Portland St. Louis Streetcar Urbanism

Don’t Forget the Zoning

» Streetcar projects promise new development along their rights-of-way. But cities must allow new transit-oriented buildings to be built nearby. A look at St. Louis and Portland.

In the United States, streetcars have assumed a dramatic new prominence, in part because of increasing federal support. In dozens of cities, new lines are under construction, funded, or in planning thanks to local political leadership that recognizes the benefits of such investments in relatively cheap new rail lines. While streetcars are typically not the most efficient mobility providers — compared to light rail lines and often even buses, they are slower and more likely to be caught in traffic — they are promoted as development tools. Streetcars, it is said, will bring new construction and the densification of districts that are served by the new rail lines.

But streetcars alone aren’t enough to spur construction of residential and commercial buildings in neighborhoods with transit service. Just as important are the municipal regulations guiding new development. If zoning prevents large buildings around streetcar corridors, how exactly will streetcars lead to new construction?

A comparison of two streetcar projects — one soon to enter construction in St. Louis and the other about to open for service in Portland — shows that there are very different rules guiding what can be built in the two cities. The result may be that one city sees significant new growth along its corridor and the other sees very little, despite both projects being new streetcar lines. Other cities looking to extract value from their transportation investments should consider how their land use regulations may affect new construction.

St. Louis

Unlike most cities building new streetcar lines, St. Louis’ federally funded project will be constructed outside of downtown, in the Loop District four miles from the city center. The Loop Trolley will extend two miles from the Missouri History Museum at Forest Park, along DeBaliviere Avenue, and west along Delmar Boulevard into the independent municipality of University City. The route, which will be partially double tracked, will serve ten stops and is expected to attract about 800 riders per weekday (and 2,000 per weekend day) in the opening year, rising eventually to 2,600 riders a day by 2025.

The project suffers from many of the flaws of other streetcar lines throughout the country — it will have limited frequencies, a non-exclusive right-of-way, and a route that doesn’t directly serve the biggest destination in the area: Washington University.

More important, however, is the fact that zoning in both St. Louis and University City is not adequate to produce “urban infill and transit-oriented development along the route,” as project proponents claim the Trolley will encourage.

In the City of St. Louis, the blocks directly facing the streetcar route are mostly zoned for neighborhood commercial, commercial district, and multiple family dwelling areas. In these districts, buildings cannot exceed three stories or 45 to 50 feet. Non-residential buildings are limited to a floor area ratio (FAR) of just 1.5*. Meanwhile, non-pedestrian-oriented uses, such as drive-through restaurants, are allowed to be constructed. For residential buildings, developers are required to provide parking for one car per unit, and commercial structures over a size limit must provide parking as well.

In University City on the western section of the route, zoning is similarly restrictive. Half a block off the Delmar Loop, where the line runs, “core commercial” zoning is used. In these areas, residential units, bars, hotels, and more are allowed, but they require a conditional use permit from city hall to be installed — a needless complication for uses that are more than appropriate for this kind of area. Buildings are limited to just 35 feet in height, with the exception of certain buildings with large setbacks. But in a walkable area like this, it is more than appropriate to build taller structures right up to the sidewalk line. North of the streetcar corridor, high density residential zoning is in effect, but there no mixing of uses is allowed at all, and FAR is limited to 1 unless buildings are built on one acre or larger lots.

Just a block or two south of the route, in both St. Louis and University City, surrounding land is mostly zoned for single-family homes in “neighborhood preservation areas” that make a mix of land uses and increased building sizes almost impossible to construct.

In sum, even if developers are intrigued by the idea of building along the streetcar corridor, St. Louis’ project is likely to attract little actual construction because of city regulations that limit new construction. Developers wanting to build large structures will be limited by low height limits and requirements to get special permits to provide a mix of land uses. That should put a big question mark over how valuable the project will be from a land use perspective.


