Sunday, July 18, 2010

Time for Plan C?

The Lake Oswego transit project has been a hot topic there this weekend.  The latest cost estimate for the project is nearly double previous estimates.  Some of that cost is the result of changing estimates for the value of the Jefferson Branch real estate, a cost which is already paid for (it's both a debit and a credit on the books), and will be matched at 1.5x--the "out of pocket" costs for the region are more in the range of $50-$75 million.  However, the size and scope of the cost increase is a bit disturbing, and isn't entirely accounted for by the ROW value.  (Not even close).  The politics are lousy, to be frank.

The problems

There are two bigger problems, however.  The projected "out-of-pocket" costs (excluding the ROW) to the region are expected to be a small fraction of the overall cost of the thing--$50-$75 million or so.  That actually looks good--if the region can get a 6x-9x multiplier on its cash investment, it might be a good deal.  The flies in the ointment are these:
  •  Until an appraisal is done, the actual value of the ROW will not be known.  Appraisal probably won't be done for a while; and may be an avenue for opponents of the project to tie it up in court.  (Those trying to sabotage the project may argue for a lesser value; those trying to cash in if their adjacent property is condemned may try to escalate the value).  A proper project budget depends on this, obviously.
  • The technical parameters of the project are... underwhelming.  The proposed route is no faster than the existing parallel bus line (it is expected to offer improvement when projected traffic increases tie the bus up in traffic); the capacity of the project is very low by mass transit standards (less than 1000 pphpd, assuming single-car Streetcars at no better than 10 minute headways); and the land-use potential seems limited.  Other than the SOWA area, and perhaps the Foothills area in Lake Oswego; most of the land along the line is either already developed, or geographically unsuitable for development.  (And those portions outside the Portland city limits are outside the scope of Portland Streetcar's organizational mission).  Given that--why would the FTA consider spending $240 million on this project, over other worthwhile projects in the country (and even possibly in the Portland area)?  Peter DeFazio might be in a position to steer an earmark Portland's way if the Democrats retain control of the House; beyond that, prospects strike me as dubious.  Given that the region will need to spend another $25 million or so to get to the point of submitting an application for the funds--money that will NOT be matched or reimbursed should the feds say no--is there a better way?
Plan B

The Streetcar alignment (including the trail option) is Plan A, of course.  There is a Plan B--the "enhanced bus" option.  In this option, no Streetcar is built; the ROW is used for a trail, and limited-stop bus service, augmenting or replacing the 35, runs along the OR43 corridor, with limited stops north of Lake Oswego.  Unfortunately, the "enhanced bus" option runs along 10th/11th through downtown, rather than the transit mall, a flaw which the proposed Streetcar alignment shares.  I suspect this routing was done to make the "enhanced bus" option a substitute for the Streetcar option--but if you're a cynic who thinks the bus option is only there because the law says it has to be, and isn't being seriously considered--this routing sure looks like a poison pill.

There is also "Plan Zero"--no-build.  Here, no capital improvements are made to either rails, trail, or bus infrastructure, and the 35 runs as before.  It is on TriMet's list of Lines To Promote To Frequent Service, but the agency is having trouble maintaining current levels of service.

Plan C?

Let's assume, for a moment, that we decide Lake Oswego Streetcar isn't a great idea--but that transit in the OR43 corridor is going to be a pressing concern in the next few decades.  Assume that population and traffic projections a few years hence are accurate, and OR43 will no longer be a convenient route for busses to use, due to congestion.  For riders from Oregon City, switching to the 33/MAX will be an option, but for riders from West Linn, that won't be.

Ignore the trail, for a bit.

And assume that the funds that the region were planning to use on the Streetcar could be invested on some other piece of infrastructure in the region.  What would be a good option?

Transit bridge across the Willamette, perhaps?  

In Metro's high capacity transit plan, one of the longer-range transit corridors connects Clackamas Town Center with Washington Square.  While the endpoints are strange--there is a substantial amount of workers living in places like Happy Valley, and working in Washington County.  Right now, commuters south of town who need to cross the Willamette must either head south to Oregon City, or north to downtown.   Imagine the potential of a transit bridge between Lake Oswego and Oak Grove.

