Portland's Regional Planning Agency Highlights Two New Corridors for Light Rail

Portland Future Light Rail CorridorsSecond line to Gresham and new path to Sherwood would extend city’s high-capacity network.

Portland’s Metro regional planning authority has picked two corridors for future major transit investments, plotting the region’s path towards better public transportation. The new routes would extend east and southwest from downtown and will be developed consecutively after the completion of projects already in the engineering stage today. Metro also selected a number of other corridors for long-term consideration.

Along with the I-205 Green Line light rail scheduled for opening on September 12, the Portland region is currently planning a new light rail line south to Milwaukie, another north to Vancouver (WA), and a streetcar extension south to Lake Oswego. These projects, already being readied for the New Start funding process, will be the first completed.

Metro’s new plans confirm that new routes between downtown and Gresham along Powell Boulevard and another between downtown and Sherwood via Tigard along Barbur Boulevard and Highway 99 will be the next to enter engineering. These routes were chosen after a close analysis of 18 possible corridors in the region and were determined to be the most cost-effective in terms of attracting ridership. Unlike the routes mentioned above, however, these lines have yet to be guaranteed funding. They also could theoretically be built as bus rapid transit, but Portland’s success thus far with light rail indicates that the city will continue investing in the latter mode.

The plan also argues for future consideration of other corridors in the southern and western parts of the region, though those projects are a long ways off.

Portland’s pursuit of advanced planning for its light rail program fits well with the city’s strict adherence to the Oregon-mandated urban growth boundary, which ensures that the countryside remains rural, rather than becoming exurban. Strong transportation investments in the right areas can allow for future growth in dense, infill neighborhoods and prevent suburban sprawl. The city’s streetcar expansion project follows a similar vein of thought.

The city and region could be doing a better job making that infill happen, however, and one hopes that the new lines will be the setting for a significant densification of the existing urban fabric. Though light rail has brought intense development to downtown and a few isolated spots along the routes, it hasn’t been enough of a game-changer to reorient the auto-centered lifestyle that’s still present in much of the area. Part of the problem is that many of the light rail routes — including the soon-to-open Green Line — are located adjacent to or in the median of grade-separated highways. This makes them less than ideal places for transit-oriented, walkable neighborhoods.

But Powell Boulevard and much of Route 99, by virtue of their tighter girth, are connected to the neighborhoods around them, unlike I-205, for instance. It’s easy to imagine them transformed into urban boulevards, with four and five-story buildings facing the street and commercial districts situated around light rail stations. As downtown reaches its developmental limits, these corridors could become extensions of that core, adding a bit of mixed-use urbanity to neighborhood around the whole region.

Image above: Portland metro long-term plan, from OPB

8 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • If only other states had such an effective urban growth boundary program. Then cities would be much closer to needing to deal with effective public transit and densification.

    It’d be nice to see some of the routes that Metro is thinking about in the south built, so that there could be a light rail loop around the city, and so there could be light rail travel from suburb to suburb. And seeing as Portland has had no problem getting funding before, it doesn’t seem like BRT is too high on their list these days.

  • AlexB

    It is the sense of constant forward motion more than actual accomplishment that is so impressive about Portland’s transit system. If they build everything in that proposed map, though, they will have created one of the few comprehensive rail transit systems in the US to be built after WW2. It really does seem to have radial lines to every major segment of the city and multiple circumferential lines as well. Combined with the proposed streetcar system, it really could be a transit city, instead of just a pro-transit city.

    Could someone who has lived in Portland tell me, would these lines provide light rail service to a large majority of the city’s population? Or would many neighborhoods still be out of walking distance to the system?

  • AlexB

    When highways and transit share ROW, the benefit is that the light rail can piggyback on the exclusivity of that ROW. Even along major boulevards where the trains have their own lanes, you still have to deal with overall block lengths and traffic lights. Ridership goes up, but capacity and speed go down. I assume this would be true in Portland also, correct?

    I have never lived in a city with combined highway and transit lines. I visited Chicago last year and took the blue line in from the airport. Seeing the huge elevated walkways that connected the stations to the neighborhoods, it was hard to imagine anyone doing that everyday. You couldn’t usually see any buildings from the station. The notion that the station served a real neighborhood seemed very abstract. Whether it’s the MAX, BART or CTA, I don’t think the cost savings of constructing transit in highway ROW will ever offset the long term disadvantage of being in a highway.

    Maybe the way they built MAX is better than the way they built the blue line in Chicago. The only way I could imagine a transit line successfully combined with a highway is if a transit line were installed on an elevated urban highway like the BQE in Brooklyn. That way, the lines would be much more like every other elevated trains, and potentially very close to actual buildings.

