The Portland region's next light rail line is in the works. And it's going southwest, from downtown Portland to Tigard and Tualatin.
But there's a lot more than light rail ahead for this growing part of the region, where heavy traffic on the winding lanes of Interstate 5 is a near-daily ritual.
On June 13, leaders from the area will gather in Beaverton to talk about transportation investments that could make things better in the years ahead – from light rail to roadways, buses, sidewalks and trails.
Want to know what's up? Here's an overview of the Southwest Corridor Plan, from its roots to what happens next – and how you can be involved.
1. What (and where) is the Southwest Corridor?
Let's start with the beginnings. The Southwest Corridor is more of an idea than a specific line on the map.
The rough area includes parts of eight cities and all three of the region's main counties. Its neighborhoods range from historic grids populated over a century ago to residential subdivisions built in the last few years. It's got some of the region's most significant commercial, employment and educational centers. It's also an area with a lot of growth coming, both infill and in urban expansion areas in Tualatin, Tigard and Sherwood.
Much of the area's activity is focused on a spine extending from downtown Portland past Marquam Hill, sticking close to Interstate 5 and Southwest Barbur Boulevard all the way to Tigard and Tualatin. But the broader corridor also reaches well beyond this spine, to Hillsdale and Multnomah Village in Portland, Washington Square in Beaverton, the Kruse Way office district in Lake Oswego, the Tualatin-Sherwood Road industrial area and new residential neighborhoods in Sherwood.
As a planning effort, the Southwest Corridor Plan includes Metro, TriMet, Washington County, the Oregon Department of Transportation and the cities of Beaverton, Durham, King City, Portland, Sherwood, Tigard and Tualatin. The project is guided by a steering committee featuring top leaders from each of those agencies, most of them elected officials.
2. Why does it need a new transportation plan?
In a word: traffic.
Traffic's getting worse – and is bound to deteriorate further as the area grows. Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood have added a combined 5,000 people in the last five years. All three cities have urban growth boundary expansion areas they hope to develop to add even more homes. And they all have plans for new development in their downtowns and other centers. Meanwhile, Portland itself continues growing at an even faster clip – 8 percent in those same five years.
All those people need to go to work, school and other destinations – within the corridor and well beyond. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people and trucks from elsewhere funnel through this area's freeways and roads every day.
Amid all this traffic is a key gap in the region's rapid transit network. Envision the Portland transit system as a great wheel, with light rail lines as spokes. The Southwest Corridor is the missing spoke. Although buses serve the area, the 12-Barbur is the only frequent service line. When traffic is bad on Barbur or I-5 or any of the other major arterials in the area, people on buses using those roads are basically stuck along with everyone else.
Transit isn't the only thing lacking in the area. In much of the area, sidewalks and bike lanes abruptly end or don't exist, even on major streets like Southwest Capitol Highway, Barbur Boulevard and 72nd Avenue in Tigard. Crosswalks are few and far between on most major roads.
Trends like these hurt quality of life and business.
At its core, the Southwest Corridor Plan seeks to stem a decline in quality of life, meet growing demand and support the visions that communities in the corridor have to manage growth – whether Portland's goal of a safer and more welcoming Barbur Boulevard, Tigard's ideas for redevelopment in the Tigard Triangle and downtown, Tualatin's plan for development near Bridgeport Village or Sherwood's hopes to continue adding jobs and homes.
All those visions require investment. Investment is more likely with coordination. That's the purpose of the Southwest Corridor Plan.
3. What's in the Southwest Corridor Plan?
Roads, sidewalks, bikeways – there's a lot more to the plan than light rail.
In 2013, leaders adopted what they called a Shared Investment Strategy – a coordinated set of projects intended to make it safer and easier to walk, bike, drive and take transit in communities in the corridor. The list has scores of improvements proposed, including sidewalks, trails and bikeways, new road connections, and bus service improvements.
Some of the projects on the list will directly connect people to stations on the light rail line, while others are more indirectly related. Projects that directly link up could be eligible for federal funding as part of the light rail project. Others will be funded and built by their communities regardless of the light rail project.
Here's a sampling of what could be in store.
4. How did we get here?
The plan begins with communities' land use and transportation plans. Some of those efforts go back decades. They tend to share some common features: safe streets, transportation choices, employment growth and focusing growth in existing downtowns and along major corridors.
The Southwest Corridor Plan steering committee includes elected or executive representatives from each of the following:
- King City
- Washington County
- Metro Council
- Oregon Department of Transportation
See a current list of members
Staff from Metro, TriMet and other partners have been talking with the public about a coordinated Southwest Corridor Plan for more than five years. Late in 2011, the project's steering committee adopted a charter including key goals such as access to job and educational centers, mobility for all transportation modes, affordable living, environmental and personal health, and equity.
The steering committee's first big decision focused on things other than high capacity transit. In 2013, they adopted a final Shared Investment Strategy with a long list of parks, trails, sidewalks, buses and road improvements throughout the corridor.
Since then, the committee has been winnowing the options for high capacity transit, walking a balance between higher ridership, lower impacts and supporting local plans.
