build HSR from LA to SF. Thats only $64k per mile.

    Actually, though, the report contains a few technical errors–the PTTM project won’t actually connect with the moon; as the moon orbits the earth a permanent rail routing isn’t possible. (Someone proposed a bus to the moon instead, but Mayor Adams rejected the idea as gauche). Instead, the moon line will have a center of gravity located in geosynchronous orbit, with an extension protruding 250,000 miles into space, into the moon’s orbital track, with a station at the end. Once a month, the moon will rendezvous with the station. This will limit headways on the line to once a month (try not to be late for your transfer), but is a necessary concession to the laws of physics.

    The DEIS for the project also included an Orbital Tram as an option, but Mayor Adams reportedly kiboshed that idea, saying he had had enough of trams.

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