Portland’s streetcar, which has been in operation since 2001, has been the national model for such projects; combined with the city’s large MAX light rail network, it has offered this region a transit-friendly image. Thanks to an infusion of $75 million in federal funds, the city has built a $148 million, 3.3-mile extension that will open for service on September 22. The project is expected to roughly double existing ridership (now about 12,000 on a weekday) and attract 2.4 million square feet of development by serving the Lloyd District and Central Eastside neighborhoods, which are across the Willamette river from downtown. In these areas, there is currently a paucity of urban development and plenty of space for new construction. The project connects to the north end of the existing streetcar, runs across the river, runs south on Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard to the Oregon Museum of Science and Indutry, and will eventually form a loop around the city center when it is connected with the south end of the existing streetcar in 2015.

Portland Streetcar Loop map, from Portland Streetcar

Like St. Louis’ line, Portland’s also has some transportation deficiencies. Rather than offering direct access into downtown, the route requires riders to take a circuitous journey to get there. Trains will run in a right-of-way shared with automobiles. Based on the schedule, trains will run through the area at just 7 mph, an absurdly slow pace even for a streetcar. Compounding the problem is that the service will only be provided into the Eastside at headways of 18 minutes (which is far worse than the 12-minute headways promised in 2008 for the project). If you miss a train, there is little point in waiting for the next one at those frequencies.

Nevertheless, Portland’s project offers far more opportunity for new development around the line than the St. Louis program. As shown in the images below, very high densities — up to an FAR of 12 in the Lloyd District but at least 5 everywhere — are allowed in the blocks directly surrounding the new streetcar extension, and very little has been built there so far, so there are many opportunities for growth. The top image should make us question whether some areas along the existing streetcar loop, such as the Pearl District, deserve to see a serious up-zoning to allow for increasing new development.

Above: The degree to which blocks surrounding Portland Streetcar and extension have been developed. Below: Allowed floor-area ratios by block. Source: City of Portland

With the densities allowed in Portland, significant new construction in the Eastside areas will be possible. Based on previous trends in the city, such development seems likely. In downtown Census tracts (on the west side of the river), the total population has increased massively since 1980, going from 8,671 then to 17,789 in 2010; about half of that increase was between 2000 and 2010 alone. That kind of growth would have been impossible without the increase in transportation options made possible through the construction of the city’s streetcar and light rail systems.

Meanwhile, though the percentage of people living in those areas using private cars to get to work has increased since 1980, when just 26% did (following the national trend), it has declined from 38.3% in 1990 to 36.9% in 2010, indicating that the new development is attracting people who want to live without cars on a daily basis. That’s a success that seems likely to be continued with the streetcar extension.


Transportation engineers are loath to support new streetcar lines because they cannot understand why it makes sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a rail line when a far cheaper bus service would provide similar, or even more, mobility benefits. From the pure perspective of moving people from one place to another, streetcars are irrational investments.

Some Portland residents have expressed concerns that the streetcar has been excessively subsidized even as bus routes have faced service cuts and increasing fares because of declining revenue. If transportation spending were simply about helping people move around, these would be entirely legitimate claims.

But we can overlook the technical deficiencies of these two streetcar projects by emphasizing their development impacts. The point of the St. Louis and Portland projects is not necessarily to attract many users (though the latter line likely will), but rather to develop a culture of transit use in dense neighborhoods where dependence upon the automobile is not a necessity. Portland has demonstrated that a fixed-route streetcar can encourage development around stops quite effectively, and thus if it is the goal of a city to increase the density of its core areas, streetcars can be a useful tool.

Without appropriate zoning, however, the value of a streetcar project declines tremendously. In places where regulations make building large, mixed-use buildings difficult, transportation projects that will not do much to improve mobility will be incapable of encouraging much construction either.

* A FAR of 2, for example, means if you have a lot of 10,000 square feet, you can build 20,000 square feet of building on site. In an urban district, a building with a FAR of 2 might have 3 to 4 stories, depending on setbacks and surrounding yard areas.

