Vol. 25, No. 3 • Mailed monthly to over 13,500 homes in the Gateway & Parkrose Communities Free • July 2009
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Advocates push for east Portland streetcar routes
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Advocates push for east Portland streetcar routes

LEE PERLMAN
THE MID-COUNTY MEMO

Sometimes passion in one’s presentation can accomplish far more than the same points made in a calm and rational way. An illustration of this could be a meeting of the Streetcar Futures Advisory Committee. Streetcar Futures is an effort to identify the best routes for future extensions of the Portland streetcar. The Advisory Committee is composed of volunteers from a broad range of perspectives that is acting as a sounding board for city staff on the project.

At its June meeting, staff presented its semifinal proposals for corridors; their findings showed several routes in east Portland still under consideration, including a loop involving Sandy Boulevard, Foster Road and 122nd Avenue, and Southeast Belmont Street between the Morrison Bridge and 122nd Avenue. However, the only route that received a high priority was the Gateway Loop between Adventist Medical Center and the Gateway Transit Center.

John Cullerton of TriMet said that the recommendations are based largely on the projected ridership that such routes could be expected to have, as measured by boardings per mile. He said a route along Northeast Broadway and Weidler streets between the Broadway Bridge and Hollywood is projected to have 3,000 boardings per mile, per day. The Gateway Loop would get 600 to 700, which Cullerton characterized as being “decent, (but) not as strong as some of the inner alignments we’ve looked at.” The other east Portland routes “showed pretty strong ridership, but also had a lot of mileage associated with them.”

Streetcar Futures Advisory Committee Chair Owen Ronchelli protested that the draft plan seemed to lack geographic equity. Then Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association Chair Mark White told the committee and staff the following:

“This map creates two Portlands: one below 60th (Avenue) that has infrastructure, and one above 60th that doesn’t.” He spoke of the migration of Section Eight housing (subsidized housing for the poor) eastward in recent years. “People who are poor tend to be more reliant on transit,” he said. “There is a new development within a block of a school that has no sidewalks (at Southeast 122nd Avenue and Ramona Street.) I don’t know what I can do to convince you that this is a matter of life and death. If it takes a certain number of deaths from kids or seniors, maybe there are some willing to take one for the team.” Noting the number of new routes proposed for the inner city, he said, “You’re adding new routes in an area that’s already transit-rich. If you want social transformation, you need to look at other parts of town. It’s not right. There need to be champions for those who don’t have a voice.”

White became increasingly agitated as he delivered this speech; by its end he was in tears.

Privately, several committee members assured White they sympathized with him and agreed with at least part of what he said. More significantly, the changed atmosphere was reflected in the subsequent dialogue.

Longtime streetcar advocate Chris Smith asked Cullerton and other staff, “Doesn’t your formula ensure economic inequity? ‘You’re not a thriving neighborhood, so you can’t afford a streetcar.’ For me the streetcar is not about transit; it’s about place-making. This does result in two Portlands.”

Portland Bureau of Transportation planner Paul Smith (no relation) said, “Our assumption for the future is that 50 percent of the cost will be paid for with federal funding. The rest is local, and that’s a reality.” He added, “I don’t want to imply that you have to be a wealthy area to have a streetcar.”

Pointing to Mid-county, Project Manager Patrick Sweeney said, “Right now there’s nothing to support a streetcar system. I don’t think there’s argument with anything Mark said. But one failure could sink the streetcar system for good.”

Chris Smith replied, “How about a ‘most fundable’ list (of potential future routes), and a ‘most important’ list?”
Ronchelli agreed, “We need to find a scenario to finance corridors to places that lack transit.”

There were other issues as well. The project utilized a series of volunteer working groups to analyze potential routes in various parts of town. These had different degrees of success. The Southeast group’s thoroughness won universal praise; one observer characterized the Northeast group as an unmitigated disaster. However, all put in work. At last month’s meeting, some protested that staff had endorsed new or hybrid routes that had never even been suggested to the working groups, while their recommendations were rejected with no explanation. “People get really offended when you put in a lot of work, and the city makes changes with no explanation,” steering committee member Carolyn Brock said.

Speaking to the staff Chris Smith said, “We have had a strong dialogue with the working groups, I’d hate to lose it at this stage of the game. Here you’re talking at them, not to them.”

Sweeney said that the draft report would be printed July 1, with one hard copy available at each public library branch as a reference, and that e-mail responses would be received over the next 45 days. He rejected the idea of any more formal contact with the working groups, saying, “We’ve just gone through a very extensive process.”

Ronchelli said, “While this is a great plan and I’m proud to have been a part of it, it contains some things we’ve strived to avoid.”

The Portland Planning Commission is set to hold a briefing on the plan on July 14 and to take formal action on it on Aug. 11. The City Council is set to hear it on Sept. 9.
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