Seattle does Portlandia

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Councilmember Jean Godden and Tom Rasmussen learn about the Portland Streetcar and Tram from Art Pearce of the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

Last week, 30 Seattleites, including the mayor and six councilmembers, visited Portland, touring the region’s transit system in a two-day blitz.  The trip, which I undertook as a personal expense (many of the others did as well), was valuable as a learning investment. It also was timely since Seattle is doing a Transit Master Plan study.

What we learned was that Portland has been successful in developing transit ridership and using transit as a tool in land use development. Like many other U. S. cities, Portland grew up around a streetcar system; but that system lost out to the nation’s aggressive highway building of the 1960s. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that the Portland region elected to focus heavily on transit.

The region turned first to light rail, principally because the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1973 made it possible to transfer funds from unneeded highways to other transportation projects. The region invested in the TriMet light rail system that was funded with up to 60 percent federal funds. This investment was augmented by a Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) that makes use of streetcars and buses for local circulation.

Last week’s trip focused on the different transit modes and innovations, among them the traffic interface that uses various methods to accomplish two major goals: providing safe operations for vehicle traffic and minimizing delays. Imagine a three-lane transit street that manages to accommodate five intermodal systems: light rail, streetcar, bus, autos, bicycles and pedestrian traffic. Along the way, the Seattleites were introduced to TriMet Project Planning Director Alan Lehto who is referred to as “the grandfather of the weave,” a system that gives alternate green and red lights to various transit modes.

As a consequence, Lehto jokingly points to the gray hairs in his Lincolnesque beard. He says it’s evidence that it took much effort to accommodate the different modes.  He says he literally managed “to bend” the three lanes of the transit street. For many of the transit modes there are 10 minute headways and electronic notification of when the next transit vehicle will arrive.

Portland’s success in transit is credited to three things: A strong vision in the 1970s, heavy community involvement and redevelopment of the Portland Mall. When problems developed with financing plans, the region resorted to “a tin cup plan,” piecing together financing from regional cities and transit authorities and developing local improvement districts. Public/private financing is another of the secrets of success, as is a tax increment financing system used in Oregon but not available in Washington State.

Time and again, Portland had to breach barriers and fill gaps in financing. However, riding light rail out to the state line, taking streetcars through the Pearl District and riding the streetcar out to the South Waterfront showed that Portland has managed to develop a strong, workable system. It was especially noticeable in the South Waterfront where there is an impressive development of commerce and residential development, framed by a broad and inviting greenway that is being built along the Willamette River.

The Seattle visitors rode the gondola up from the riverfront to the Oregon Health Sciences University, a tram that kept OHSU development within the city’s borders and, at the same time, the tram (unlike other modes) manages to pay for itself.

Key to the Portland system is strong private buy-in as well as public participation. At lunch on Thursday Seattleites were privileged to hear about the experience from Michael Powell, owner of Powell’s Books and head of Portland Streetcar Inc., a citizens group. One of the first questions Powell fielded from the audience was:  “How late are you open tonight?” (Answer: 11 p.m.)

The second question was from another Michael, Seattle Mayor McGinn who wanted to know: “Has Portland declared a war on cars?”

Powell’s quick response: “Certainly not officially.”