Image at top: Portland Streetcar and MAX light rail line cross path, from Portland Streetcar

Light Rail Portland

Citing Competition for Funds, US DOT Limits Commitment to Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail

» Facing construction cost increases, project planners asked for a higher federal share than originally planned. But the FTA has now made clear it will only pay so much for the nation’s biggest transit projects.

In recent years, the federal government has failed to provide a logical explanation for the manner in which it determines the share of funds it contributes to each proposed New Start major transit capital project, leaving the rest to local and state sources. The agency hasn’t provided strong incentives for cities that provide the most “cost-effective” expansion programs, nor has it produced a formula that allows transit agencies to plan their finances for new projects from the get-go. It has also been markedly ambivalent about investments in very expensive transit projects, no matter their respective value per dollar.

Under this system, big cities with big projects serving a lot of transit riders are systematically denied their right to a proportional share of Washington’s spending. Nor is there any clear distribution of funds by metropolitan area or state, in contrast to the formulas used to distribute standard maintenance funds for existing transit networks.

Last week, Portland received the unexpected and unhappy news that the Federal Transit Administration will only commit to 50% of the costs — up to around $736 million — of the 7.3 mile, $1.47 billion Portland-Milwaukie light rail line, a long-planned extension of the region’s MAX rapid transit network.

The project’s completion cost was estimated at $1.2 billion up to only a few months ago. At that time, the TriMet transit agency was able to assemble $600 million in local and state funds, enough to limit its national funding demand to 50% during the New Starts evaluation process, in which it received a medium-high rating, good enough to virtually ensure an eventual federal commitment. The increase in construction costs convinced it to ask for 60% of total funds (around $880 million), the same as it had received for many of its other rail expansion projects in the last two decades.

Yet the FTA has only a limited budget for new transit capacity (its spending is constrained by the decisions of the U.S. Congress), so Portland’s attempt to convince Washington to increase its commitment fell on helpless ears. The FTA argued that the agency didn’t want to imply that it would fund more than half of future transit projects costing more than one billion dollars, that its budget hasn’t significantly increased, and that the Congress has been unable to compromise on the development of a reauthorized Transportation bill, which determines allocations for the government’s transit investments.

This situation leaves the region with a $135 million funding gap if the corridor is to be built as currently planned. The federal government hasn’t demanded that Portland reduce the line’s cost, just that it pay for more of them with local dollars.

But TriMet, unconvinced that local governments will fill the money hole, has committed itself to a “recalibration” of the program to a $1.2 billion price tag, which could involve simplifying stations and reducing the size of park and rides and maintenance facilities. Another option is delaying the construction of the last section of the line. One possibility, unlikely considering the amount of engineering work that has already been completed, is converting the project to bus rapid transit.

The link will extend south from the Portland Transit Mall (which already features the Green and Yellow light rail lines), into the South Waterfront development, over the Willamette River into Southeast Portland (along a bridge shared with the city’s future streetcar loop), and finally into Milwaukie and Northern Clackamas County. It would primarily be built along an existing railroad right-of-way and draw about 30,000 daily passengers.

I have previously suggested that the project has the potential to induce the construction of a number of valuable transit-oriented development projects thanks to its alignment that in some places runs right through an already active cityscape. The Green Line in east Portland, which opened along the side of an interstate highway last year, has fewer such possibilities for densification around stations. And there is always a benefit to working with the transportation technology that already exists; since Portland already has such a large light rail system, there are advantages to sticking with it.

Yet the FTA’s decision to limit its commitment to only 50% of the project’s costs is not about the merits of the project but rather a sign that the government agency will not be able to withstand unlimited increases in transit project costs, and that it will stick to its policy of providing incentives to smaller programs no matter the merits of bigger ones. In some ways, this represents a significant clarification of the DOT’s position when it comes to capacity projects worth more than a billion dollars: The more a city wants to spend after a certain point, the more it will have to find in local funds. This has national implications.

That said, placing blame on the FTA for this situation would be an unfair reflection of the agency’s situation. Again, its budget for New Starts projects is limited by acts of Congress, and it would be politically difficult if it decided to, for instance, spend all its capital funds one year for one massive project. Considering its situation, it has no choice but to impose limits on how much to pay for individual corridors.

