How much is private development worth to the public taxpayer? And how much is low-cost maintenance worth in terms of up-front project cost? Those are the questions swirling around the proposal of a controversial Portland to Lake Oswego, Ore., streetcar.
With the project already jumping through regulatory hoops, even at its $458 million price tag, there’s still plenty left for the streetcar to do. The proposal: As a way to ease congestion on about 5 miles of Oregon Highway 43, a Lake Oswego to Portland Transit Project Steering Committee recommended a streetcar as the “preferred alternative,” with its heavy initial construction costs because its operating costs are far less expensive than upgraded bus service and the development potential along the line could vastly benefit both cities. The right-of-way along the Willamette River has been publicly owned since 1988.
Already, big-name Portland developers have lined up to get behind the project, saying the idea of an aesthetically friendly streetcar—the city has pushed the streetcar model for years and a rapid bus line just doesn’t hold the allure—bodes well for future projects.
With the funding model somewhat in limbo, proponents are aiming for a 60 percent match from the Federal Transportation Administration’s New Starts program. Neil McFarlane, TriMet general manager, says, “It is normal at this early stage in a project for the project’s finance plan to be under continued development.” But it is exactly that limbo and those finances that leave some people wondering if a lower initial project cost (i.e. ramp up high-speed bus routes) might factor in as a better option.
The Lake Oswego City Council went through three hours of public comment in April before agreeing 4-3 to send the proposal along the regulatory channels. The next night, the Portland City Council did the same, 4-1, although without fully endorsing the project. Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz, the dissenter, says the money needed up front is too steep.
The streetcar issue now heads to boards for Clackamas and Multnomah counties this spring and the Metro Council, which has the final say, this summer. Construction could start in 2015. Of course, construction is a long way down the (rail) line on this project.