  • Should either traffic congestion or operational efficiencies require it, the 35, 36, and 37 could use the New Bridge and connect with Milwaukie MAX at Park Ave. or Milwaukie TC.  (Some service should probably continue along OR43; but MAX could become the primary conduit).  A MAX line should be able to whisk commuters downtown faster than the proposed Streetcar line would.
  • Many of the east/west lines terminating or passing through either the LO and Milwaukie TCs (such as the 36, 78, 29, and 31) could be "linked up" as through east/west lines.
  • While this proposal doesn't assume that rail goes across the bridge at its opening, it does assume that this is an eventual possibility.   One possibility would be to build the bridge as an extension or branch of Milwaukie MAX, and put rails and catenary on the bridge at the beginning.  But it isn't necessary for the purposes discussed here.
  • The bridge would naturally include facilities for pedestrians and bicycles.  Not for automobiles, however.
There are several potential locations for such a bridge.  The most likely option would probably be adjacent to the existing railroad bridge, or possibly even replacing it.  (One evil thought:  build a new rail bridge upstream connecting the Willamette Shoreline tracks with the Samtrack rails; run P&W freights on THAT, and convert the existing line between Lake Oswego and Milwaukie to exclusive transit use.   I'm sure folks in Riverdale would love that...)   Another option would be somewhere in the Courtney/Terwilliger corridor; or possibly the Oak Grove corridor.  (Both of these latter crossings would be south of the planned terminus of Milwaukie MAX; though both are likely to attract more NIMBY opposition).

A recent estimate of how much such a bridge would cost was in the order of $200 million (courtesy of frequent commenter RA Fontes, who has been advocating such a bridge for a while now).   Given a 1.5x match, that would mean $80 million out of local coffers to build it.   But given the escalating pricetag of the Lake Oswego streetcar, this seems like a much better deal for taxpayers, who would be getting a more regionally-important facility than the proposed Lake Oswego streetcar line.

What about the trail?

So far, I haven't discussed the trail portion of the project.  If either no-build is done, or the "enhanced bus" option is selected, it is generally assumed that the Jefferson Branch ROW will be used for a trail instead.  For portions of the line, there are issues with the existing easement, which might require use of eminent domain to fashion a new easement.  On the other hand, a new bridge across the Willamette would provide trail users a new option:  connecting to the Trolley Trail and the Springwater trails on the east side of the river. 
What about Johns Landing?

One remaining question:  What about Johns Landing and the rest of the Macadam area?  The current Streetcar planning has identified a minimum operationally-usable segment (MOUS) from SoWA down to Nevada Street; with the possibility of extension to and across the replacement Sellwood Bridge when built.   I'm in agreement with blogger Erik Halstead--a frequent TriMet critic--who opines that building the MOUS makes sense.  Having Streetcar run extended down towards Johns Landing would provide opportunities to speed up the 35, 36, and 43 through the area.  However, were this to be done, I expect that this would be a typical Streetcar project, not a rapid transit project, and should be designed and funded as such.  Things like more frequent stop spacing would be appropriate, as the line would no longer be charged with getting Clackamas County commuters to the office.


  1. Right on target, of course.

    brief thoughts:

    Earl put in a $142 million earmark for streetcar only spring of last year, long before the enhanced bus was even defined, let alone rejected.

    The original Milwaukie MAX - LO extension proposal was larded up with extra stops in Milwaukie and an extension in LO south to Albertsons.

    An express service from Oregon City a la the 99 with only seven stops could serve almost 58% of current riders. With only 3 stops between PSU and LO, it should take only 3 minutes more than driving a private vehicle. This means that it would be faster than the WSL ROW based streetcar even in 2035 according to official projections. When the additional time required for most riders to get to and from streetcar is figured in, an express bus should be faster than streetcar for at least 50 years.

  2. Intriguing. Sellwood seems a much better match for the streetcar than Lake Oswego, except of course that it will likely be impossible to keep Tacoma St and the bridge free flowing in perpetuity. Are there grade issues with transitioning from the rail ROW to the bridge?

  3. I have quite a few issues with the proposed Sellwood Bridge rebuild... but the grade issues shouldn't be a big problem. Skoda streetcars can do 9% grades without difficulty. As you note, mixing streetcar and auto traffic on the bridge may produce issues, but for local circulator service, it's not a big deal.

    I'd rather build a bridge that is more regionally useful (with dedicated space for transit) than a Sellwood replacement in essentially the same place... but that's another topic for another day.


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