Author Archive | Alexander B. Craghead

Oregonian still tone-deaf on Port of Portland


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

The inevitable end of container traffic at the Port of Portland

In recent months, the Port of Portland’s probable loss of the Hanjin shipping company has been in the news. Local media reported on the event, largely painting it as a minor tragedy. Chris, here at Portland Transport, provided his own take, noting how that those businesses using Terminal 6 would now have to truck their goods to Puget Sound, an increase not only in cost but also in carbon emissions.

I have a slightly different take from Chris: container traffic at the Port of Portland is doomed. It is only a question of when.

Hanjin’s departure has sparked a lot of silly analysis. An Oregonian editorial, for example, blamed most of the matter on increased costs from labor disputes, an issue that the Port of Portland claims was a factor in Hanjin’s decision. (The official press release does not mention this factor, nor does the Hanjin letter to shipping customers [PDF] obtained by the Oregonian.)

Meanwhile, the Portland Business Journal sloppily threw a bunch of statistics at the matter, attempting to make the case that Hanjin in specific, and container import-export at the Port of Portland in general, were crucial to the metropolitan economy.

Hanjin’s decision comes as the region executes on a plan to increase exports, which are a significant contributor to the Portland metro economy. A recent Brookings Institution study found that exports accounted for $33.9 billion in regional economic activity in 2012, driving in large part by technology exports. (See the region’s top-five exported goods.)

In addition, a recent Portland Business Alliance study found that Oregon companies made and exported $16.5 billion worth of goods to countries worldwide in 2012, creating 490,000 jobs.

Not all of those good were moved by Hanjin, but as the largest carrier calling on Portland, Hanjin certainly accounted for a good deal of that traffic.

Reading this take from the Portland Business Journal, one might conclude that Hanjin was doing massive amounts of business out of T6, and the the Port of Portland was some kind of big time player in container shipping. Yet this is not at all the case. Terminal volume at T6 for the year 2012 (the most recent year for which data was available) stands at 183,203 TEU. (TEU means “twenty-foot equivalent units,” representing a standard twenty-foot shipping container.) Moreover, T6 has never handled more than 340,000 TEU in a year, and that was ten years ago, in 2003. While this may seem like a lot, let’s put it into perspective, by comparing the Port of Portland’s container traffic to the other major west coast terminals at Los Angeles, Long Beach, Seattle, Oakland, and Tacoma. The following graphic, based on 2010 volumes, gives you some sense of proportion:


Portland is the smallest “major” U.S. container port. Tacoma, the next larger, is more than eight times bigger. As a player in the global container shipping market, Portland doesn’t even exist.

To understand why we need to understand the special nature of containerized cargo. This is the type of stuff that is not so time sensitive or small that it can economically fly, but is of sufficient value and lightness that it can be shipped relatively cheaply and still be competitively sold at its destination. Inbound containerized cargo to the United States is often consumer goods manufactured in Asia. Outbound cargo is typically specialty products or niche materials. In Oregon, examples might be specialty cedar boards for Japanese sauna construction, pallets of Christmas trees headed to Hawaii, or a couple truckloads of Hazelnuts going to China.

Containerized cargo, because it is relatively light and of higher value, is very mobile. Outbound loads will go to the port where shipping companies can offer the fastest transit time to the final destination for the least cost, and that recipe usually means that containers end up shipping in and out where other containers already are, since competition breeds lower costs. It also means that containers tend to go to those ports that are closest to their final destinations, thus reducing transit times. This is why goods heading to Europe typically are trucked or carried by railways to Eastern ports, while goods heading to Asia typically go west to Pacific ports.

So far, you’d think, so good for Portland. Since we are a Pacific port, we’re closer to Asia. But so are all the other ports of the U.S. West Coast. This is were port competitiveness begins. Note that when Hanjin announced its pull out from Portland, the Puget Sound Business Journal treated it as good news: container traffic lost in Portland would likely relocate to Puget Sound ports. In the American shipping world, what is bad for one port is good for all the others.

To compete, each port has its unique characteristics. Portland, along with there ports of the lower Columbia River, has a geographic advantage by being at the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge, the only water-level route through the Cascade-Sierra divide. This makes these ports naturally strong for handling bulk materials, where mobility is heavily restricted by weight and a high shipping cost. According to statistics published by the Port of Portland, Portland Harbor — which includes both the Port of Portland and several private terminals along the Willamette River — is “the largest wheat export port in the United States, the largest mineral export port on the U.S. West Coast, and the 4th largest export tonnage port on the U.S. West Coast.”

Container traffic is, however, highly mobile. Portland is located 100 miles away from the ocean, up a river with a relatively shallow depth (43 feet) and that must be dredged, and on the other side of one of the most treacherous river bars in the world. Put another way, to serve Portland, you have to have a reason to spend the extra time, money, and risk to reach it. All that grain can’t easily or cheaply move elsewhere, but containers — especially if they trucking in anyway and are not being filled directly from Portland producers — can fairly easily and cheaply end up at other ports.

And over the last half-century, that’s exactly what has happened. Railroads, truckers, and shipping lines have all contributed to the development of major container traffic at every major port of the U.S. Pacific Coast–except for Portland. No labor agreement or policy change is going to alter this historic trend.


Post-CRC Transit: Time for (Real) Commuter Rail?

Now that the Columbia River Crossing is (probably) dead, is Clark County commuter rail a viable alternative?

Now that the Columbia River Crossing is (probably) dead, is Clark County commuter rail a viable alternative?

