Friday, February 24, 2006

TriMet, City: Full Steam Ahead

The Transit Mall decisionmakers met Wednesday afternoon at City Hall, and essentially congratulated themselves for putting together a good plan that had plenty of citizen input and "due dilligence." There was more than a hint of defensiveness, but also some valid information. And while there was accomodation for additional commenters to speak further up in the agenda to make sure there was time, the tone of the meeting was "time for talking is done; let's sign some papers."

Co-chaired by Mayor Potter and TriMet titan Fred Hansen, the conference table was ringed by spectators and media. I spotted Jim Howell, the retired TriMet engineer who gave the Neighborhood Association ammo to complain with, and he graciously gave me a copy of his statement urging a delay. Current Downtown NA president Renee Fellman was also there to give a statement, as were folks from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, and others.

Potter pretty much played timekeeper while Hansen orchestrated the speakers. He began with himself, noting that the I-205 funding was one of five federal "start" grants to receive monies in the FY07 budget. Denver, Dallas and Salt Lake were the other cities; Portland also got money for the Willamette commuter rail project.

Hansen then turned it over to Neil McFarlane (also of TriMet) for a run of "myth vs reality" comparisons about the fate of 50,000 downtown TriMet riders per day:

'myth'-- "they intend to move buses to 3rd and 4th avenues even after construction..."

'reality'--"That is unambiguously untrue." The only streets being considered for permanent relocation are the east/west Jefferson and Columbia. Under the category of "not a bug, but a feature," [McFarlane] said the movement was a "strengthening" that would improve crossmall service that had been lacking in south Downtown.

"they're forced to move buses off the Mall to accomodate the light rail and through lane..."

'reality'--"It's very clearly NOT true that the new alignment forces the realignments of bus routes." There are 127 buses at peak hours, 134 with C-Tran (and it's not like they don't create traffic). While admitting that 134 is pretty much all the capacity the Mall can take, he called it a conservative estimate and still declared that no buses had to be moved in order to put rail in. Remember that when assessing congestion after the remodel.

McFarlane went on (while the Powerpoint presentation continued to malfunction), claiming that "safety was foremost in our minds," a reference to other concerns raised by such as those from the DNA. Others around the table nodded their heads in agreement. He claimed that computer, scale and even full-size modeling was done.

This became a good time to reference "our transit peers," meaning the American Public Transit Association report (pdf), which was included in the agenda packets. In an answer to the signature line being used by Mall opponents--"less than optimal operational design"-- he read the rest of that sentence from the report: "...the peer review panel is confident the Tri-Met team has reviewed relevant issues and will implement appropriate mitigation measures to ensure 'safe' operation."

And as if to balm any fears of change, he recalled that the Mall design itself was an entirely new concept that engendered lots of concern, as did the Banfield rail extension and the streetcar. And then a statement I'd not heard anyone make before: "anything we will do on the Mall, we do somewhere in the system today." I struggle to recall where light rail weaves among buses in the current system, but maybe I need to go all the way out to Gresham, or something.

At this point, still filling time while technical difficulties persisted, Sam Adams directed a question: "What's held you back from using Columbia and Jefferson in the past?" McFarlane acknowledged that as many as 45 peak buses ran those routes before the Westside rail was introduced, and now only two go between the waterfront and Goose Hollow. The new design calls for about 36-39 peak buses, up from the current eight. He also made the interesting comment that ridership surveys suggested some lines served more "south downtown" customers. Moving them would complete the east/west coverage of downtown, augmenting Glisan, Burnside, and Salmon/Washington.

Essentially giving up on the Powerpoint, it was time for the chair of the Citizen's Advisory Committee, Phil Kalberer, to speak. Here's where I thought I might hear some trepidation or grudging acceptance for moving forward. Quite the opposite; the CAC was right on board along with everyone else. Kalberer described a letter signed by all but one of the 24 representatives to the CAC, enthusiastically supporting the plan. The one holdout? Current DNA president Renee Fellman. Kalberer further endorsed the process as well as the project, saying "one thing we've done well is to involve the citizens of the city." Flanked by advocates for the disabled and elderly on the committee who were also fully supportive, it was a powerful statement to make.

In what I considered a specifically directed comment, Kalberer reminded the group of a meeting in June 2005 that he claimed was very important to the final design process. The DNA were "intricately involved" at that meeting, and both issues of construction and the realignment options were dealt with at that time. Representing the DNA during that meeting was current CAC member Stan Lewis.

Lewis was the keystone speaker at this meeting IMO. His unique role in the process gave him a rhetorical hammer that he used preemptively against Fellman, who was waiting to speak. Lewis has been a DNA member since 1992 (including a stint on the board), and participated in many of the CAC meetings in that role during the Mall plan evaluation. To quote directly, "I was astounded to read the first [Portland] Tribune article. I couldn't believe it."

Here was current President Fellman sitting right behind him as he spoke, smiling through gritted teeth, as Lewis explained all the ways that DNA had been exposed to information about the project. "Tons" of literature was given out, and he recounted having many conversations with DNA membership. He agreed there were certainly questions, but there was "no one with any criticism from members of the land use committee." If there were complaints, he said, they were not made. In fact, only one member of the land-use committee ever came to any of the Mall meetings according to Lewis. And as exclamation, he noted that he was "impressed" with the openness of the whole project.

CAC Chair Kalberer tried to respond in a little more detail to questions raised by the media and citizens' groups. He did try to softpedal the auto through-lane by pointing out that only 10 blocks did not have car access, and again raised the issue of dilligence by pointing out that 14 or 15 different alignments were reviewed, all with pros and cosn. Even the left-right design without cars that was pushed by the engineers from last week's DNA meeting was problematic, Kalberer said, because of the difficulty in transferring from bus to Max--essential especially at the south end where the Jefferson/Columbia buses would cross the Mall. But the implication--you've had your chance--spoke a little more loudly than the explicit call to "reconnect between the CAC and DNA." I have to admit, the documentation supports the claim of ample public input. For example, here's a CAC meeting from December 2004, where the committee goes over funding on a line item basis, questioning all the way.

The proceedings were then turned over for citizen comment, and I could not stay for all of them. Two should be highlighted, however. DNA President Fellman got up and immediately complained that they were not afforded agenda speaking time. She had asked committee member John Russell for help, and he had refused, calling last week's DNA meeting "the worst kind of democracy." [I was there, and while a little hysterical, it was absolutely democratic.] She was looking right at Russell, a developer, as she talked, and he spoke up frostily: "Renee, what I said was that I had no control over the agenda."

Fellman laid out a warning that was almost Shakespearean in its doomsday prophesy: if businesses go under, if the Mall is a disaster, if suburbanites can't get downtown due to reduced bus service, it won't be the fault of the DNA! "It's up to you, we hope you're right," she said.

Jim Howell, the retired TriMet engineer who has been arguing on technical grounds against the current design, continues to worry about the traffic load at the Steel Bridge. There is some discussion in the 12/04 CAC meeting about both the bridge and the special signals needed to alert bus drivers of a train, but Howell claims that no evidence exists of TriMet's review of capacity issues at the key points.

Portland Transport notes that the printed O for Thursday labels Potter and Sam Adams on board after the meeting. Adams--who discreetly got a refill on his iced coffee from a stealthy staffer during the meeting; nice work if you can get it!--seemed satisfied when his question was answered, and I think everybody breathed easier after Stan Lewis called out the current committee on their claims of being left uninformed. If there's evidence that the deal won't be signed next month, I haven't seen it.