Streetcar could use 23rd Avenue after all
Street rebuilding triggered rethinking of past assumptions
For two years, city planners and Portland Streetcar Inc. officials touted a streetcar line to Montgomery Park via a backdoor route through the industrial district. Now they would prefer to travel the district’s “Main Street”—Northwest 23rd Avenue.
The turnabout is in response to pressure from Northwest District representatives and the public. It also did not hurt that the direct approach is also infinitely less expensive: about one-fifteenth of the construction costs and one-third of the annual operating expenses of the earlier plan.
Barry Manning, manager of the Montgomery Park to Hollywood streetcar expansion project for the Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability, told the Project Working Group advisory committee in October that their objections and those of the public sparked the reconsideration.
“There are a lot of questions being asked about the viability, appropriateness and feasibility of trying to serve the northeast portion of this study area with streetcar,” Manning said. “I would hope we would begin to reflect that in this analysis.”
It was always imaginative to believe that a mass transit system would thrive in places where masses do not go. The route along Northwest 18th Avenue north to York Street, then turning west to Montgomery Park and returning via Wilson and 19th streets, passes blocks of sparse residential and even emptier industrial land far from any attraction. The theory was that people, jobs and development would eventually populate this stretch if the streetcar came first.
To ensure that outcome, BPS was willing to up-zone the vicinity to encourage dense development of all kinds, including residential. The combination of transit service and hugely expanded development rights was sufficient to coalesce a group of property owners willing to underwrite rail construction through a local improvement taxing district.
A more direct line along 23rd Avenue or other parts of the densely populated Northwest District had no such consensus of homeowners and commercial developers eager to tax themselves for the privilege of a streetcar at their doorsteps.
That logic held firm until Portland Streetcar Executive Director Dan Bower discovered that this streetcar could make a right turn. Streetcar tracks can, of course, bend in either direction, but making a 90-degree right turn from Northwest Northrup to 23rd Avenue had been assumed infeasible due to the tighter arc compared to left turns, which streetcar systems are typically built around.
Bower said he never dug deep into the logistics of negotiating this turn because there were too many other barriers along this path:
• The 23rd and Vaughn intersection feeding and receiving Interstate 405 traffic is already the district’s most taxed junction, barely meeting minimum standards of traffic flow acceptability. Long trolley cars regularly passing through and stopping for riders were thought to complicate the picture beyond tolerance.
• Two-way streetcar service on a standard-width street does not provide adequate room for curbside parking on both sides, a deficit retailers could be expected to oppose.
But PBOT plans to rebuild the crumbling section of 23rd Avenue north of Lovejoy Street changed everything. The approximately $10 million project, expected to draw heavily from federal funding, would in itself involve bioswales and wider sidewalks, eliminating much if not all parking on one side of the street. The project, seen as badly needed by all sectors of the neighborhood, would free the streetcar from responsibility for removing parking.
Installing rails and the catenary lines electrifying the streetcar is less expensive if the street is already torn up for repaving. While the total costs of rebuilding the multimodal street section rise, they would be shared by two entities: the Portland Bureau of Transportation and
The capital costs to extend the existing North-South Line, with current service to Northwest 23rd and Marshall, are estimated by Omaha, Neb.-based engineering firm HDR Inc. as $45 million, a far cry from the $130 million-$145 million for the now-shelved option B. It’s not an apples to apples comparison in that option B was to be a 3.5-mile separate line crossing the Broadway Bridge and heading to Hollywood. Option D would be far shorter, needing 1.6 miles of track to complete a loop serving points 1 mile apart.
The short extension would naturally be cheaper to operate, requiring only two additional cars to maintain every-15-minute service versus five or six more cars to maintain that level of service on the full route to Hollywood.
As for the tight right turn previously thought problematic, now Bower says it can be accomplished by swinging into the left-hand lane on Northrup just before 23rd Avenue, thereby allowing the train to stay on its own side of the centerline on 23rd.
Although the new approach is “far from a decision,” Bower said he is pleased that “we haven’t heard a whole lot of pushback yet.”
The Project Working Group aims to complete its report in May. Because all options involve zone changes as amendments to the 2035 Comprehensive Plan adopted four years ago, the Planning & Sustainability Commission will hold hearings and make a recommendation in the first half of 2021. The City Council is to then adopt an ordinance by the end of the year.
The latest proposal is a victory for Northwest District Association activists who insisted the streetcar route and associated zoning changes should not be finalized until there has been a thorough, from-the-ground-up study of the policy considerations involved with the package.
Over a period of about four years, NWDA board member Steve Pinger and colleagues said many times that land-use changes should be considered on their own merit and not as justification for extending a transit line and multiplying the value of their land.
“This is not so much a streetcar expansion as it is a zoning upgrade, a huge benefit worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” Pinger was quoted in the August NW Examiner cover story, “Gold Train.”
“We wouldn’t have this streetcar if it weren’t for anticipation of wholesale zoning upgrades,” he said last summer.
While Pinger is pleased that city staff heard public concerns, “they would not have done either of those steps [the 23rd Avenue alignment or eliminating the section northeast of the freeway] without the input of NWDA representatives.”
He is focusing now on establishing appropriate criteria to measure a range of policy questions still on the table.
Project Working Group members speaking for a broad range of interests and constituencies—Reza Farhoodi, Steve Ramos, Raymond Betrick, Brian Ames and Alexandra Zimmerman—all like the 23rd Avenue route.
“Going up 23rd does make sense and improves the neighborhood,” said Betrick, a member of Friends of the Portland Streetcar.
“This streetcar alignment actually connects a few pearls—shall we say—with the post office site, the Blanchard school office site, the Rose Quarter and the Broadway-Weidler corridor,” said Phil Selinger, a retired TriMet planner.
Even Tad Savinar blesses the new plan, and it may hurt his pocketbook.
“While the properties my family owns along the first route would have benefited by improving the value of those parcels,” Savinar told the Examiner, “this new alignment is more cost-effective, reduces disruption to existing and future incubator and industrial jobs, increases connectivity to the residential and commercial community of the Northwest neighborhood and increases safety for users.”
Craig Hamilton and Greg Madden, the current and past presidents of the Northwest Industrial Business Association, are primarily concerned with the loss of industrial zoning reflected in every scenario prepared by BPS. They bemoan the failure to present “do nothing” as an option. Option D, at least, preserves the northeast corner of the study area in its current heavy industrial status.
Bower is pleased to have some agreement on a plan so he can move on to the next hurdle.
“It could take any number of years to chase down the money,” Bower said, but he sees an end to the hang-up he calls a “circular discussion: Which goes first, land-use or transportation?”
In his mind, they have always gone together. In the minds of some others, that is why they have never gone anywhere.