Friday, December 18, 1998

Oahu Trans 2K

Mayor Harris
lights up at
light rail

The Honolulu official
visits Portland for a look at
MAX transit and the
development it spurred

By Gordon Y.K. Pang


PORTLAND -- Each weekday morning, Priscilla Overton catches a bus across the street from her house in southeast Portland and rides 20 minutes to a light rail transit stop downtown.

From there, the 56-year-old data entry worker steps on "the MAX" -- the Metropolitan Area Express -- and glides 15 minutes across downtown to her job with the Portland Police Department near Lloyd Center.

She crosses the Williamette River twice to make the trip but it doesn't faze her. "MAX is faster," she says. "And I have to depend on public transit."

A model for Honolulu?

Stories like Overton's made Mayor Jeremy Harris glow when he visited Portland last year and decided it would be a model for Honolulu.

In the City of Roses, transit is almost like a religion.

John Schuster, 27, drives his car from the Clackamas section of Portland to the Gateway Park-and-Ride lot about six miles away. From there, the computer salesman boards MAX for the remaining five miles to his downtown job near Pioneer Square.

Downtown parking is limited, with garages charging $150 to $250 a month when stalls are available, Schuster said. Via a job incentive program his employer has with Tri-Met, which runs Portland transit, he gets a monthly MAX pass for $8.

Noontime at Pioneer Courthouse Square finds Portlanders scurrying in and out of light-rail trolleys and buses. Many drop no money, since riding public transit within downtown's square is free.

Beaverton resident Carol Maskaros, 54, rode the bus into town to meet her daughter for lunch. She expects they will end up taking the rail line to a restaurant somewhere in town.

Maskaros is shocked that Honolulu doesn't have a rail line. "I think you'd be real happy with it."

Feds paid much of the cost

The 15-mile Eastside MAX line cost $228 million in 1983 dollars. A whopping 83 percent of the cost was picked up by the federal government.

Much of that money was originally earmarked for a massive expansion of the Banfield Highway to Gresham, the city 12 miles east of Portland.

"It would have displaced 1 percent of the houses in the city of Portland for a five-minute travel time savings from 82nd Avenue to downtown," said G.B. Arrington, Tri-Met's director of strategic planning and the man many consider the godfather of light rail in Portland.

Special to the Star-Bulletin
MAX heads through downtown Portland's
Pioneer Square.

But after three years of study and debate ended in 1978, the municipalities in the Tri-Met area chose to completely rebuild only 4.3 miles of the Banfield, at a cost of $100 million.

The rest of the money went toward building a light rail line to Gresham. "The region decided to invest in transit instead of freeways," Arrington said.

XXXh12 Portland sees benefits

Construction took four years, and MAX opened in 1986. Tri-Met estimates it provides 31,400 rides on an average weekday and that ridership has shot up 61 percent since its first year.

Portland officials also like to stress economic benefits. MAX created an estimated 13,000 jobs over a four-year construction period during a recession. A Portland State study claims the project pumped $285 million into the economy.

Transit officials had set a goal of 50,000 daily MAX rides by year's end, but already the system is averaging "53,000 and some change," said Tri-Met spokeswoman Mary Fetsch.

In September, Tri-Met opened its 18-mile westside section that extended MAX to the fast-growing Beaverton and Hillsboro suburbs. The federal government paid 75 percent of that $963.5 million project, which included twin-tube, three-mile underground tunnels through Portland's West Hills.

Now, Tri-Met is starting on a $182.7 million, 5.5-mile extension of its east-west line to connect downtown with Portland Airport.

A line to the airport

The extension is being developed jointly with the Port of Portland, which runs the airport, and private company Bechtel Enterprises. Bechtel is contributing $28 million in exchange for development rights and a 99-year lease to 120 acres next to the airport, on which it envisions hotel, office, retail and entertainment uses.

"It's essentially a real estate deal," said Ralph Stanley, Bechtel vice president and former Federal Transit Administration head. The corporation is paying an additional $7 million for roads and other related infrastructure, he said.

Noting that Bechtel explored similar proposals in Denver and Hartford, Conn., Stanley added: "I think these public-private partnerships -- you're going to see a lot more of them."

But while Tri-Met officials rejoiced over the opening of the Westside line and the closing of the airport extension deal, the year ended badly.

Voters last month, by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin, rejected a $475 million bond that was to have been the local share of a new 16-mile, south-north line from Clackamas to North Portland. Rail proponents blamed the defeat on poor turnout and too many money measures on the ballot.

