Archive | 2014

Vindicated

Via Planetizen:

Research out of the University of Washington shows that information tools that let riders know when the next bus is coming reduce perceived wait time compared to not knowing when the vehicle is arriving. Transit agencies can give customers improved satisfaction without major investments in additional service.

Now I’d never say that TriMet shouldn’t keep improving service, but would anyone care for a Transit Appliance?

Oregonian still tone-deaf on Port of Portland

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The Oregonian continues to advocate paving over scarce urban greenspace for new port facilities rather than re-using Portland’s brownfields, such as the former site of the Atofina Chemicals plant near Linnton. Photo: Alexander B. Craghead, 2012.

The Oregonian continues to demonstrate its tone-deafness regarding the Port of Portland. Last week, the newspaper revealed its “editorial agenda” for 2014, one plank of which is titled “Portland’s industrial lands scavenger hunt.” The title is misleading. The editorial’s real thrust is to complain bitterly about the city’s policy towards economic development, relying on the cancellation of the Port of Portland’s West Hayden Island development as exhibit number one.

Maritime transportation facilities are of vital importance to the city and the region. Yet the paper seems to believe that the only way that the region’s maritime trade can grow is to pave over natural resources:

City planners hope to lean heavily on brownfield restoration to replenish the supply of industrial lands. In concept, it’s a good plan. Take land that currently is an environmental nuisance and has little value. With a mix of public and private money, clean it up and put businesses on the sites. But making those projects pencil out, particularly for industrial uses, might well prove as difficult as finding a way to balance the Port’s needs and environmentalists’ concerns on West Hayden Island.

Allow me to translate: The Oregonian thinks cleaning up brownfields is too costly and difficult, and therefore would have us pave over greenspaces like West Hayden Island instead.

Leaving aside whether or not the Port of Portland’s development of West Hayden Island would really have been the job creator that the paper claims, this is simply bad land use and transportation policy.

Worse, a bigger question remains: is the Port of Portland’s wish for more marine terminals being driven by regional needs, or by unnecessary and destructive inter-port competition? Does the Lower Columbia really need to be served by six different commercial portsEven Seattle and Tacoma, once hated rivals, are beginning to cooperate. Even if the region does need more marine terminals, the only reason to build on West Hayden Island, versus some other location, was because West Hayden Island belonged to the Port of Portland, versus some other port authority. Put another way, if Hayden Island were on the Washington side of the state line, nobody would have been talking about turning it into a port facility, given the ease on constructing westward along the river’s north shore, as the Port of Vancouver, USA is in fact doing. West Hayden Island, simply put, was needless inter-governmental competition at its worst.

Marine transportation has as vast and direct land use impact, perhaps as much as automobile transportation, perhaps more so. It’s time that the port authorities along the Lower Columbia began to cooperate, act together more efficiently, and make fewer wasteful land use decisions. Maybe the cancellation of the West Hayden Island port plans will open the door to a broader public debate on the matter. If so, then its cancellation will have proven to be not only a good thing for the environment, but also a good thing for the future of rational maritime transportation in the region. But somehow, I doubt it. It seems far more likely that we will continue to get “chicken little” op-eds out of the Big O, rather than meaningful debates.

How will Oregon passenger rail’s two alignment options affect Portland?

ODOT's Oregon Passenger Rail project seeks to find a long-term alignment for intercity rail service, such as the Amtrak Cascades train seen here, south of Portland.

ODOT’s Oregon Passenger Rail project seeks to find a long-term alignment for intercity rail service, such as the Amtrak Cascades train seen here, south of Portland.

Last Thursday, the Oregon Department of Transportation announced that the Oregon Passenger Rail Leadership Council had selected two alternatives for future intercity passenger rail service south of Portland. The alignment selection is part of a planning process to determine the alignment for mid and long-term investments in passenger rail operations in the Willamette Valley. Presently, this corridor is served by four three daily round trips of rail service (three two Amtrak Cascades departures and the daily Amtrak Coast Starlight) and an additional six Amtrak-affiliated “thruway” motor-coaches. While the two remaining alternatives differ from each other significantly, both have similar and substantial impacts for the greater Portland region. Before we examine these, let’s look at the two alternatives more closely.

ODOT's two proposed alignments for intercity passenger rail service south of  Portland. Both will advance to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, but ultimately only one will be selected for construction.

ODOT’s two proposed alignments for intercity passenger rail service south of
Portland. Both will advance to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, but ultimately only one will be selected for construction.

