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City of Seattle

March 4, 1:11 PM click here to comment > 13

Learning from Portland’s rail renaissance

In my State of the City address last week, I talked about Seattle’s need to develop great urban places by bringing passenger rail to our neighborhoods. We’re developing a Transit Master Plan, and when it is finished this summer we’ll know which corridors are the best for high capacity modes such as rail. As we develop that plan, it makes sense to learn from those cities that have gotten it right.

That’s why I was part of a delegation that went down to Portland yesterday to take a look at their successful transit system. The delegation includes Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw, Sally Clark, Jean Godden, and Mike O’Brien, as well as private sector and non-profit stakeholders. This isn’t my first time seeing Portland’s rail system. But this trip gave us a much closer and in-depth look at the land-use and transit vision Portland has achieved, and how we can learn from it as we continue to develop Seattle’s own rail and transit networks. We’ve already had some great discussions about Portland’s successful system on this trip, and we’re looking forward to bringing these lessons back home with us.

One thing that we immediately noticed is just how much passenger rail Portland now has. It seems like you can’t walk more than a block or two downtown without crossing streetcar or light rail tracks. The streetcar line and the Max light rail lines provide great coverage downtown and form the backbone for the east/west and north/south lines that connect downtown to the city’s neighborhoods and suburbs. Portland has been working on this system since the 1970s, and in that time they’ve shown how rail can revitalize a city. We’ve clearly got some catching up to do, especially as Portland is planning new rail lines.

A key to Portland’s success has been using public right of way for most of the rail lines. It significantly reduces construction costs by eliminating need to acquire expensive new right of way. They have integrated rail onto existing surface streets in a way that works for cars and buses while helping to improve the feel and pedestrian experience of the street.

We took the Portland Streetcar from downtown to the Pearl District, a former industrial area and brownfield site. Portland had the foresight to build the streetcar – the first modern streetcar line in the country – to the area before it redeveloped. The streetcar has played a key role in shaping the Pearl District into a dense, well designed, thriving urban neighborhood. In fact, all along the streetcar and Max lines, rail has had a positive impact on development patterns, with new growth following the route and station areas. In turn, this infill development eases pressure on open space at the edge of the metropolitan area, helping limit sprawl and preserve the natural environment.

Portland’s streetcar system is not operated by Tri-Met, their regional public transit agency. Initially Tri-Met didn’t think the streetcar system would work and kept it at arm’s length. So a non-profit formed to operate and oversee the system. It has been so successful that Tri-Met has now expressed interest in running the streetcar system.

We also took the Max Yellow Line out to Kenton Station in north Portland. This line follows Oregon state route 99 (Interstate Avenue), and is primarily in located in a dedicated right of way on the street. It has shown that it is possible to provide a more complete use of streets for rail, cars, bikes and pedestrians than we often think is possible or practical.

Portland’s transit system does a great job of moving people. It also does a great job of saving money and creating new economic activity. A recent report found that Portland’s transportation policies, including their rail lines have created a “green dividend” of $2.6 billion each year. Much of the savings comes from reduced spending on gas costs, which as we know have been rising lately. This green dividend enables Portland residents to spend that money on other things, like supporting local businesses. And it helps bring innovative, creative people to the city, keeping Portland economically competitive.

We’re already working on new rail lines in Seattle. The First Hill Streetcar project will break ground later this year, and the Sound Transit University Link light rail project is well under way. But we need to do a lot more to bring passenger rail to our neighborhoods. Portland shows us one way we might be able to do it. When the Transit Master Plan is finished this summer, we will know where new rail and bus lines need to go – and what we need to do to get them built. We’ll work hard to build the transit network that we need to keep jobs here and create a better quality of life for Seattle residents.

Photos by: Allison Burson

Posted by: Mayor Mike McGinn


Comment from AJ
Time March 4, 2011 at 1:15 pm

One often-overlooked aspect of Portland’s rail renaissance is that it was the result of blocking the construction of the Mount Hood Freeway, an east/west bypass through SE Portland.

