TriMet’s War on Urban Livability

Why does TriMet hate Lincoln Street?

Between First and Fourth avenues in Southwest Portland, Lincoln is a quiet, tree-lined street that has everything urban planners say they love: high density with a mix of land uses, regular TriMet bus service, more than 65 mature shade trees, and a wonderful north-south pedestrian walkway bisecting the street.

Yet, on or before Sept. 15, TriMet will destroy all of this. The trees will be clear-cut, the street shut down, and several businesses lost, including the popular Candlelight Cafe. The reason: TriMet is taking the right-of-way for the proposed Milwaukie light-rail line.

If this goes forward, it will be one of the worst public decisions in Portland’s history. TriMet will wreck an entire neighborhood simply to replace the No. 17 bus line with a slow train, at a cost of $205 million per mile. There will be no new service, and a beautiful Portland neighborhood will be ruined.

This demonstrates one of the fatal flaws of light rail: The infrastructure needed is out of scale with quiet, pedestrian-oriented urban streets. Once the street is destroyed and redone as a set of rail tracks with ugly overhead wires and a huge station, the beauty of the neighborhood is permanently lost.

Anyone who thinks differently should visit some of the light-rail stations on the 25-year-old Blue Line. None of the neighborhoods along East Burnside are better off today because of light rail, and several are markedly worse. The recently redesigned Rockwood MAX station is a particularly hideous example of TriMet’s aesthetic “enhancement.”

Not only is light rail going to obliterate Southwest Lincoln Street in Portland, it will actually degrade transit service for Clackamas County riders, who are the ostensible beneficiaries of this fiasco. Currently, there are nine bus lines stopping at the Milwaukie Transit Center, and five of them continue to Portland. Once light rail opens, all of these buses will no longer provide service north of Milwaukie. Bus customers will be forced to transfer at Milwaukie.

Riders hate transfers. Making them switch from bus to train will push some of them back into their cars.

Moreover, light rail will increase travel times for transit riders. A peak-hour trip from downtown Milwaukie to PSU on the No. 99 McLoughlin Express bus currently averages 17.5 minutes and sometimes makes it in 12 minutes. The forecasted time of travel for light rail is roughly 19 minutes for the same distance. Why are we going to spend $1.5 billion to provide a slower commute?

This is an absurd project, but, fortunately, there is still a reasonable alternative: Build the new Willamette River bridge but cancel light rail. Portland needs a new bridge anyway, and by allowing cars and trucks on the bridge in place of light rail, the South Waterfront district will finally have an eastern portal.

It’s not too late to return common sense to transit planning. Gov. John Kitzhaber appoints the seven TriMet board members, and they have failed him. He should simply override their decision, save the trees on Southwest Lincoln Street and chart a new course emphasizing improved bus service in Portland.

We know this can be done. Tom McCall once fired the entire TriMet board. Kitzhaber should do the same.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This column appeared in The Oregonian on Wednesday.