Alternative 1. This alternative keeps rail service south of the city on its existing route, using the right-of-way of the Union Pacific Railroad. Presumably the selection of this alternative would mean introducing a series of extensive, phased improvements to the UP tracks such as additional passing tracks, double and triple tracking in places, and improved signal systems.

Alternative 2. This alternative is a combination of several different segments. For the purpose of this post we can generally describe this as following Interstate 5 from the Eugene area to Keizer, north of Salem. From Keizer to Wilsonville the alignment follows the shortline freight tracks of the Portland & Western. From Wilsonville to Oregon city, it follows I-205 and from there it uses the existing UPRR tracks into Portland. (A third variation of Alternative 2, utilizing a tunnel under part of Portland, remains in play, but seems less and less likely.)

Winners & Losers. The details of both alternatives and their pros and cons would take up plenty of discussion on their own. The two alternatives, however, are very similar in how they directly impact the Portland region. Both utilize the existing Union Pacific tracks from Oregon City through to a station stop at Portland Union Station. The result is a mixed bag for the city, and creates some big winners and some big losers.

Portland Union Station, at more than 100 years old, will continue to be the epicenter of  Oregon's passenger rail system."

Portland Union Station, at more than 100 years old, will continue to be the epicenter of
Oregon’s passenger rail system.

Winner: historic preservation. Both alignments will continue to serve Portland Union Station. Built from 1893 to 1896, the facility is the oldest continually operating union station west of St. Louis, Missouri. The experience of other cities across the nation indicates that the best way to preserve historic and large city-center rail stations is continued operation.

Loser: Eastside/”modern” station advocates. It’s been a long-time dream from some to move Portland’s rail station facilities to the east side of the Willamette River. The most dramatic of these was the conversion of Memorial Coliseum into a rail station, an idea championed frequently in the pages of The Oregonian by activist Ray Polani.

Winner: passengers passing through Portland. Given the continued use of Portland Union Station and the limited storage space of the station’s yard, it seems likely that trains south of Portland will continue to be interlined with service north of the city. This means fewer required transfers for passengers passing through the city.

The Central Eastside Industrial District will remain bisected by First Avenue's  exclusive railway use. With increasing interest in residential development in the CEID, can a quiet zone push be far behind?

The Central Eastside Industrial District will remain bisected by First Avenue’s
exclusive railway use. With increasing interest in residential development in the CEID, can a quiet zone push be far behind?

Loser: condo developers in the Central Eastside Industrial District. Developers hoping to construct residential units in the CEID, such as Key Development’s recently announced Burnside Bridgehead tower, will face the continued presence of rail traffic on the right-of-way of First Avenue. Trains in this corridor frequently block pedestrian and auto traffic and are a source of both particulate pollution and noise. Expect increasing developer pressure to establish a “quiet zone” in the CEID, eliminating train horn noise.

Loser: high-speed rail purists. The continued use of the Union Pacific right-of-way through the city implies that the future of passenger rail south of Portland will remain a blended, mid-speed system with speeds no higher than 125 miles-per-hour (and probably nowhere near that fast within the city). It is still marginally possible that if Alternative 2 is selected train speeds might edge closer to the 200 miles-per-hour mark, but given the difficulty of phasing this option it seems less and less likely that Alternative 2 will end up being the selected route.

Winner: rail-side neighborhoods and pedestrians. Lower top speeds will mean less need for massive sound barriers, security fences, and grade crossing eliminations, thus resulting in fewer circulation impacts.

An Op-Ed Moment. While the details of the two alternatives are beyond the scope of this post, it is the opinion of this writer that Alternative 1 remains the best option for the future of intercity passenger rail service south of Portland. Alternative 2 will be almost impossible to construct in operable, phased segments, making it unlikely to be able to survive the political apathy towards passenger rail that has been typical of the state’s Legislature. Furthermore, Alternative 2 runs counter to good land use principles, being dependent on freeway-side stations not located near the city centers along its route. None of Alternative 2’s stations south of Portland are located in city centers, and in the case of Eugene, not only would this alternative’s station be further from the University of Oregon, it would be not in Eugene at all, but in Springfield.

Alternative 1, by contrast, lends itself naturally to the successful phased approach that was utilized to construct Washington’s wildly successful segment of Amtrak Cascades. Alternative 1 is also the only alternative that supports good land use, maintaining rail service to the centers of Salem, Albany, and Eugene were quality transportation nodes can be supported by denser land uses.

For the present, both alternatives will advance towards inclusion in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that will be published sometime in late 2014, with public hearings anticipated in early 2015. To learn more about the project, see oregonpassengerrail.org.