The fight to stop the Mount Hood Freeway was the second act in the Portland Freeway Revolts, the first act of which was the deletion of Harbor Drive, a major waterfront thoroughfare that cut off Downtown Portland from the Willamette.

Comment from Gordon Werner
Time March 4, 2011 at 1:46 pm

I so hope that Seattle can bring back light rail / streetcars back towards the system we once had

Comment from Ed H.
Time March 4, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Glad to see you are expressing serious interest in improving transit. I remember the massive numbers of criss-crossing electric overhead wires and articulated buses, both of which seem to have diminished in recent years. (Is it just my imagination, though?)

Seeing more light rail is always a good thing.

And, by the way, GO TIMBERS! 😀 (Sam wouldn’t want me to let that go unsaid…)

Comment from John
Time March 6, 2011 at 8:06 am

I congratulate you, Mayor McGinn for finally figuring out that the best mode of moving people as an alternative to the car is transit that cannot be affected by prevailing traffic conditions. Perhaps you’d be better served by going to Vancouver BC, which has 100,000 daily boardings on its newest line, the Canada Line. It might also help if you looked at the idea of demand-based transit planning, with set goals of making any trip to a major work destination no longer than 1.5 times the amount of time required for a car trip as a stated goal for service levels. That means that a trip to Boeing, Microsoft, AT&T, Amazon, or Starbucks should not be a huge sacrifice for an car alternative commuter.

Bikes may be a nice solution for a small minority, but grade-separated rail transit is really the most efficient way of moving the largest amount of people around town and reducing gridlock.

Comment from John
Time March 6, 2011 at 8:28 am

Perhaps you’ve learned the wrong lesson.

More streetcars are not a good idea in Seattle.

Grade-separated transit is.

If you want to run street transit, electric trolleybuses are a better solution. In fact, the history of transit in Seattle points this out clearly. Seattle replaced its streetcar network with trackless trolleys, known as buses. They are cheaper to run.

Grade separated transit is the solution. A trip from Downtown Vancouver to Richmond is always a consistent 25 minutes. Compare that to Link Light Rail, which has a paltry 16,000 daily boardings on a good day, and takes a full 10 minutes longer to get to the airport compared to the Metro 194 Express bus it replaced.

Compelling people to adopt transit is all about going where people need to go, with the minimum time factor increase over a comparable car trip.

If a car trip to a destination takes 1 hour, then a comparable transit trip should take 1 hour as well, or no more than 1.5 hours.

Comment from Gary
Time March 7, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Well Seattle could add another 2 miles of street car/rail to it’s system if it built the maintenance barn for the First Hill line close enough to run the Waterfront trolley to it. Tracks, stations and wiring are all in place except for a short bit to the barn and about 50ft of asphalt that was dumped on the tracks down near James street. A little jack-hammering and it would clean right up.

Oh yeah I hope he visited the Hawthorn St. Bridge to see what 7% of commuters using bicycles looks like. ie more cyclists than cars on that bridge.

Comment from transitw0nk
Time March 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Let’s do what TriMet did in Portland and eliminate the Ride Free Area. Make it rail-only if we must, but there is really no need for Seattle to pay for a system that enables fare evasion and causes passenger confusion. Do something to drive ORCA adoption, instead. Partner to let merchants offer day and multi-day passes. After enough people adopt ORCA, the RFA won’t offer any significant time savings downtown.

The money Seattle is spending on the RFA would be better spent increasing security along 3rd Avenue. A decent day-pass and a less sketchy 3rd Ave will have a bigger impact on transit adoption than maintaining the RFA.

Comment from John Coney
Time March 7, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Thanks to our elected officials for checking out Portland’s LRT and streetcar – again.

I understand that Portland’s transit ridership for trips to work are not as robust as Metro Transit’s similar ridership. Perhaps this reflects a lack of development of the bus system in Portland’s far-flung metro area. Was this a result of large expenditures on LRT, streetcar, and gondola routes? Hopefully our new City Transit Master Plan will indicate how we may build out a well-balanced system.