But for cities that have transit projects larger than even Portland’s quite expensive line, this city’s financial difficulties should serve as a warning. Either proponents of public transportation encourage their delegations in the House of Representatives and Senate to find a way to increase the money flow for such projects, or restrain expectations about how much Washington will be willing to chip in.

Image above: Rendering of Portland-Milwaukie MAX Project at Milwaukie’s SE 21st Avenue Station, from TriMet

Automobile Infrastructure Light Rail Portland

Controversial Portland Columbia River Crossing Under Pressure to Move Forward, Despite Flaws

» Bridge connecting Oregon and Washington planned for construction start in 2012, with light rail link included. But its new road capacity isn’t needed.

In most cities, this debate would have ended years ago, and the results would have been far less pretty. The governors of both states involved are highly supportive of the freeway project, and they’ve unearthed enough financing to pay for it. With state departments of transportation pledging their involvement and money, there wouldn’t been much of margin for substantial change.

Yet the Interstate 5 Columbia River Crossing has been plagued by delays primarily because Portland prides itself on being one of the most ecologically aware North American cities, and therefore one of the least inclined support increased freeway capacity. Something had to be done — the existing bridge is structurally unsound and congested at rush hours — but in this region, the only way to garner support was to ensure the inclusion of a public transit component and reduce the number of traffic lanes.

So the $3.6 billion bridge currently being advocated by both governors and the local trade unions will include ten lanes of traffic (rather than 12) and a new light rail line (rather than buses, as originally suggested) when it opens for service in 2018. It would be a trade-off transit activists in most cities would accept as a grand compromise.

The Columbia River Crossing replacement project has been in planning for decades as an essential reinforcement of the primary road link between Portland and Vancouver. The $829 million light rail project is part of Portland’s planned large transit network expansion and recently received a “medium” rating from the Federal Transit Administration, allowing it to move ahead with federal funding. There has recently been a dramatic change of heart in favor of rail on the part of Vancouver’s leadership, who represent a population that defeated a transit extension from Portland in a referendum fifteen years ago.

But much of the Portland region’s citizenry remains concerned about the construction and future effects of the new bridge, and rightly so. Does the I-5 corridor need more road capacity? How can the cities be sure that the project will reduce congestion, rather than induce more demand?

Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt sent a letter last month to their respective governors asking for the project to be run by local authorities, rather than by the state highway department. Each has asked for fundamental changes to the project, which may include reducing the number of traffic lanes and eliminating planned toll lanes to be used to pay back the cost of the bridge over the long term. They want to prevent the project from becoming a financial nightmare — a possibility considering the debt each state will take on to pay for the scheme.

On the other hand, neither municipal leader is a full-on bridge opponent, nor is either interested in restarting the project entirely.

But grassroots opposition continues unabated. A number of local groups have demonstrated some of the principal flaws of the proposal: It will increase sprawl by encouraging faster and longer commutes into downtown Portland; it will reduce congestion for a period of just 12 years, after which traffic will slow down again because more people will choose to drive at rush hours because of increased capacity; it will enable a 34% increase in automobile traffic, exactly the opposite of what a self-proclaimed environmentally friendly region would want; and, if it’s tolled, as planned, it will simply encourage the greater use and eventual congestion of I-205, which runs parallel to I-5 just up down the river.

The Crossing’s environmental impact study claims that overall traffic on the corridor would actually fall with the completion of the bigger bridge — a bizarre outcome predicted by an evidently skewed traffic forecasting model. Experience across the United States over a period of decades has demonstrated concretely that more highways almost universally produce more roadway use.

The expansion of the Columbia River Crossing also fails to address traffic choke points elsewhere along I-5, meaning that congestion will simply move to other parts of the roadway, not actually solving many existing problems with the highway’s capacity.

