Friday, December 01, 2006

Bragdon: West Willamette Streetcar is Low Priority

Every Sunday, a vintage streetcar runs the line that hugs the Willamette River's west bank from Lake Oswego to what is now the South Waterfront district of Portland. The line has an interesting history, which nearly makes the fairly expensive ticket worth the ride. But there's been talk for quite awhile among Oswegans and South Portlanders--growing stronger in the last couple of years as rush hour traffic on the paralleling Route 43 has become routinely snarled--that maybe the rails could be put to more practical use, linking 23rd Street and the MAX with Lake Oswego and West Linn with the same moderns streetcars that ply the city.

At least, that's what Lake Oswego residents have been thinking about, as yesterday's Review article indicates. While the citizens--who've formed a group somewhat aggressively titled LOPAC--seem to envision a full-service line from the falls to the tram as a near-gimme, the district's Metro councillor and the planning agency's President both seem to be putting the damper on any idea of a quick turnaround (even as these things go, which is slowly):
[Councillor Brian] Newman said the figures must show that a streetcar would be cost-effective and practical for riders for the Metro Council to support it. The regional benefits of streetcar also must outweigh the potential impacts to neighborhoods on the rail.

“We’re trying to take a real neutral view on what’s best for this corridor. It’s not clear it’s gong to be streetcar,” Newman said. “If this is going to benefit Lake Oswego to the detriment of riders south of Lake Oswego, then that’s not going to fly.”
Beyond being highly juiced to get what they want, the city and its advocates are being accused of doing all the discussion themselves without other players such as the chi-chi Dunthorpe and Birdshill neighborhoods to the north, and West Linn to the south. The West Linn community isn't necessarily opposed but is wary about having some of the analysis and decision making done for them before getting to the table.

But it's the chic Portland neighborhoods that will be the big hurdle, despite the nominal victory that leads the Review article--a federal complaint to the FTA by residents of the Birdshill neighborhood was dismissed. They're still threatening suits and other activities to slow things down. But even if everyone gets on board, Metro officials aren't sure the potential ridership measures up to other projects on the board for review, making it fairly clear where the Willamette line stands on their priority list:
Metro Council President David Bragdon, eyeing potential problems for [the] streetcar, said he would weigh its obstacles against regional transportation needs while setting project priorities.

“I think we need to do some modeling on what the ridership would be but my hunch is that the studies would show that the projected ridership – based on population, demographics, current ridership, etc. – in that market would be less than on the Portland-Milwaukie or Portland-Tigard (Barbur) line.”
I think that's nearly a given. Even with the now-routine hassle of stop-and-go traffic from the Sellwood Bridge all the way through Lake Oswego, people along the riverbank between the bridge and the falls just have too much money to make the choice for daily ridership on the streetcar. And many of them don't need to go into town anyhow. I can much better imagine the daily rider market for the Tigard line, and especially the run across the river down the east bank and into Milwaukie. So don't look for a publicly financed commuter extension of the streetcar down the west bank anytime soon, and enjoy the old-timey version for at least another decade.