I Beg Your Pardon, Streetcar Does Not Need to be Fixed

This year’s award for most inflammatory headline has to go to “Portland streetcar bottleneck needs $3.7 million fix less than a decade after tracks laid“.

The story refers to finally double-tracking a section of the alignment between 4th Ave and PSU Urban Center around what is known as the “Jasmine Block”. This is not a fix, it’s an investment in Streetcar’s expanded mission.

Let’s review a little Streetcar history. The original Downtown Plan idea was to provide a central city circulator. The first realization of this was a Streetcar line designed to connect the brownfields north and south of downtown and help enable their development. Today the Pearl District and South Waterfront neighborhoods stand as testimony to Streetcar’s contribution to this vision.

We built this line in steps, first from NW 23rd to PSU, then added three segments in short order: to Riverplace, to the base of the Arial Tram and finally to SW Lowell at the south end of the new neighborhood.

This was not simple and we often had to cope with uncertain plans for development on particular parcels. This was true on Moody Avenue (later rebuilt 15 feet higher!) and at the Jasmine block. In both cases we opted to build single-track segments in order to minimize the amount of capital expenditure on things that might need to be replaced. This is called being conservative with the taxpayer’s money!

And these investments have served the North-South Streetcar line very well.

After plans for this line were complete, we rose to another mission and vision: to achieve the original circulator idea writ large, spanning BOTH sides of the river, creating a loop that ties together the entire central city. Achieving that new mission has required four different capital projects:

  • Building new track from the Pearl District across the Broadway Bridge down to OMSI (including a temporary “tail track” turnaround at OMSI)
  • Adding a turnaround at Stephens to continue Streetcar Service during bridge construction at OMSI
  • Connecting to either end of TriMet’s new bridge under construction
  • Double-tracking the Jasmine Block section (because the single track cannot accommodate the traffic associated with two lines)

Apparently the Oregonian believes that when we built the Riverplace extension ten years ago, we should have known that:

  1. We would gain local consensus to extend the Streetcar to the east side
  2. We would successfully change Federal policy and become the first Streetcar project to get FTA matching funds
  3. Divine that a development goal for the Jasmine Block to develop and provide a diagonal alignment across the block would fail

And based on that perfectly clear crystal ball, we should have known the perfect double-track alignment to build between 4th Ave and PSU.

Well, those of us who work on planning Streetcar are good, but we’re not nearly that good. Instead we simply refrained from spending money we didn’t have, built facilities that served the mission we had stepped up to, and took calculated risks at minimum expenditure where future development made the perfect alignment unclear.

The funding picture for the final capital project for the Loop has become unclear for unrelated reasons and it definitely needs to be worked out. But that in no way suggests we made a mistake ten years ago that we need to “fix”.

Some of our readers may not agree with the vision and mission for the Streetcar Loop. But that does not mean the planning and execution have been poorly done.


[Update 2013-11-08 – Bob R.] To better facilitate the technical aspects being discussed, here is a sketch from PBOT from October’s Streetcar CAC meeting:

Jasmine Block Double-Track Sketch


40 responses to “I Beg Your Pardon, Streetcar Does Not Need to be Fixed”

  1. I’m happy to see that the print headline is a little less inflamatory: “Spendy streetcar bottleneck”.

    But again, what’s a “bottleneck” for our new mission was a “thrifty savings” for the original alignment.

  2. This happens in the private sector, too, of course. Many times at my day job, we’ve been instructed to design a low-cost solution, than needed to do expensive rework when requirements change and the original design is no longer adequate. And, to be fair–there have also been times where we’ve done a more forward-looking (but expensive) design, only to find the excess capabilities go unused when no subsequent demand for them arises.

    Of course, at work we only have to (directly) make the boss happy… those in public works generally have to deal with occasionally-sensationalist media as well as all sorts of outside interests looking to drag logs onto the tracks.

  3. I’m confused — why would the solution be to build the second track on 4th and Montgomery, rather than 5th and Harrison? Shouldn’t the preference be to remove contra-flow streetcar operations from the one-way 4th street? There would be two fewer sharp turns for the streetcar to navigate in the east/southbound direction that way…

    • I’m with you on this one. The streetcar is extremely slow on those turns and it would seem that removing the contraflow would be a traffic safety improvement by not presenting other roadway users with a huge vehicle moving in a direction that they might not expect.

    • You wouldn’t need to remove the contraflow. The existing tracks on 4th and Montgomery would be come the north track, and the south track would run one block down 5th, and then turn left onto Harrison, lining up with the existing line. I guess the existing building at 5th and Harrison presents a challenge, as the streetcar would need to cut that corner a bit to make the turn?

      • If you do that, you encircle the entire lot with tracks, which will make it impossible to develop the lot without shutting down streetcar service during construction. Not a happy thought.

