CSG Transportation Policy Academy Part 5: First Stop Portland Luncheon & Tour

State legislators attending this July’s CSG Transportation Policy Academy in Portland, Oregon also had the opportunity to see some of the city as part of a tour organized by First Stop Portland, a Portland State University-housed organization that develops urban sustainability study programs for visiting delegations. Academy participants attended a luncheon at the Mirabella high rise retirement community where they heard remarks from local transportation officials and others. They also toured the transit-oriented South Waterfront, rode the Portland Aerial Tram and Portland Streetcar, saw a bridge currently under construction as part of the Portland-Milwaukie light rail extension that will serve the area and visited the construction site for a new academic campus for Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), one of the area’s largest employers.

“As far as transportation is concerned, you’re seeing some of the great stuff about Portland,” City Commissioner Steve Novick told attendees at the luncheon in the Mirabella’s 24th floor restaurant with dramatic views overlooking the South Waterfront. “And Portland is great. We are wonderful, we’re awesome, we’re multi-modal as all get out. Forty-five percent of the trips into the central city are by transit. Six percent of commuter trips are by bike. … We have light rail. We have streetcars. We have tons of neat stuff. And Portlanders drive four miles a day less than people in comparable areas, which means we save a ton of money on cars and gas.”

Novick offered a personal anecdote about how the city’s multi-modality made an impact for him.

“I used to live on the east side of town and one winter a few years back—unusually for us—we had a snowstorm and of course we don’t handle snowstorms,” he recalled. “My car was buried and I was scared to try to drive through the unplowed streets. But my Dad broke his leg in the snowstorm and was in OHSU (hospital) way up the hill. So my day consisted of going to the bus station and waiting an hour for the bus. But then transferring to the streetcar and that was only a half-hour wait. And then we got to the (Portland Aerial) Tram and that was running beautifully every four minutes. So the more far out and quirky and Portland-y the mode of transportation was, the more reliable it was for that particular, miserable week-long period.”

But Novick said the city faces challenges as well.

“We’re also a complete mess. This is a city where we have over the next 10 years a $75 million a year deficit in the money that we need to adequately repair and maintain our streets. Our streets are falling apart and we don’t have the money to maintain them or put them back together. So we are going to have to raise some serious money through the gas tax, through something else, through a combination of things. … We’re this combination. We are a great city when it comes to transportation. We’re also an utter mess. And we appreciate all of you being here to sort of share our frustrations, share our dreams and share ideas about how we’re going to address our funding problems.”

                                                        Photo by Sean Slone

Attendees also heard from Jon Makler, Senior Planner for the Oregon Transportation Research and Engineering Consortium. Housed at Portland State University, OTREC researchers work with various stakeholders and policymakers around the state to inform transportation policy. In the Portland area, the consortium focuses on sustainable development, transit-oriented development and the integration of transportation and land use. OTREC is one of 22 federally funded transportation research centers around the country.

“The research portfolio of a university transportation center is diverse but it’s consistently driven by local agencies,” said Makler. “We love working with city council, state legislators, county commissioners. … I understand a number of you are transportation committee chairs and vice chairs. You’re obviously making the policy. We’d like to be involved in researching before the policy goes into effect so we can compare and see what happens after, how effective was it. … You probably have a center like OTREC in your own states and communities and transportation faculty who would respond well to questions that you have in order to conduct the policy work that you’re doing.”

Photo by Sean Slone

Finally, attendees heard from Art Pearce, Project Manager for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, who would later lead the group on their tour of the South Waterfront.

“Portland has generally earned national acclaim in terms of the intentionality by which we are expending public dollars not only in terms of transportation, not only in terms of creating mobility but creating places that we want to see as the outcome,” he said. “South Waterfront is one of those examples where we took essentially formerly industrial land. … Really in the mid to late 90s, it was nothing but light industrial and essentially environmentally damaged land that needed to be cleaned up. So not surprisingly it was a very significant lift for all of us to come together to try and look at how we could convert this area from this formerly industrial and shipyard type of setting to the new place that we were envisioning. So where this really began was a public interest in seeing this area transformed.”

Before the streetcar line was built to service the area, the South Waterfront seemed a long way from Portland’s downtown, Pearce recalled. The city convened housing developers (an abundance of condos and apartments now dot the area) as well as the city’s largest employer, OHSU, to discuss how to transform the area.

