With this morning’s news that a key City Councillor shifted his position on the Lake Oswego Streetcar project, the project is most likely dead at this point. While there’s some talk among proponents about revisiting the idea at some future point, it’s my experience that these sorts of projects have a small window in which they must move forward or the opportunity is lost. My guess is that the LO Streetcar idea might be brought up again a time or two to little fanfare, and then fade gently into the goodnight.
I’m of two minds regarding this. On one hand, the finances of constructing this particular line are intriguing. While the Oregonian’s typically shoddy reporting hammered home the overall price tag, it failed to paint the whole funding picture. Fortunately, Portland Planning Commissioner and streetcar scholar Chris Smith explains the appeal–basically, right-of-way already owned by the city can be counted toward the local contribution eligible for federal matching funds:
For $64M in local cash, we can potentially have a $288M transit line.
That’s a heck of a good value, and infrastructure bargains like that don’t come along very often.
On the other hand, there’s definitely an argument to be made that the only good reason to pursue this project is the fact that it’s such a bargain. To me, streetcar seems to be a poor mode choice for this particular corridor. The Portland Streetcar has been a wonderful economic engine and a great transportation solution, but it links together fairly dense neighborhoods that are very close to (or within) the downtown area. The streetcar expansion that’s about to open also fits this definition, bringing the close-in neighborhoods on the east side of the Willamette into the fold. By contrast, the streetcar to Lake Oswego would link two fairly dense areas that are several miles away from each other (downtowns of Portland and Lake Oswego), but travel through a very sparse area in between.
This seems like a poor fit for a streetcar to me. It seems that light rail would be much better for this particular purpose, but of course that would be significantly more expensive and take years to plan and build. But there is another alternative.
One mode that remains suspiciously absent from the cornucopia of transit ideas Portland has experimented with is Bus Rapid Transit. BRT is a fairly trendy new mode that attempts to combine the advantages of light rail (fast, large capacity, reliable service) with buses (minimal new infrastructure needs, low cost, quick implementation). With the current dearth of funds for infrastructure projects and the ever-growing demand for transportation, many cities have been trying out BRT lines as a solution that provides many of the same benefits as light rail for only the cost of a dedicated lane, bus “stations,” and signal priority. It’s an intriguing idea.
BRT, of course, comes with its own set of challenges (the biggest of which, I think, is overcoming stigmas associated with buses), but given our economic circumstances and transportation needs, it has enough upside that it’s worth trying out. It may be a very good fit for the Lake Oswego corridor, and I hope it is considered.