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Transit Lessons Learned from The Portland Streetcar

With the recent re-emergence of streetcars as a public transit option in cities across the United States, the city of Portland, Oregon is often held  up as the poster child for this new transportation trend. Other cities looking to fund and build their own streetcar lines have a lot to learn from the Portland Streetcar. After all, Portland’s success was not a stroke of good luck, but rather decades of hard work in planning and re-imagining the city’s future. That hard work continues today as Portland works to ensure that the city and its transportation system stay on an upward trajectory.

There are three key areas in which Portland’s streetcar strategy differed from traditional transit system planning processes:

Establishing The Region’s Vision for the Future

One of the first steps to success for Portland was thoroughly evaluating and establishing a clear Portland_streetcarvision and direction for the city. City officials realized early on in the 1970s that a dwindling urban center, freeways breaking up neighborhoods, auto dependence, and unbridled sprawl was not the future they envisioned for their city. The steps taken to push Portland in a different, more sustainable direction included the establishment of an urban growth boundary, as was required of all cities in the state of Oregon, and a new Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) now called Metro, that was committed to the redevelopment of the city. Active citizens and community groups also contributed to efforts to preserve their own neighborhoods from damaging development patterns.

Diverse Funding Sources

Efforts to redirect the development of Portland were largely successful, and in response to the re-population of Downtown Portland and a growing need for more transportation options, the idea of a modern streetcar emerged. Funding for the newly planned streetcar system proved challenging for a transportation model that seemed outdated or unfamiliar. Large-scale federal funding, for example, was off the table because of its limitations and strict requirements. By instead assembling a diverse stream of funding sources, including bonds, special taxing districts, tax increment financing, Portland’s general and parking funds, farebox revenues, annual sponsorships, the regional transportation authority TriMet, and a small portion of federal funds reallocated from the city’s MAX light rail system, the streetcar could be studied, planned, built, and operated according to Portland’s own city guidelines.

A Responsive Service Provider

The public response to The Portland Streetcar has been overwhelmingly positive. The economic response has also been impressive, with new business, property upgrades, increased property values, and billions of dollars in investment before the streetcar line even opened in 2001. Since portland2then, ridership and investment near the route have continued on an upward trend, and city officials have been responsive to the changes that have resulted. Expansions to the original streetcar line were made in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2012 when the system crossed the Willmette River for the first time. The Caruthers Bridge, planned for a 2015 opening, will carry another streetcar line, as well as light rail, bicycles, and pedestrians, making it one of the nation’s few bridges devoted entirely to transit and non-motorized transportation.

Portland’s method may not be a quick-fix option for cities looking to expand transit, but it does offer insight as to long-term strategies for making cities more connected and creating efficient transit systems.

Source:  Rich Sampson, RAIL Magazine, 31st Edition – Fall 2012

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