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


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