Tri-Met built the Portland LRT with bonding against future tax revenues, something that the Washington State Constitution doesn’t allow yet.

Portland is receiving another dividend from the LRT and streetcar routes. These are high-volume roadways. I’m guessing that re-paving and repairing them is less expensive than equivalent routes here, since the rail cars run on their own ballast under the street and don’t break up the paving as buses do.

Comment from Jeff Thompson
Time March 8, 2011 at 9:29 am

We need to be aware of what other communities have done and know what has worked and what has not done so well. It is also important to recognize that looking back may not necessarily provide us the guidance we need to move forward in this altered economy.

The future presents two elements that differ from Portland’s 40 years of work.
1. Building transit infrastructure will require we make more market based decisions. ‘Build it and they will come’ funding sources are insufficient.
2. Long range planning should set goals but not limit solutions. We need the ability to recognize and adapt to new ideas and modify solutions to serve current needs.
3. We need to do more with less. This requires that we actively seek solutions not previously considered because we need more affordable and immediate alternatives than what we already know. For example, a North Portal Sounder Station has been proposed for Interbay on existing ROW. Cost <$7m. This will open up rail access to the north portion of the city within 2 years, in lieu of waiting 20+ for the current 'plan'. The challenge to accomplish such ideas is primarily one of inertia…bringing people together to accurately evaluate choices and effect action.

Comment from Jack Valko
Time March 8, 2011 at 11:09 am

Mr. Mayor,

I urge you to adopt a rapid, grade separate transit system for the city. Portland’s system is good for their geography and population size. Seattle’s situation is much different: we have steep hills next to water, with large neighborhoods on both sides.

This will require us to consider elevated and tunneled solutions. While more expensive than at-grade, we should consider these 100 year investments and finance them appropriately.

Comment from Portlander
Time March 9, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Portland Provides its citizens and visitors with fine pedestrian amenities, safe crosswalks and fareless transit to central city districts. Serving pedestrians subconsciously signals motorists to slow down and makes bicycling safer. Transit users are first of all walkers. The pedestrian environment is Portland’s defining character.

Portland’s urban model suggests Seattle provide frequent and fareless transit on 1st Ave between Pioneer District and Seattle Center ideally with new ‘low-floor’ model trolleybus rather than streetcar. A trolleybus model and route upgrade is also ideal for Seattle’s arduous hillclimbs to Capital & First Hills, Queen Anne.

The Lake Union Streetcar Line should extend to 1st Ave with a terminus or turnaround near Pike Place Market and likewise be fareless. This simple and relatively inexpensive streetcar extension would triple ridership overnight.

Portland funds transit with a .06% business excise tax on the basis of consumer appreciation and measurable recompense.

Seattle must improve its transit system to end its notoriously maniacal traffic. The deep bore tunnel is a colossal mistake, take it from a Portlander. Mayor Mcginn is correct to support the surface/transit option as it will reduce traffic congestion MORE than the bored tunnel absurdity. The Mercer West project is also a mistake but it can be corrected. There’s no correcting the deep bored tunnel.

Pingback from Op-Ed: For Rail, Be Bold (by Mayor McGinn) | The SunBreak
Time August 11, 2011 at 11:39 am

[…] For the distances served — neighborhood to neighborhood — it looks like the right choice for a number of corridors in Seattle. That includes Ballard to downtown via Fremont, the University District to downtown via Eastlake, and linking those to Seattle’s two initial streetcar lines to South Lake Union, the International District/Chinatown and Capitol Hill. Other cities have already demonstrated the promise of this approach, like Portland with its MAX system. […]

Comment from toriko from Portland Movers
Time August 21, 2011 at 11:14 pm

This concept is very great and it will make less hassle for commuters for going to their workplace.

I must say that you did a great job mayor,it cost much but a great benefit towards community.Keep up the good work.