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Council adopts Streetcar Systems


The Portland City Council committed itself to another rail transit system last month by passing the Streetcar System Plan with some members saying that in this case, outlying areas shouldn't be the last to be served.

The plan identifies potential future streetcar routes. A controversial feature is the division of such routes into Concept Corridors (essentially shovel-ready projects when funding is secured) and Comprehensive Plan Corridors (something that has potential, but needs work first, usually zoning issues).

There is a perception that the Concept Corridors will be pursued first, and the Comprehensive Plan routes in the distant future. Several routes are proposed for east Portland but only one of them - the Gateway Loop between Portland Adventist Medical Center and the Gateway Transit Center - is a Concept Corridor. Some east Portland leaders complain this would deny the benefits of the system to the communities that need them most.

Mayor Sam Adams, who supervises the Portland Office of Transportation and initiated the Systems Plan before being elected last year, seemed to side with such critics. “I have my own take on moving forward,” he told council at a hearing last month. “Rather than grow the system from the downtown outward, we should look at neighborhoods at the outer boundaries of the city, which is different from what's in the plan. There are opportunities in Lents, on Killingsworth and in St. Johns.”

Addressing another issue, Adams said that adoption of the plan is merely the beginning of the beginning of planning, and that the plan so far will be further refined by the Portland Plan.

Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association Chair Mark White, one of the most aggressive advocates for streetcar development in his neighborhood, acknowledged Adams's comments but called on council to reject the plan as written. White said it “represents an outdated, trickle-down, all roads lead to downtown approach. Neighborhoods in desperate need of attention are effectively shut out of the plan. Do what's best for the city, not what's easiest.”

Others, while not going as far as White, also called for looking at outer communities earlier. Nick Christianson of Lents urged council, “Spread the benefits to the entire city. Hawthorne, Belmont and Alberta don't need help; they're viable as they are. As you go east, the streets are less and less viable. The plan as it stands right now doesn't provide equity. Why focus on neighborhoods already flourishing? Lents is one of the most amenity-starved town centers. There are few corridors that make more sense than Foster Road.”

Kurt Schneider of St. Johns said the corridors “definitely seem to be divided between 'now' and 'maybe later.' If you're trying to encourage development in St. Johns or Lents, equity should be considered. I would ask you to upgrade it too, if not first, at least in the first tier.”

Arlene Kimura and Jerry Koike of Hazelwood and the Gateway Urban Renewal District, respectively, spoke in favor of the plan in general, and the Gateway Loop in particular. In passing, Kimura said, “St. Johns and Lents are further down the trail than we'd like.”

Owen Ronchelli, chair of the plan's advisory committee, tried to downplay the difference between the two corridor types. “It's important to see both as integral parts of a system plan.” Moreover he said the plan should be modified and updated as part of both larger planning efforts and detailed examinations of corridors. “We want this to be a living document, not a shelf-piece to collect dust.” He added that outside urban renewal areas it will be more difficult to fund new streetcar routes, and a comprehensive funding strategy is needed.

Veteran streetcars advocate Chris Smith said, “There is a misapprehension about the plan.” The advisory had specifically rejected the idea of calling the corridors Tier One and Tier Two, due to the connotations those names contain. The names instead define “corridors that are ready today versus those that need work. If the streetcar were placed on Foster today, it wouldn't work.” Although he agreed that “streetcars could truly be transformative in the outer neighborhoods,” and had great sympathy for White's point, Smith said, “The idea is not to reject the plan, but to accept the plan and do further analysis.”

Council adopted the document by four to zero, with Commissioner Randy Leonard absent.
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