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