Livability to the MAX

Some 1,000 streetcars rolled through Portland connecting all parts of the city until the fleet was burned to make way for an increasing number of autos on crowded city streets.In the mid 1950s, we stacked our streetcars like cordwood and burned them in a giant wall of flame. They were unwanted relics of what had been — just a dozen years earlier — a 1,000- streetcar fleet serving the Portland area.

Portland had become one of many cities with privately owned transit companies giving up on street railways as freeway planners plotted a new future for the region.

Key message from the transportation sector: We want to be modern. We want convenience. We want to drive on freeways to our homes in the suburbs.

Thirty years later, in September 1986, Portland became only the third city since before World War II to open a new mass transit light rail system. In a remarkable show of public pride, 100,000 Portlanders stood hours in near 100-degree heat to climb aboard over-crowded MAX cars during a weekend of free rides.

Key message from the planning community: We think you will love this, but it will require a major public investment and years of patience before the benefits are fully experienced.

A simple key message

When public officials gathered in Pioneer Courthouse Square Friday to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the MAX Blue Line, I sat almost in the front row wearing my “I Was There” sticker. Briefly, I relived my time in the 1980s spent as public information manager at TriMet as the transit district built what was then known as the Banfield Light Rail Project.

The anniversary speakers proudly hit the expected themes: Portland had become a transit Mecca. Jobs had been created and more are on the way as construction starts on the Milwaukie extension. And the region had experienced millions of dollars in economic returns as the system grew from the first 15 miles to today’s 52-mile network.

Actually, the key message could have been summarized in one simple phrase: Our transit investments have improved our quality of life and the livability of the region.

Community revival

Visiting Clinton Street in Southeast Portland, as I did last week, is another way to celebrate MAX. Although MAX goes nowhere near that section of the city, the street is a great example of what happens when gutsy decisions are made. It’s where the MAX story begins.

Today, Clinton and nearby Division Street are trendy and vibrant. Clinton has become a dynamic community, home to fun restaurants such as St. Jack's French bistro at 21st or Broder near 26th Avenue, which serves breakfasts Scandinavian-style. This avenue of older homes is looking dignified. It was not always that way.

The “Clinton corridor” survived a near-death experience when, in the 1970s, it was designated as the path for the proposed eight-lane Mount Hood Freeway. The freeway would have torn up neighborhoods along Clinton between the Willamette River and what is now I-205. Federal funds had been appropriated to build it. The state highway department was busy buying homes and businesses for the right-of-way.

But then something unheard of happened. Community leaders stopped the Mount Hood Freeway. Transportation funds were transferred to the Banfield project — the widening of I-84 and construction of the Portland-Gresham light rail line. It took some time, but Clinton and Division have undergone a revival.

Key message from the business community: Preserve neighborhoods and businesses will invest.

Another community’s choice

As challenging as MAX expansion to Hillsboro, North Portland, the airport and Clackamas Town Center have been in terms of engineering and public financing, the next phase of transit rail growth will be much harder and more controversial.

For example, take Lake Oswego in suburban Clackamas County. The city is facing a very different set of challenges and opportunities. It will be the most intense battleground yet.

In its early days, Oswego was an iron smelting town and well-served by freight trains. Then a creek was dammed, forming the lake. The village became the vacation destination and home of wealthy residents. The network of track remains in use today or has been purchased by the city for future use.

City leaders sparked a transformation about 10 years ago when an urban renewal project began replacing old, dumpy and uninviting buildings in downtown at First and A Street. Lakeshore Village and the new Millennium Park now overlook Oswego Lake, drawing shoppers to the area.

Lake Oswego Streetcar

The next revitalization phase in car-centric Lake Oswego could be an extension of the Portland Streetcar line. The route could run along an existing rail line to the State Street area, but it would have to travel through upscale neighborhoods along the west shore of the Willamette River (Highway 43). Not to be confused with MAX the Portland Streetcar is a slightly smaller-scale light rail system started by the City of Portland about 10 years ago.

The Lake Oswego City Council, on a 4-3 vote, said in April the project should move to the next phase of planning and financing studies. But, powerful forces are opposing the line. The “yes” vote happened despite a well-financed and organized opposition.

Opponent’s use of economic arguments have been effective, bringing into question spending priorities. They haven’t had to rely too heavily on the not-in-my-backyard message, which is more self-serving.

Communications next steps

The communications challenge is daunting. In fact, back in April a respected public opinion pollster says there is so much misinformation about the proposed project, additional survey work commissioned by the city should be delayed.

“I’ve got a concern,” Adam Davis recently told the council. “I want to be able to deliver to you statistically valid information.”

The survey would provide “a snapshot in time” based on the information now in the community, regardless of whether that information is accurate, Davis explained in a story by the Lake Oswego Review.

Part of the problem is that details of the project still are emerging, such as what will be Lake Oswego’s share of project funding, possible financing strategies and the streetcar line’s likely impact on the downtown area.

"We need to look at this project and mold it to make it our project," Mayor Jack Hoffman told the audience attending a council meeting reported by the Review. "With all due respect to the City of Portland and Metro, this is as much a Lake Oswego planning process as it is a transit planning process.

Advocates for the project need to start using sharper messaging. There has not been much passion expressed in favor. The lack of vocal public support in the face of loud opposition will sink the streetcar. My unsolicited advice about key messages is:

  • Not to worry too much about the numbers game;
  • Appeal to the community’s sense of pride:
  • Put a face on everyday commuters who want and need improved transit. Have real people tell real stories;
  • Stress quality of life and community enrichment benefits; and
  • Remind commuters about traffic congestion and the limitations of Highway 43.

It’s easy to point out perceived negatives. The advocates need to turn up the volume because they will be shouted off the stage if they don’t. The great advantage for advocates is being armed with great local examples of transit rail benefits. We didn’t have that 30 years ago when we began building the Blue Line. We just had passion.

Watch OPB's special on the history of Portland's early streetcar days. View "Oregon Experience: Streetcar City."