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Downtown Streetcar Circulator Project Description

Charlie Hales
Commissioner, City of Portland

Buildings · Planning · Transportation

Phone: 503/823-4682

FAX: 503/823-4040

e-mail: chaIes@ci.Portland.or.us


(undated document, apparently from mid-1998)

Dull inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.                                                                                        -Jane Jacobs

The decision to create the Central City Streetcar system has been motivated by this community’s commitment to preserving livability. Portlanders value their quality of life and are looking for ways to reduce urban sprawl, keep traffic flowing freely and sustain good air quality. A key to achieving these goals is attracting new housing and businesses to the Central City while providing a variety of ways for people to move from one place to another.

The following paragraphs illustrate how a streetcar will contribute to Portland’s livability goals in a visionary, yet cost-effective, manner.

Portland was Built Around Streetcars

Streetcars have played an important role in Portland’s history. Electric streetcars replaced horsecar lines in the 1890s, as the growing community added people and acreage. 

By 1912, more than 200 miles of track served 270,000 people and carried both freight and passengers. People relied on public transportation for daily commutes as well as weekend excursions and social visits at a time when many downtown streets still were unpaved.

Developers first created streetcar lines to the sites of new communities, then built the houses and shops. Development patterns in Portland and adjacent cities are inter-connected with the original urban rail system.

Improved Transportation, Circulation and Neighborhood Links

Observers of Portland’s Central City long have supported the concept of developing a “circulator” -- a system to move people through highly developed urban neighborhoods. In 1972, Portland’s Downtown Plan formally established a circulator as one of the City’s goals.

As the older parts of the City are redeveloped, people will require convenient ways to move between neighborhoods. New connections between Portland State University, Oregon Health Sciences University and the emerging North Macadam area, south of RiverPlace, will benefit from a good circulator system. Planned housing in the University and River Districts, as well as North Macadam, will create new demands for transit links to employment centers and retail areas.

The popular Northwest shopping district along NW 23rd illustrates the reasons Portland needs a system like the proposed streetcar. Northwest Portland has the highest population densities anywhere in the state, and its residents take advantage of Tri-Met’s most popular bus service. Still, this neighborhood suffers from parking shortages and traffic congestion as a result of its very successful retail revitalization and housing densities. Other emerging neighborhoods throughout the city will face similar challenges and will benefit from a convenient system that connects residential, employment and retail hubs.

The Catalyst Concept - - Planning Rail to Accommodate Growth

At the beginning of this century, developers knew that the presence of a reliable rail system would attract residents and businesses to new sections of the city. In the same way, construction of the first MAX line to Gresham encouraged development of new buildings and facilities on Portland’s east side --most notably in the Lloyd District. And now Westside MAX presents those same opportunities between downtown and Hillsboro.

A rail line represents a long-term commitment to excellent, reliable transportation. Developers, investors, businesses and prospective residents recognize that unlike buses, whose routes may change or disappear, a new rail line will operate consistently and reliably. Therefore, the community has identified a fixed rail system as an important component in Portland’s Livable Cities strategy.

A key element in preserving Portland area livability is development of new homes and employment opportunities inside the Central City. Communities with high concentrations of people living close to employment centers benefit from increased transit use and pedestrian and bike travel.

To help the region manage future growth, the City of Portland hopes to absorb 20 percent of the region’s new jobs and residents through the first years of the next century. That means creating 50,000 new households inside the city, 15,000 of which will be within the Central City. In addition, the Central City must absorb 75,000 new jobs. The success of this effort will rely, in large part, on redevelopment in the River District, North Macadam and the University District.

The first two areas have large open parcels with the potential for new buildings holding hundreds of housing and office units. The Pearl District is already experiencing rehabilitation of many older buildings for housing and small businesses, with the potential for much more renovation. The University District plans to create new housing and retail units adjacent to Portland State University.

The presence of a fixed rail system will represent the community’s commitment to redevelopment in these areas -- as well as our commitment to a livable city. A streetcar will link these emerging communities to downtown and other nearby neighborhoods -- and ultimately, to the regional rail system -- in a way that is easy, convenient and appealing.

Why Not Light Rail?

Community members who have studied this issue since 1987 have concluded that a streetcar is more appropriate than light rail to connect urban neighborhoods.

Light rail is a regional transit system, with relatively fast-moving, large cars designed to transport high numbers of people rapidly between suburban and urban areas. Streetcars are intended to go shorter distances, in highly populated city neighborhoods. Streetcars are not intended to carry the same high volume of rush hour passengers as inter-urban commuter trains, and therefore the cars are smaller. They can operate in mixed traffic, preserving the traffic patterns of neighborhood streets. They can stop more frequently and offer a more flexible Service appropriate for a high density neighborhood. Streetcar systems can be built more rapidly and with less disruption from construction than light rail lines.

Why Not Just Add Buses?

Buses continue to serve metropolitan area residents reliably and with the flexibility to accommodate a growing community. However, community members who have worked on this issue have found that a streetcar will best serve the overlapping goals of improving circulation and encouraging redevelopment.

Fixed rail attracts development. Rail systems have demonstrated their value as catalysts for new development. Fixed rail lines are followed by private investment in housing, commercial and retail buildings. Historically, buses are added once the demand is already in place.

Quality of Service. One of the goals of the streetcar system is to provide a high quality system that will attract regular users, not just for workday commutes, but for a variety of activities, seven days a week.

Rail is a very popular transportation mode that attracts riders and increases fare box revenues, as illustrated by this region’s experience with MAX. Streetcar Systems have proven to be a cost-effective way to provide the Service levels and quality necessary to increase ridership.

The Streetcar’s Role in the Regional Transit System

The streetcar is this community’s first step in assuring that the same extensive level of regional transit service available on MAX is complemented with the same quality service in the Central City.

Today, the regional transit System concentrates on the transit mall and Yamhill and Morrison streets in Portland’s downtown. Yet the success of the Downtown, and Central City Plans is creating high densities -- served by high quality transit, -- throughout the Central City. The Central City Streetcar will travel through downtown Portland on 10th and 11th Avenues, providing convenient access for those working and living in downtown’s west end.

Project Organization

After a major advertising campaign and a competitive process, the City of Portland entered into a contractual relationship with Portland Streetcar, Inc. (PSI) for preliminary engineering of the Phase I project, as well as the identification of funding for final engineering, construction and operation of the streetcar. The contract has since been extended to include final engineering, general contractor selection, vehicle procurement, maintenance facility design and construction, local improvement district formation, implementation of capital and operating finance plans and a public involvement program. PSI is a non-profit corporation formed for the single purpose of implementing the Central City Streetcar as a project that will benefit the livability and economic vitality of Portland and its central city. The membership of the Board includes representatives from both the public and private sector.

In addition, a Central City Streetcar Citizens Advisory Committee was formed to assist with the project. The Committee has been meeting monthly Since October, 1995. Members include representatives from neighborhood associations, business groups, property owners, developers, institutions and the community-at-large. They are committed to providing input to the Portland Streetcar, Inc. Board and to the City, as well disseminating information back out their respective organizations.


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