Note: This story has been updated to reflect new information as of January 2016.
Update: new options to serve Sylvania
In spring 2016, the Southwest Corridor steering committee will consider several options for serving PCC Sylvania in addition to what's described in this story. Get the latest in these two documents:
The slopes of Mount Sylvania – an extinct volcano in parts of Southwest Portland and Lake Oswego – mean different things to different people.
For many residents, Mount Sylvania is a place of quiet living amid the shade of towering Douglas firs.
For leaders at Portland Community College – whose Sylvania campus covers 120 acres on the hill's western slopes – Mount Sylvania is a place of opportunity, serving the largest student body in the largest community college district in Oregon.
But for planners working on the Southwest Corridor Plan, Mount Sylvania represents another difficult decision about how to bring faster transit to an area with a lot of potential but a lot of constraints.
Come July, the Southwest Corridor Plan Steering Committee – elected and executive leaders from each of the plan's participating communities and agencies – must decide which options for serving Mount Sylvania seem more promising for further study: largely bypassing it with light rail or bus rapid transit on Barbur Boulevard, digging a light rail tunnel under a residential street or weaving bus rapid transit up Capitol Highway to the PCC campus.
Update, January 8, 2016: In July 2015, the steering committee chose to delay the Sylvania decision to keep studying options and considerations for serving the campus. The committee is now expected to decide which PCC service options to advance in spring 2016.
Update, April 8, 2016: On April 4, Southwest Corridor planners released their recommendations that the steering committee select light rail for the corridor and end study of a tunnel to PCC Sylvania, focusing instead on alternative surface options to improve access to the campus. The committee will decide when it meets May 9. Learn more
Quiet neighborhood, busy campus
Far Southwest Neighborhood Association chair Marcia Leslie has lived on Mount Sylvania for 38 years, watching it transform from a woodsy, unincorporated area with plenty of dirt roads, to a woodsy neighborhood inside Portland city limits, still with plenty of dirt roads but quite a few more houses.
Leslie laments some of the development that has happened, but to her and many of her neighbors, Far Southwest is still as quiet as they would like it -- even with those dirt streets. "We would like some measure of improved safety, but by and large [residents] like it the way it is," she said.
"It's almost really rural without being rural," Leslie said. "We're so close to so many amenities and yet it's quiet."
But, she said, it's also attracting a lot of new people – bringing welcome diversity but also concerns about lot-splitting, demolition and disruptive infill in some parts of the neighborhood.
And just beyond the edge of those quiet woods, a busy campus hums.
Thousands of students and staff come up the hill every weekday, filling most of the 2,400 parking spots that surround the campus academic core, which has almost a million square feet of buildings. Among the programs: engineering, nursing, auto repair instruction, English language instruction, and other classroom spaces.
More than 31,000 students take classes here, including many that aren't available at PCC's three other primary campuses. Many are first-generation college students, and the campus also has a strong international program.
"PCC is where the rubber meets the road, where you can really address issues of income mobility and social disparity. This is the game changer," said PCC Board Member Denise Frisbee on a recent tour of the campus.
Frisbee points to the campus as a hotbed of innovation and sustainability in PCC's system. She especially loves to show off the MakerSpace, where students use 3D printers and other gadgets to create interesting and useful products, like an artificial hand that captured the attention of local press last year.
The lab was created from extra space by faculty on a "shoestring budget," said MakerSpace coordinator and engineering instructor Gregg Meyer.
But it's proven enormously popular.
"Students have that mindset of 'I can do anything,'" Meyer said. "You come in here in the afternoon, the energy is just crazy."
There's a strong sense of opportunity in the air. But just what role the campus will play in the future of PCC is "evolving," said PCC bond program manager Linda Degman. A new district strategic plan, adopted last fall, seeks to build academic success in part by giving each campus more of a distinct identity, though that identity hasn't yet been determined.
"The campus has a lot of potential," Degman said.
So, the question for the Southwest Corridor is this: how can a new light rail or bus rapid transit line feed into this energy and build on potential without exposing unacceptable risks of cost, geology and neighborhood impacts?
Three options are on the table to try to achieve that balance.
53rd Avenue tunnel: More riders but more risks
Perhaps the most controversial option on the table would excavate Southwest 53rd Avenue, lay down light rail tracks and cover them over with a new street. The tunnel would provide direct service to PCC Sylvania before continuing down the hill to Tigard.
Update, January 2016 | As of October 2015, an additional tunnel option is under consideration for connecting light rail to PCC Sylvania: a deeper bored tunnel that would cause fewer impacts to the neighborhood around 53rd Avenue. Planners are also exploring other options, like new direct bus service. For more details, click this document. The steering commmittee will decide which options to advance in spring 2016.