A series of excellent videos produced several months ago by Nick Falbo promote a series of alternatives to the multi-billion dollar project. By ramping up transit options and enforcing congestion pricing on the existing bridge, the states could limit traffic while also encouraging a modal split to transit. A bigger, faster-flowing highway as currently envisioned would actually be a disincentive to the use of transit, no matter how nice the light rail line is. The bridge, though currently structurally deficient, could be reinforced and last decades more without a problem — at a far cheaper price.

What no one seems to be taking seriously enough is the potential for transit to take a higher modal share of existing traffic using the bridge.

The planners at the Columbia River Crossing project conducted a study of the origins and destinations of drivers using the corridor last year, and the results are compelling — if anyone chose to take advantage of them.

Based on my understanding of the data, of the 70% of drivers using the bridge for local purposes (30% of trips are through-trips, according to the environmental impact study), a full 25% of southbound automobilists are headed downtown, where there is already excellent transit available, and to which light rail from Vancouver would run directly. Meanwhile, 27% of driver destinations are within the zip code covered by the Yellow Line light rail, the same corridor that would head into Washington state. A full 15% more are headed to destinations just east of downtown, where the Red and Blue Lines light rail corridors provide easy access.

If you were to assume that the new bridge was not built and that instead congestion pricing and the light rail extension were implemented on their own, the current 3,300 weekday transit trips over the bridge could expand exponentially. Many of the current congestion woes could be alleviated simply by transferring downtown and near-downtown-bound drivers to a different mode of transportation. If the transit component of the bridge is a given, shouldn’t it be designed to work well? How can it attract the maximum number of riders when the highway bridge just adjacent has been expanded massively?

Building a new light rail line even as you’re expanding the highway next door is no rarity in the U.S., where the road and public transportation lobbies are mutually dependent. Sadly, policies that encourage transit even as road construction continues apace do little to affect commuting habits, as has been demonstrated by Portland over the years. The city has seen little increase in transit mode share despite huge investments in new light rail lines.

Nonetheless, even if the existing plan were implemented, Portland would still be getting a far more generous project than typically results from road expansion. The degree to which a pro-transit mentality in the city has encouraged the inclusion of light rail in the project should be replicated elsewhere — road projects like this should be required to incorporate a major transit component, and that’s exactly what Oregon and Washington’s highway planners have agreed to do here. When compared to state department of transportation elsewhere, that’s something to celebrate.

Image above: Potential look of bridge, from Columbia River Crossing

Light Rail Portland

Portland’s New Light Rail Line is Welcome News, But It’s Not Routed as It Should Be

MAX Green Line Map» The Green Line, providing service to Clackamas County, will open Saturday.

Portland’s light rail expansion program will complete its most recent phase tomorrow, as trains on the city’s fourth line will make their way from downtown to Clackamas County along a right-of-way paralleling I-205. The 8.3-mile Green Line is expected to serve more than 40,000 riders by 2025 and required $575 million to build over two and a half years. Yet, despite excitement over Portland’s continued investment in rail transit, the Green Line’s route is imperfect, stuck on the side of a freeway and poorly linked to the denser areas adjacent to its route. Its completion illustrates the constraints that funding and history put on local transit advocates and their resulting decision to align a major capital investment along a less-than-appropriate corridor.

In the 1970s, activists in the Portland area put a stop to the Mount Hood Freeway, which would have cut a gash through several neighborhoods in the southeast portions of the city. In response, the state chose to reorient funds towards the first MAX light rail line, which ran from downtown to Gresham. At the same time, highway opponents east Portland and in Clackamas County fought against the proposed north-south I-205. Though they lost their fight, they received in concession space for a transitway along the side and median of the road, completely separated from automobile traffic.

A light rail line from Clackamas to Vancouver, Washington was planned as far back as the early 1980s, but it was repeatedly knocked down by voters before the Green Line was eventually approved for federal New Starts funding in 2007. The new route follows the existing Red and Blue Lines right-of-way between downtown and Gateway Transit Center, where it turns south onto the new I-205 corridor.

