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