  4. When the Toulan Memorial Bridge (my suggestion) opens, this stretch will have service every 7 minutes in each direction, making a double track essential. What a great problem to have…expanding service to meet growing demand…17K riders/day and growing. Congrats Chris.

    • I’d like to see a draft design that leaves the track on Montgomery & 4th in place with spurs through the diagonal route on the Jasmine Block. Then when development of the block is ready, the streetcar can be directed to the existing stretch of track temporarily during construction. The turns are cumbersome and this ‘fix’ will only make the shortcoming worse. The diagonal route should be kept on the table for further consideration.

      I think there’s an aeronautical aspect to the new MAX/Streetcar/Ped bridge. Often I’ve relished the sense that the MAX descent into Old Town feels like an airliner coming in for a landing, especially at night, after a long day. My suggestion is to ‘catagorize’ the bridge as a “Flying Bridge” dedicated to some local pioneer or promoter of flight and air travel.

      The Charles H. Lindberg (or some local soul) Flying Bridge?

      It’s a Flying Bridge. MAX flying. Streetcar flying. Bus flying.

  5. “17K riders/day and growing.”

    >>>> Only because the fare is artificially held down; you know, if you don’t feel like walking…

    • I probably ride the streetcar 2-3 times per year, because I can walk quickly, or I’m on a bike, but I think you are a bit off-base here. 17,000 people decide to ride the streetcar every day, and I think that says something. Remember that not everyone can walk as fast as you.

  6. Regarding the idea of using 5th to Harrison, the geometry is complicated.

    First, there’s a rather sudden increase in slope as 5th heads southbound. So the turn from 5th to Harrison would actually be banked in the wrong direction for making the sharp turn, unless we were to create a big lump between lanes on 5th.

    Second, that same grade is why TriMet put a bike lane on 5th, starting at Montgomery. Prior to that spot, bikes use the sidewalk for a half block via a diverter at Mill, just before the streetcar platform.

    Continuing the streetcar on 5th would mean that bicycles would have to use the sidewalk for an entire additional block (while going up hill, too), or if the bike lane remains, be shoulder-to-sidewall with streetcars, only to encounter a turning track at the top of the hill at an awkward and dangerous angle. I don’t think cycling advocates would be too keen on either scenario.

    Lastly, however, if you look at the current crossover where streetcars heading west into the PSU urban plaza cross MAX, you’ll see it incorporates a slight radius. It was a rather complicated piece of trackwork. To cross it nearby with a southbound streetcar, not to mention building a track with curves for a block up 5th, may have significant construction impacts on 5th and affect TriMet operations.

    The official proposal to use 4th ave. to Montgomery has the advantage of keeping all construction off of the transit mall, and the most complicated trackwork (two switches) is confined to Montgomery.

    It is my understanding that the existing switch on 4th will be removed, rehabbed, and reused on Montgomery.

    There is also an operational advantage to this proposal: With two switches on Montgomery forming the crossover, a turnback is provided for either line in either direction.

    Regarding the contra-flow lane, this is far to the left, blocked from inadvertent car access by a curb extension, and well marked. It hasn’t really been a problem so far as far as startled drivers are concerned.

    (I have a drawing from a PBOT presentation last month that makes the configuration more clear, but can’t attach it to a comment, I’d have to do a full blog post.)

  7. How about a separate conversation regarding the former daily paper’s deep antagonism to TriMet and Streetcar? I mean, those cats are losing it!

    What accounts for the almost 180 degree reversal in editorial and news side stance on transit? It’s been suggested that as a cost-cutting measure they’re limiting their investigative journalism to public records requests, and/or that they see their future in an older, suburban demographic. Whatever the cause, they are becoming Fox News in print – and worse on line.

    Any insights?

    That said, I’m most grateful for PT. Nice to have a civil (usually) and thoughtful – even over-the-top wonky – conversation bout these things. Thanx, Team PT!

    • Joseph Rose does a good job… but the Oregonian has taken a decidedly libertarian turn on its editorial page in recent years, coinciding with changes in ownership/management.

  8. The block in question is where the since-mothballed Sustainability Center would have been built and the trains turned around before the Riverplace extension was built, correct?

    If so, I remember asking about this years ago, and told it’s a temporary alignment until the block was developed. Interesting that now the focus has changed to fixing the Streetcar first, then developing the block. I’m actually surprised it’s taken this long.

    The city already made a considerable investment by building the Streetcar in the first place and the single-track section means cars must sometimes wait for a train in the opposite direction to pass, so it makes sense to build it out as intended.

    (And yes, this is coming from someone who generally supports increased bus service over rail capital expenses!)

    • We would definitely have preferred to see the block developed first, then design/build the double-track section in concert with the building design.