In 2013, they decided not to extend the line to Sherwood or King City, or to run it on Highway 99W south of Portland city limits. In 2014, they removed South Waterfront, a tunnel to Multnomah Village, a Hall Boulevard option between Tigard and Tualatin and several Southwest Portland options from further study. In 2015, they removed potential tunnels below Marquam Hill and Hillsdale. This year, they decided the line should end at Bridgeport Village and should not have a tunnel to Portland Community College-Sylvania.
And finally, last month, they chose light rail for the line, instead of bus rapid transit.
5. What don't we know yet?
In short, the Southwest Corridor Plan is taking shape: A 12-mile light rail line from downtown Portland to Bridgeport Village, via downtown Tigard, with dozens of walking, biking and roadway improvements nearby.
But look closer and there are a lot of decisions yet to be made. Among them:
- In South Portland, should the line user Barbur or Naito Parkway as it leaves the central city?
- In Southwest Portland, should the line keep to Barbur Boulevard or stick closer to Interstate 5?
- What's the best way to connect the Tigard Triangle to downtown Tigard?
- Should downtown Tigard be served by a branch line or should the line go directly through Tigard on its way to Bridgeport Village?
- Between Tigard and Bridgeport Village, should the line follow existing freight rail tracks or stick closer to I-5?
- Which of the sidewalk, bike and roadway projects are essential enough to the light rail line to be included as part of the transit project?
6. Why not just widen I-5?
First, it's expensive. In many places, the freeway's shoulders run right up to private property, so any widening project would involve buying a lot of people's land, even some buildings. Then, dozens of interchanges and bridges along the stretch would need to be replaced, both on I-5 and the streets and roads that cross it. A 2014 estimate for adding a lane to 7-mile Highway 217 suggested it could cost around $200 million a mile. It's unclear whether that per-mile estimate would be true for widening I-5, but consider this: There are 15 miles of I-5 from Tualatin to the Marquam Bridge, some of them through denser neighborhoods and more difficult terrain than along Highway 217's route.
And spending all that money on widening I-5 might not even help much with rush-hour traffic. Many backups through the Southwest Corridor – where there are generally three lanes in each direction – are due to bottlenecks and narrower stretches of freeway outside the corridor, like on the Marquam Bridge or in the Rose Quarter. Those backups would still extend into the corridor, as they do today. And studies show that often when a freeway is widened, more people use it and simply fill the lanes up – seldom does a freeway widening actually reduce congestion.
The plan will probably include several road improvements, including new road connections and a wider Tualatin-Sherwood Road. It also could include work to untangle the complex interchanges at the west end of the Ross Island Bridge, making it easier to drive between downtown Portland, southeast Portland, the South Waterfront, Lake Oswego and Milwaukie.
So how could light rail help? Projections show light rail could be carrying a quarter as many commuters as I-5 – a lot like another freeway lane, but with a more reliable ride at all hours of the day. Also, the light rail project would complete sidewalks and bike lanes, and support more economic activity near stations.
7. Don't some cities have to vote?
Tigard, Tualatin and King City all have charters requiring their citizens to vote on some aspects of light rail within their city limits. But each city's charter differs slightly, the result of different wording on ballot measures their voters approved in special elections over the last few years.
Tigard has to vote to approve any light rail construction within its city limits. The Tigard City Council is expected to ask its voters' approval on the November 8, 2016 ballot.
Citizens of Tualatin and King City have to vote only if their cities contribute local funds to construction of a light rail line.
8. How will we pay for it?
That's still a big question. The light rail line is expected to cost around $2 billion; a more-certain number will come after the environmental review is complete.
The federal government could pay for as much as half of that total through competitive grants called New Starts. But the other half must come from local, regional and/or state sources.
Project partners are developing a funding plan. They might ask voters to approve a region-wide funding measure that could include other transportation projects. But those details aren't yet clear, and likely won't be until early 2018.
9. What happens now? How can I participate?
To choose the final route and related projects – and to be eligible for federal funding to build the line – the Southwest Corridor Plan will soon go through an extensive environmental review.
The review can take as long as 18 months. It closely examines the light rail line and associated projects' potential impacts on many issues, including air quality, traffic, businesses and properties, equity, transit ridership, wildlife habitat and more.
The product of the review, called a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, will describe those impacts – good and bad – and suggest actions to mitigate any negative effects.
You can decide what should go into the review – both the project options and the potential impacts that should be examined.
From Sept. 2 to Oct. 3, project staff are holding a 30-day engagement period called "scoping" to make those choices. They'll have events and online opportunities to submit your ideas. The steering committee will decide which things should go into the review this fall. Make sure you're signed up for updates from the plan so you know how to comment.
Sign up for project updates
In 2018, the steering committee will use the review's findings to decide on a final light rail route and list of walking, biking and roadway projects to submit for federal funding. That decision, called a Locally Preferred Alternative by planners, could come in spring 2018. Then planners complete a final review of environmental impacts and propose actions to mitigate any negative impacts. The final assessment will come in 2019. Construction could start in 2021.
This story has been updated to reflect the correct dates of the "scoping period."
10. When will I be able to take a MAX from Portland to Bridgeport Village? And what color will the line be?
You might be able to hop a MAX from downtown Portland to Bridgeport Village in 2025. As for the line's color: That's just one more thing we'll have to wait to find out.