The Federal Transit Administration, which had put a high-priority label on the project, had been prepared to pump in $921 million, or about 58 percent of the cost.

Harris sees development

For Honolulu's Harris, his sights are set on the economic development that proponents claim often booms around rail lines.

At last count, Fetsch said, nearly 7,000 housing units had been built or are under way along the westside line as part of $500 million in total investments. On the east side, she said, some $1.9 billion has been invested.

Nowhere has development around rail been more evident than in the Lloyd Center section, just northeast and across the Williamette River from downtown Portland.

Tri-Met officials estimate some $767 million in development has occurred there since light rail came, including:

Bullet The $262 million Rose Garden Arena, home of the Portland Trailblazers, whose president credited light rail with preventing the NBA franchise from moving to the suburbs. The 20,340-seat arena carries only 3,446 parking stalls. Tri-Met estimated at least 20 percent of 'Blazer fans park downtown and ride MAX over.

Bullet The 400,000-square-foot Portland Convention Center, built in 1991 after voters approved an $85 million bond for it. Transit supporters note that its front door faces the rail stop and that no doors face the facility's 800-car parking lot.

Bullet A $200 million face lift for the 30-year-old Lloyd Center Mall.

In effect, downtown Portland has extended east across the river.

"It really took the investment in light rail to accomplish that because the Williamette River has always been a physical and psychological divide between the east and west sides," Arrington said.

One happy developer is Matthew Klein, executive vice president for Ashforth Pacific Inc., which last year built the sleek 16-story Liberty Centre in the Lloyd District along the rail line for $50 million.

The office tower is now 87 percent occupied, Klein said.

"One of the things we're learning is the link between a transportation system and a good development is very strong," he said. Being along the rail line assures the developer "there's going to be a lot of traffic going by your project."

Spreads to downtown

Construction in the heart of downtown has also arrived, albeit more gradually. Portland City Council Commissioner Charlie Hales pointed to three office towers that have been going up over three years, with their only incentive from the city being lower transportation development fees.

"The point about these is that all three are right on light rail," he said.

Three new hotels are also under construction downtown, as are single-family and apartment complexes, Hales said.

"Over 20 percent of the region's new housing is being built within the city limits," he said. "It's unusual for an older principal city in a metropolitan area to be getting anywhere near that kind of marketing share."

"The housing industry has been pleasantly surprised that not everybody wants to live in a three-bedroom, two-car garage house on a cul-de-sac and that there really is a market for condos, row houses and other urban forms of housing," he added.

What Hales boasts of in Portland is just what Harris sees for downtown Honolulu. "They've created a walkable city and improved quality of life," Harris said. "They've had more people moving into the city proper as residents.

"They haven't been required to add major parking areas. They've been able to take business districts and strengthen the number of people patronizing them. These are all positive attributes that could occur here."

Some in Portland say
rail isn’t the solution

By Gordon Y.K. Pang


PORTLAND -- If light rail is a religion in Portland, then Melvin Zucker and others in the Oregon Transportation Institute are the heretics.

Zucker said city officials are inflating the number of eastside riders of "the MAX" -- the Metropolitan Area Express.

"Everybody wants (light rail) for somebody else so they can use it and I can have the road to myself," he said.

Officials at Tri-Met, which runs MAX, counter that light rail curbed the amount of new vehicles going in and out of Portland each day but was not designed to stop the number of additional cars altogether.

The institute also brings up the speed issue. Tri-Met had initially forecast eastside travel time, from downtown to Gresham, at 35 minutes. The institute says the actual time for the 15-mile trip is closer to 49 minutes.

"Light rail isn't your answer," Zucker said. "It's pathetic here."

As for the hype over economic development near rail lines, Zucker said what's come up has often been linked to some sort of government subsidy.

For instance, he said, the Portland Trailblazers never seriously considered moving to the suburbs after the city promised to give the NBA franchise's owners the rights to the Memorial Coliseum next door to the new arena.

Besides, Zucker said, the Rose Garden site is "the only place in the state of Oregon where two freeways converge."

Other developments, including housing projects built along the rail line, were given property tax abatements, he noted.

Tri-Met officials claim 37 percent of people in the region use the eastside line for at least one round trip a month. More importantly, they say, no new road capacity has been added to downtown Portland in 20 years.


Dec. 16: Will rail fly?
Dec. 17: The Portland model: Could it work here?
Dec. 18: Harris lights up at light rail

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