      But we can’t operate the full loop around the central city without double-tracking this section. That’s why we’re doing it now.

      • Who owns that lot? Could they just build the diagonal alignment through the lot, and then any future development could build up around it?

        • The problem is that developments tend to dig down, not just build up. Putting in the tracks requires footings and foundations, routing of utilities, etc., that would make future development on the lot difficult for either streetcar operations, the developer, or both. The sustainability center proposal, had it gone forward, would have had all groundwork occurring at roughly the same time, while the streetcar continued to operate on the original single-track.

          I believe the property is currently in the hands of the PDC, and without a development proposal in-hand I’m guessing they’re more inclined to want to sell it as a complete parcel.

          If I suddenly find myself with big lottery awards in the next few weeks, maybe I’ll suggest some alternative development ideas. :-)

          (I was one of the original Streetcar CAC members who, several years ago, drafted a CAC recommendation to double-track diagonally through the block. It pains me that this can’t be done, but I understand why.)

          • This is something that frustrates me about PDC. They balk at making improvements to their properties citing the “developable…resale value etc” yet, they never produce any analysis showing that the proposed improvement would actually reduce development potential or resale price. In fact, as is the case with the Jasmine Block and lots I’m familiar with in Lents, I actually suspect some improvements would actually increase the price and development potential, even if some of the area is ceded to ROW dedications, plazas or pedestrian easements.

  9. I have updated Chris’s post with a sketch of the double-track alignment presented by PBOT at October’s Streetcar CAC meeting. Click on the image to see a larger version.

  10. I appreciate the explanations behind the decision to run the 2nd set of tracks essentially parallel to the existing one. Thanks for the discussion!

    The Oregonian, on the other hand continues to disappoint. Even Joseph Rose can be infected with their editorial bias at times.

  11. I understand why it is, but the new plan still requires streetcar track sharing at one point. The only gain is they have to avoid each other for half a block, rather than one-and-a-half blocks. Is this that great an operational advantage over the current arrangement?

    • In any possible configuration, there is the need for the tracks to cross (because the westbound tracks through PSU’s Urban Center plaza and the eastbound tracks on Market street form a reverse couplet, while the rest of the line on 10th/11th and Harrison is the standard direction of travel.)

      Regardless of whether that’s a direct 90-degree crossing, or accomplished with two switches, one train will have to wait momentarily for another before crossing. At least in this case, there’s a stop at 5th/Montgomery, so streetcars headed to S. Waterfront can wait at a platform while streetcars headed through PSU proceed.

      It’s not really a “single-track” section anymore, but a crossing made up of two switches, which at least gives the operational flexibility for streetcars to reverse course if required.

      The “tortuous” curves (I don’t disagree, really) take a long time to traverse, it’s true, but now one streetcar will not have to wait for another in that portion.

      The MAX Red/Blue and Green/Yellow lines have a similar situation at the west end of the Steel Bridge – they must cross over each other through a network of switches. It makes for a slow section, indeed, but it does handle a fair number of trains per hour.

  12. The other way to gain a complete double track, is to use the plan you have shown, but cut into the Jasmine block by 10′ at a point 20′ east of 5th Ave, so the paired tracks can jog south enough that the southbound track from 5th clears the hotel, and curve into the Jasmin block a little, then straighten out back in the Montgomery Street ROW.

    This would give a bigger parcel for PDC to sell than the diagonal plan, but not a rectilinear one, and still leave torturous curves to navigate.

  13. Having three 90 degree turns instead of two 45 degree turns hurts Streetcar operations and will for decades if built as proposed.
    Time for the Mayor (Streetcar Charlie) to step in and direct his PDC staff and the City Housing Bureau to do a deal with PSU, Reach, and others as needed to commit to construction of affordable workforce housing on this parcel with preference given to PSU employees. Construction of the preferred diagonal alignment can then proceed.

    • I’d like to see a draft design that leaves the track on Montgomery & 4th in place with spurs & track added through the diagonal route on the Jasmine Block. When development of the block is ready, the streetcar could ‘possibly’ be directed to the existing stretch of track temporarily during construction. The series of 90 degree turns are cumbersome and this double-track design will only make the shortcoming worse. The diagonal route should be kept on the table for further consideration.

    • A streetcar route could leave the track on (Montgomery & 4th) in place with spurs & track added through the diagonal route on the Jasmine Block. Then when development of the block is ready, the streetcar can be directed to the existing stretch of track temporarily during construction. The diagonal route should be kept on the table for further consideration.