When it opened eight years ago yesterday, the Airport-bound Red Line from Gateway Transit Center used the northern portion of the line, and the new Green Line will use the southern section for its eight new stations. By taking advantage of the pre-built highway transitway, Portland saved a bundle of money on property acquisitions and right-of-way preparation. In addition, it was able to construct a line with fast running speeds (just 39 minutes between Clackamas and downtown) because there are no road intersections along the line. Land adjacent to stops had already been cleared for new park-and-ride spaces, which total 2,300 along the route.

But the transitway is the crux of the problem with the Green Line. The highway makes an ideal right-of-way for the purpose of increasing speeds and reducing interference with surrounding neighborhoods, but it is the worst when it comes to spurring transit-oriented development. TOD, after all, should be the primary land use goal of any new public transportation investment, and Portland is likely to get very little of it along the Green Line. That’s because the mere presence of I-205, with its traffic, noise, and pollution, will make development adjacent to it unappealing. Worse, because the transit corridor is located on one of the side of the freeway, people will have to cross the very wide road to get to the other side. These are the same problems Dubai faces with its own just-opened rapid transit line.

Portland’s decision to undertake construction along the freeway was an easy solution to an expensive proposition. After all, much of the Red and Blue Line routes also follow highway right-of-ways, even apart from the airport link aforementioned. But the region’s most emblematic TODs, including the famed Orenco Station, are on the west side of the city, where light rail runs in its own corridor, unencumbered by nearby roads. This should have been the example to follow.

Yet the need to reduce construction costs and the fact that the transitway already existed made it nearly impossible for transit agency TriMet to select a different routing before engineering began in 2005. That said, there was a promising alternative just a half a mile west of I-205: Southeast 82nd Avenue, which has a very wide right-of-way for an urban street and hundreds of commercial outfits bordering it. A priori, it would have been the best corridor to choose because of its potential to spur renewal in the communities alongside it; Portland’s planned Powell Boulevard line does have the potential to do as much, but the I-205 project does not. It is ironic, then, that as far back as 2005, Clackamas County envisioned the Green Line as a way redevelop SE 82nd Avenue — so why not build the light rail line directly on it rather than half a mile away?

Perhaps TriMet planners looked to the Interstate MAX Yellow Line and saw something less than ideal: though the line runs in the median of an urban boulevard, it has not spurred much reinvestment, and though perhaps it is no worse looking than a typical six-lane road, the rebuilt Interstate Boulevard is not aesthetically pleasing either. For all the acclaim planners give the city for its light rail, Portland has yet to design a light rail project whose construction can truly beautify the surrounding areas, a la Tramway Line 3 in Paris. The appeal of an 82nd Avenue route was probably diminished as a result of that precedent.

It is indicative of the way users will use the service that companies near the route are already planning vanpools to carry their workers from stations to business locations, rather than encouraging them to make the walk. The large number of parking locations along the line similarly suggests that this will be a route geared to the driver, rather than to the pedestrian. That’s a pity, because it will mean ultimately lower ridership than what could have been attracted with a project geared to induce dense, urban-level growth. The Green Line will encourage people in the surrounding neighborhoods to choose transit for downtown- or airport-oriented commutes, but not much else, as demonstrated by TriMet itself in its decision to run trains only every 30 minutes after 6 pm.

The project’s major positive benefits in terms of land use will come at the region’s core, where the Transit Mall has been rebuilt for $220 million, allowing for a doubling of dowotnw light rail capacity and direct access to the largest destination in the TriMet service area, Portland State University. The Transit Mall is a series of bus and train-only corridors running roughly north-south on 5th and 6th Avenues downtown, complementing the Red and Blue light rail lines that run roughly east-west on Yamhill and Morrison Streets. Yellow Line trains began running in the Transit Mall on August 30th. Unlike along the I-205 segment, light rail in the Mall will increase the density and transit-oriented nature of the inner city core, which is also to benefit from a major streetcar expansion in the coming years.

Image above: MAX Green Line map, from TriMet

Light Rail Portland

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