“What it took really in large part was transportation infrastructure to change how we understood the possibilities of this place,” he said. “One of them was the streetcar connection—connecting downtown to this area of South Waterfront. Another major one was the internal street grid. There wasn’t a level of infrastructure that you would need to support the scale of development here—water services, sewer services, roadway services but also the level of IT bandwidth that would be needed to support the level of research. … And then the most significant and largest investment was the Portland Aerial Tram.”

The tram transports riders between the South Waterfront terminal adjacent to the OHSU Center for Health & Healing and the upper terminal at the Kohler Pavilion on OHSU’s main campus at the top of a hill. The three-minute tram trip takes riders 500 feet in the air, passing over I-5, the Lair Hill neighborhood and the Southwest Terwilliger Parkway. It cost $57 million to build, with OHSU, the city of Portland and South Waterfront property owners sharing the cost of the project. It serves about 6,000 people a day, with a capacity for 9,000, Pearce said.

                                                      Photo by Sean Slone


"One of the interesting parts of the tram capacity story has been the bicycle story,” he said. “We knew that people would want to come here by bicycle and ride the tram up to the top. What we didn’t know was how many people would want to do that. … OHSU has now gotten to the point where they now offer concierge bike parking at the base of the tram. You roll up with your bike, you hand someone your bike, they hand you a claim ticket and they’ll keep track of your bike for the day and for a small fee, they’ll even tune up your bike for you while you’re working at the hospital for the day. It’s a good thing to do. Especially though when you are having 30 plus bikes per tram car trying to pack onto the tram car because everyone wanted to bring their bike up to their parking space up at the top of the hill with them and then coast down the hill at the end of the day. … In this case, it’s very, very much worth it for them to offer the valet service versus having a capacity issue and having to limit the number of people who can ride the tram.”

Pearce said the first phase of development in the South Waterfront area is mostly housing due to the housing boom from 2002 to 2010 but it is envisioned as a mixed use, urban setting that will one day support 10,000 jobs. First floor retail is starting to fill in slowly.

Meanwhile land is being prepared for the next wave of private investment in the area. Phase II includes the anchor building for the new OHSU academic campus that legislators toured later that afternoon. The area will be served by a new light rail extension. A bridge to support the Portland-Milwaukie line is currently under construction.                                   

                                                                                             Photo by Sean Slone

Photos Courtesy: First Stop Portland (except where noted)

Above: Sen. Elsie Arntzen & Rep. Wayne Schmidt ride the Portland Aerial Tram

Above: L to R Sen. Tod Bowman, Schmidt & Bobby Combs watch the Portland Streetcar arrive; Sen. Gary Stanislawski, Bowman, Terry Todd, Sen. Nancy Todd, Sen. Thomas McGee watch Streetcar; Rep. Judy Clibborn boards Streetcar.

Above & Below: Policy Academy Attendees tour the new OHSU campus under construction.

Above: Policy Academy attendees including Sen. Pugh tour transit-oriented development in Portland's South Waterfront.

Above: Attendees listen as Julie Gustafson of Portland Streetcar, Inc. discusses the history and funding of the Streetcar during a tour of Portland's Pearl District.

Additional Resources

First Stop Portland

Portland Streetcar

Portland Aerial Tram


Oregon Health & Science University

JE Dunn Construction – OHSU/OUS Collaborative Life Sciences Building & Skourtes Tower

Portland Bureau of Transportation

Commissioner Steve Novick

Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium (OTREC)

Further Reading

"7 ways Portland is better than other cities--an outsider's perspective," UrbDeZine San Diego, July 27, 2013

“Construction half complete on TriMet’s Portland-Milwaukie line,” Progressive Railroading, July 26, 2013

“Measuring the Performance of Livability Programs,” Mineta Transportation Institute, July 2013

“Light rail: Blight or bliss? Neighborhoods near tracks have felt positive, negative effects,” The Columbian, June 11, 2013

“Tracking Transportation Project Outcomes: Light Rail Case Studies Suggest Path to Improving Planning,” Oregon Metro – Office of the Auditor, June 2013

“A Hopeful ‘Crossroads’ for Portland,” The Atlantic Cities, January 4, 2013