    I thought Portland voters repealed the growth boundary a few years ago. Was it reinstated?

  • I’d have to agree that it’s Portland’s momentum that seems to set it apart. As well as its vision; especially within the last several years it seems like there has always been some sort of expansion ongoing with the MAX or streetcar system. And though MAX lines may not serve all of the city, the impressive thing is that there’s plans to serve a majority of the urban centers in the metro region; I don’t think anyone ever proposed that every single neighborhood was going to have direct MAX access.

    And although it’s still highway ROW, the parts of MAX built along I-205 and I-84 seem better though out than say the VTA highway lines; the rails aren’t in the center of the highway lanes, but alongside the highway, usually allowing access to development from one side, and in several places there were pedestrian bridges to allow for crossing the interstates.

  • Allison

    AlexB

    Portlander here.

    OMG, yes, it would greatly increase the number of neighborhoods within walking distance. Depending, of course, on what you consider walking distance and the density of the stops. I’m currently 1/3 mile off the existing I-84 LRT route – I often choose to take the bus that’s a block a way instead of walking up to the train if I’m only going downtown. But what makes Portland amazing is the plethora of choices. And the huge emphasis on effective networks and connections is a big part of it, too – there’s a bus outside my door that will take me north to the LRT or south to the proposed LRT.

    The densest part of Portland not currently served by LRT is the area around Powell Blvd. I’m not sure if the scale is clear, but the I-205 line getting ready to open this fall is 5 miles from the river (the major delineation through Portland). So a large number of people in that area (about 26%) call themselves regular bike commuters. Past that line, the percentage drops to 6%. Making transit options more plentiful out there (the current bus line along Powell past that point comes every 30 minutes and traffic along it during peak times is abysmal on bus or in a car).

    Part of what’s cool about Portland and our LTR choices is that we often pick lower density routes – the Westside LTR goes from Hillsboro to Downtown Portland more northerly than the existing development did – which meant we had transit oriented development more than 15 miles from the city center. The LRT still served several major employers – Intel has three campuses out there (something like 10k employees) and it allowed people to live in dense housing downtown and commute 15-20 miles to work without their cars or to live within 5 miles of work (and still not commute with their cars) with lower housing costs.

    But…it has meant that if you’re in one of those existing areas of development, your reliance on your car hasn’t diminished. This would ameliorate a great deal of that – most will still need a car but can replace many car trips with transit trips. My mother lives 2 miles from the existing LRT – she parks and a park and ride. An LRT along Powell would allow her to leave her car at home entirely.

    I’m looking at this network and the word “Utopia” comes to mind. I would never have to drive to the mall again. Any mall. I love Portland (I’m moving to Seattle in a few months, that might increase my sentimentality) but this…this! I’m only afraid that it’ll make it so desirable that we won’t be able to afford a house when we come back.

  • Hello. Former Portlander here, who happened to be back there when this came out.

    Yes, it’s a great network. Keep in mind that this is a regional rapid transit network useful for organizing outer-suburban development, but as you note, there’s been a lot of difficulty getting genuine urban density to happen around light rail. Even Gateway, a major cross-roads in the network that will soon have rail in four directions, hasn’t seen much development energy above the big-box retail scale. This despite rail service that can be faster than driving at peak commute times.

    As you note both Powell and Barbur have potential as boulevards, but this will be challenging because the last 20 years of urban growth has focused on other parallel corridors, leaving these as almost designated “car streets” where car-oriented uses such as gas stations and car repair have tended to gather.

    Note, too, the increased emphasis on Metro’s effort to tie transit investment to land use decisions by local government. Decisions about densification led by suburban cities will really determine whether these corridors get built, especially the corridors further down the list. That’s as it should be in my view.

  • I don’t think they should work on both lines at the same time. They should perfect one of them and only when it works without any problems they should work on the other one. This way you’ll save yourself some unavoidable mistakes (I know there’s a lot of planning here but still)

  • EngineerScotty

    The Urban Growth Boundary (or boundaries, as every city in Oregon must have one) has not been repealed. The UGB for Portland and its suburbs (excluding those in Washington State) is jointly managed by Metro, a regional governing body; most cities in Oregon manage their own UGBs.

    Oregon voters did pass a while back a ballot measure which purported to require compensation for any regulatory act which “reduced the value of property”, but the law was so poorly written it was modified by the Legislature, and then subsequently scaled back by a later ballot measure. (The original proposal was positioned as a way to protect landowners from being able to make any effective use of property due to environmental laws, but the real effect of the law was an attempt by the development lobby to gut the state’s land use laws. Once that became apparent, the law was modified; and the current laws on the books no longer pose an existential threat to land use laws in Oregon).

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