If the Columbia River Crossing mega-highway and light rail project is actually dead, a question arises: what are we to do to address mobility across the river, especially when it comes to high(er) capacity public transportation?

Without the CRC, opportunity to improve transit to Clark County, Washington remains limited at best. The likelihood of a light-rail only bridge is slim, and busses will continue to be stuck in I-5 traffic. But there is also the cultural divide, for it seems that north of the river, TriMet in general and light rail in specific is often perceived as something suspect. MAX is a crime train. MAX is the long arm of Portland’s urban culture. MAX is government interventionism and social engineering. And whatnot. (For an excellent and balanced take on this, see this article from last June in the Columbian.)

So is there a form of improved public transit that is achievable with lower cost and less exotic engineering, is far less expensive than the CRC project (and therefore more affordable), and also that is socially acceptable to Clark County? The answer may be yes: commuter rail.

Now hang with me. I don’t mean anything like the growing but heavily flawed TriMet WES line. As commuter rail, WES was built to mimic light rail as much as possible, and as a result sacrificed pretty much everything that typifies commuter rail.

To understand true commuter rail, look north at the Sound Transit’s Seattle-centric Sounder. It exhibits typical commuter rail characteristics not found in WES, but found in dozens of highly successful commuter rail systems across the nation:

  • (Mostly) unidirectional service. Much as TriMet’s express busses do today – mornings towards downtown Seattle, evenings away from it.
  • Lengthy. The southern line extends to Lakewood, south of Tacoma, approximately 45 miles. The north line to Everett is about 35 miles.
  • Very high capacity. These are locomotive hauled trains with multiple cars. Each car is two-level and can carry about 160 seated passengers, and almost double this counting standees. Sounder often runs six to nine car trains. A six-car commuter train thus can handle about 1000 people seated, and 2000 standing. (That’s more than ride all of WES in a day with far lower operating employee costs.)
  • Wide stop spacing. Sounder stations are typically 5-10 miles apart, so that trains can actually reach their 60 miles-per-hour maximum speed and hold it for longer periods.

But using Sounder as a possible model for a Portland to Clark County high(er) capacity transit, it is not only the particulars of the mode that are important. Rather, two other characteristics are vital: achievability, and cultural acceptance. That last one is the most important one, but I want to dispense with some of the numbers first.
On the achievability front, Sounder operates over the freight rail tracks of the BNSF Railway, alongside Amtrak. Sound Transit made significant capital investments in BNSF’s rail infrastructure in order to support the operation, and jointly worked with Amtrak on improvements that would benefit both Sounder and Amtrak Cascades services. Building off of existing infrastructure and partnering with other passenger rail projects resulted in shared gains and a more efficient use of infrastructure.

I should note, Sounder did weigh in at a pretty high construction cost. According to Sound Transit numbers obtained via email from ST spokesperson Kimberly Reason, the original segment from Seattle to Tacoma, inclusive of track and signal upgrades, stations, and equipment, cost $554.8 million. That’s just shy of $14 million per mile in capital and startup costs. Compared to the Portland-Milwaukee Light Rail project’s approximately $205 million per mile, however, Sounder was a bargain.

(Caveat: the numbers Sound Transit provided are about ten years old, and are not expressed in 2013 dollars.)

As with Sounder, the tracks that might host a Clark (and Cowlitz) County commuter rail project are owned by the BNSF Railway. Similarly, the northern line to Longview also hosts Amtrak Cascades. This means that a Clark (and Cowlitz) County commuter rail operation would likely have a host railroad experienced with and friendly towards commuter operations [PDF], and a potential infrastructure partner in Washington DOT / Amtrak Cascades.

Commuter rail, with controlled access, cute stations, and car parking is a mode that appeals far more to suburban voters.

Commuter rail, with controlled access, cute stations, and car parking is a mode that appeals far more to suburban voters.

But enough about numbers and statistics. The bigger question is, is commuter rail the type of high(er) capacity transit that Clark County would be willing to accept? Consider:

  • Unlike light rail, access on commuter rail is controlled. This reduces the perception of criminal elements moving about. Whether that is a legitimate concern is beside the point – in fact I think it’s a bogus one (see also here [PDF]), as is beginning to get out – but politically it is extremely important, especially in Clark County.
  • Commuter rail has a “Better Homes and Gardens” personality that makes it appeal to suburban residents. Locomotives and cars are seen as cute or quaint or friendly. Stations are often small-town depot buildings complete with rose beds and cast-iron street lamps. There is no smack of urban uncertainty to a commuter rail station.
  • Commuter rail does not challenge auto-oriented suburban culture. A significant number of riders drive to a park-and-ride facility and then board the train. This means riders can keep their car, continue to live in low density suburbs, and not feel that transit is challenging their lifestyle and self-image.

For those of us who are dedicated transit riders and advocates, the above points may seem ludicrous, frustrating, or like caving in to what Gordon Price calls “Motordom”. But ask yourself this: is it better to have thousands upon thousands of cars parked at park-and-rides in Clark County, or parked in the city center? Which would be better for the air quality, for commerce, for general quality of life on our side of the river?

Commuter rail – the real thing, not WES – may be the one higher capacity transit mode that would satisfy Clark County voters while also being achievable, buildable, and functional. As we contemplate what to do now that the Columbia River Crossing – all twelve lanes and two light-rail tracks of it – is (probably) consigned to the scrap heap, commuter rail to Clark County may be an idea whose time has come.