Bus to Willamette Heights endures despite cuts
By Allan Classen
From time to time, Willamette Heights residents have had to defend continued bus service to their hillside enclave west of the Thurman Street Bridge.
Eleven years ago, TriMet proposed ending Line 15 short of the bridge before surrendering to aroused locals.
“The last major attack on the line was in August 2010,” wrote Ted Kaye, who has lived in the same Willamette Heights house for 61 years, “when over-eager staffers canceled it outright (over safety concerns) while [TriMet General Manager] Neil McFarlane was on vacation in Hawaii.”
McFarlane returned to a packed meeting at Friendly House and soon recanted. He ordered traffic signals and signs to make the tight turnaround at Northwest Thurman and Gordon streets safer, a solution that’s remained in place ever since.
But last year TriMet staff were moved by growing concerns about buses backing into utility poles and recently installed mailboxes in addition to perpetually low ridership at the west end of the Thurman branch of Line 15. They offered a two-pronged alternative: Create a separate line looping through downtown served with a shorter bus that could accomplish a conventional U-turn.
The plan was presented in February to the Northwest District Association Transportation Committee, which had no objections.
“This solves a lot of problems for us,” said TriMet Outreach Services Director Clay Thompson, noting that neighbors had complained about safety problems.
Transportation Committee co-Chair Danelle Peterson said the proposal did not appear to be controversial. Committee members explained later that they assumed neighbors were onboard with the changes.
What did not come out at the meeting was the drastic reduction in frequency of service. The current Bus 15 makes 35 trips weekdays and 18 a day on weekends; a total of 211 trips per week. The proposed special line was to come only four times on weekdays and not at all on weekends. In sum, a 91 percent reduction in service.
Reports on the mood in Willamette Heights were incomplete. One hundred people submitted written statements to TriMet on the proposed changes to the bus line last fall. Later, 41 more responses were logged. In total, 56 percent opposed the changes and 34 percent favored them. A substantial number who liked the plan referred to the shorter bus but did not address (and perhaps were not aware of) the reduction in service.
One of the most motivated objectors is Jeremy Sacks, a Thurman Street resident who submitted a three-page letter in March and delivered another statement at the TriMet board meeting in April, the last opportunity for public input.
“Staff’s plan does not serve the needs of the Thurman branch’s riders, and effectively puts an end to public transit in our neighborhood,” he wrote.
Sacks called the lower ridership west of Northwest 27th Avenue a red herring, since all transit lines have fewer passengers near their end-points. He said shortening a line only hastens declining ridership.
Furthermore, shorter buses could not handle peak loads, he said, since “the current full-sized Thurman branch bus is full in the mornings and afternoons.”
“The new truncated Thurman line will make it impossible for commuters or high school kids to use the line other than at four appointed times,” he continued. “It assumes that commuters and high school kids have unalterable schedules. As we all know, they change all the time.
“As a daily commuter, my own schedule is at the whim of my clients. And while it is true that I leave in the morning and return in the afternoon/evening, limiting my choices to two times during each period means that I cannot rely on the bus to get to and from the office.”
TriMet staff also failed to account for the Portland Japanese Garden’s plans to purchase the former Salvation Army White Shield Home at the end of Northwest Gordon Street and use it for offices, classes and special events. Without regular transit service, vehicle traffic and parking would strain the one-lane Gordon street and limited parking capacity in the area.
After discussions with Japanese Garden representatives, TriMet offered a compromise: expanding proposed service on the new line from four to 14 times on weekdays and a total of 20 weekend trips.
“I am very pleased that TriMet responded so quickly so that the service includes weekends and a little more service weekdays,” said Lisa Christy, chief external affairs officer for the garden.
While Christy would like greater frequency, she said TriMet assured her that service adjustments can be made to accommodate increased demand when the Japanese Garden program is operational, which could be in two years.
But Sacks and resident historian Kaye are not satisfied with the compromise schedule. In a two-page letter to TriMet Interim General Manager Sam Desue Jr., Kaye laid out a history of the transit agency’s relationship with Willamette Heights.
“I strongly protest TriMet’s decision to reduce to nearly nothing the transit service … in Willamette Heights—service that goes back well over a century. Recent minor adjustments to the plan to cut service fail to address the key issue of the route itself.
“TriMet staff has been attacking this end of the line for years. In 2010, they canceled it precipitously before a quick reversal. And changes should certainly not be made until we understand post-COVID transportation demand.”
Kaye identified key users of the line as commuters, Lincoln High School students and Forest Park visitors.
“TriMet has been steadily eroding service on the line for years,” he concluded, “reducing the frequency of buses and moving the layover point away from Gordon and Thurman.”