  14. The comments here about PDC are of interest to me in that they demonstrate, in a somewhat different context, one of the same issues that I see throughout Portland city government. I most commonly see this in the context of transportation, as it also is here: there’s a solution that appears to be generally optimal (here, the originally planned diagonal track), but some bureau or entity has a particular interest that they want to protect, which may be basically legitimate (here, PDC, with some concern about the developability and value of a diagonally bisected, reduced-area parcel) but whose maintenance requires extra or convoluted effort to come up with a reasonable alternate solution (here, the double track on 4th).

    On that point, in addition to the other issues mentioned, this is going to cause all kinds of traffic horribleness on 4th (which is hugely congested during PM peak), and make Harrison, which is one of the few ways up from where I work on 1st to PSU/downtown, basically impassable to bikes. The existing crossing is oblique-angle, but this one will be essentially parallel tracks on the approach to the intersection with 4th. (Chris, do you know of any planned mitigation for that?) Lincoln will be opening up some in the future, so maybe it’s not a disaster, but it’s yet another hassle.

    But to return to my original point, there are times when I think someone at the city needs to take responsibility for sitting everyone involved in a room and saying “None of you gets to just say no to this. We’ve got to figure out a solution that actually doesn’t suck for anyone. You all have legitimate interests, but you have to sit down and show evidence that your interest would be negatively affected, not just your opinion.”

    It’s more complicated when you have outside parties (other government agencies, citizen organizations) who are the ones saying no (and PDC is a little bit in that category), but all the more reason for someone to practice that now since they’re going to continue to need it in spades as Portland actually starts to become a dense city.

    • I think this is less about lack of cooperation than timing problems. Ideally you want to develop the building and the new tracks at the same time. If you run tracks through the block (or surround the block), then later to put up a building, you’ll have to shutdown Streetcar service for several months. Since that would now interrupt TWO lines, that’s a lousy outcome. We had ten years to get a building up and unfortunately it didn’t happen.

      I’m not sure I understand the comment about cycling on Harrison, there are no real changes there. This WILL create an effective ‘no go’ zone on Montgomery and PSU has/had concerns about that, but didn’t prevail in the discussions. I agree that we need to develop a route for bikes between 4th and 5th in the area.

      PDC, Streetcar and PSU were all definitely in conversation about this – it’s not like the discussion was not convened. Did PDC get too much say? Maybe.

  15. A months long break in Streetcar operations would be by far the worse outcome, so I guess we get the proposed route on 4th and Montgomery.
    I was waiting for the CL at Grand and Morrison this afternoon around 2; Transit Tracker said “22 & 40 minutes” for next car; so I hemmed and hawed keeping an eye out for a 6 bus…I have no smart phone, when about 10 minutes into my wait a CL Streetcar appeared, a new one, 021, at that. Does Streetcar operations monitor the TT info at stops? Usually they are pretty accurate, but not today. The new car was quite nice.

  16. What’s to proclude building the diagonal alignment when the Jasmine block is finally developed? Even if the 4th/Montgomery section is double-tracked in the interim, it seems like there would still be enough operational benefits later on to justify the extra cost of building the diagonal as originally planned with the new development, whatever it turns out to be. Obviously it would have been better to get that done sooner, but that didn’t happen.

      • Chris,

        I am sorry, but this is the stupidest transport kerfuffle I’ve heard yet. The streetcar has been there for nearly ten years, and the PDC hasn’t figured out what to do with the bypassed property? What…A…Bunch…Of…Losers!

        So screw ’em; make it a park. Plant a grove of trees on both sides of the tracks to replace the beautiful ones whacked down along Lincoln for the Orange Line.

  17. Maybe a future developer would pay for this preferred alignment! Some blame goes to the “Rs” in the legislature who killed the CoP/PSU Sustainability Center…a lost chance to push the envelop and add luster to Portland’s worthy claim in that realm. re trees…they grow like weeds in our neck of the woods, so no worries if some had to go. On Interstate TriMet took some, but put in way more in the end.

    • Lenny,

      Sure trees grow well here. But in downtown they’re only in the Park Blocks, along Harrison and the intersecting streets and (formerly) along Lincoln.

      It’s true there are already two “vest pocket” parks in the vicinity, and “make it a park” might be overkill. The point is that the PDC is a “public” agency and it has seriously failed the public on this.

  18. A.
    Downtown PDX is awash with trees, and they will be back in full force on Lincoln in just a few years; their removal was for a good cause, and trees do have a certain life span.
    re PDC…its in the Mayor’s portfolio, so the buck really stops there. Maybe WW was right, Mr. Hales is prone to coasting on some issues; too bad he did not address this block the way the former Mayor did. Mr Streetcar indeed!

    • The Lincoln Street MAX route is better than the original S/N route on Harrison. Lincoln is straighter, wider, influences more development and builds more ridership, etc. Originally, I had qualms about MAX running diagonally through the PSU Urban Center blocks. The streetcar is a better fit.

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