Current projections suggest this option will substantially increase transit ridership to the college and on the line overall. But it also would cost $244 million more than light rail on Barbur alone and carries with it considerable geological risks, such as an exceptionally high water table in the area.
Perhaps most concerning to many: the tunnel would require relocating residents from several dozen homes during at least two years of construction.
At a May forum in nearby Hillsdale, several residents of 53rd Avenue and nearby streets voiced their disapproval of the tunnel concept.
TriMet capital projects manager Dave Unsworth assured forum attendees that the agency is experienced and fair in compensating property owners, businesses and residents who must be relocated – even temporarily – because of a transit project.
But Kelly Knapp – a 10-year resident on 53rd Avenue – remained bluntly opposed to a tunnel. "I adore my neighborhood," he said. "I love it. I don't want to go anywhere."
"It's alarming," said Ankesh Khadakia, who lives on a dead-end street off 53rd Avenue. Even with a house not right on the potential tunnel route, Khadakia said he is concerned about his foundation and access to his home, which would likely be impossible during construction. "I really don't want to move," he said. But Khadakia added that he would like to see some improvements for people walking and biking on 53rd, including better lighting.
George Vranas and Peter Johnson, who have lived nearby for five years and successfully pushed to have a Haines Street route removed from the table last year, said by phone that they understand why PCC wants direct service – but said the tunnel raised a lot of red flags for them, too.
"I think they (PCC) see this as part of their duty to serve the community. It's a growing community," Vranas said. "Ideally I would love to see light rail at PCC, but personally I cannot see part of our neighborhood and the people living in it destroyed because of a tunnel."
Johnson suggested Metro, TriMet and other partners engage in a "full diplomatic effort" to communicate with residents along 53rd if indeed the PCC tunnel is pursued any further.
"That means more than just saying, 'We'll buy you out,'" Vranas added.
Neighborhood chair Leslie said many in the neighborhood are signing a petition to ask the Southwest Corridor steering committee to remove it from further study in July. "It's a hot-button issue," she said.
Barbur option: an uphill climb
A second option would simply route bus rapid transit or light rail along Barbur Boulevard, low on the western flank of Mount Sylvania. This option would include a station at Barbur's intersection with 53rd Ave., a mostly desolate crossing anchored by a pair of strip clubs, a medical marijuana dispensary and several small office buildings. It's cheaper and slightly faster than other options and technically much simpler. It could also foster some welcome redevelopment of a blighted area, Leslie said.
But it's also a third of a mile from PCC's campus – an uphill walk without sidewalks on a street that is partially gravel. So this option would require redoing SW 53rd Avenue, adding sidewalks and bike facilities and possibly even stairs or ramps for some steep sections. Even with those improvements, whether many people would be willing to cover that distance is a concern.
"Ideally, we would have direct service to PCC," said Associated Students of PCC executive director David Betts, who thinks a stop at 53rd and Barbur is probably too far away to ask most students to walk. Analysis shows that few riders use the existing 12-Barbur stops at 53rd Avenue, compared to those who ride directly to campus on the 44-Capitol Highway, 78-Beaverton/Lake Oswego or one of PCC's intercampus shuttles.
Betts thought a Barbur alignment could work with a PCC shuttle connection from the Barbur Transit Center or 53rd Avenue. Although shuttles between the four PCC campuses are a big part of PCC Sylvania's transportation portfolio, with tens of thousands of rides annually, the college has not studied a shuttle option that would connect to a nearby transit station, Degman said.
Update, January 2016: At its Feb. 29 meeting, the steering committee will also consider options that could link more direct buses to the PCC campus from downtown Portland if light rail is chosen and a tunnel is not selected. For more details, read this document.
Capitol Hwy. bus rapid transit: middle option, maybe
A third option, for bus rapid transit only, could split the difference – but with its own tradeoffs. This route would run up four-lane SW Capitol Highway and 49th Avenue from Barbur, providing front-door service to PCC. This route costs about the same as bus rapid transit on Barbur alone, and direct-to-PCC service could be a big attraction, adding a couple thousand daily riders on the line over bus rapid transit on Barbur, according to current projections.
But this option adds 90 seconds each way to an overall bus rapid transit alignment from Portland to Tualatin. And it would require the plan's steering committee choosing bus rapid transit instead of light rail for the whole Southwest Corridor – because light rail couldn't take the steep grades to get up to PCC via this route.
That could have even bigger implications for ridership, potentially causing ridership on the whole transit line to drop by thousands. The steering committee won't make a final decision between bus rapid transit and light rail until December.
Leslie said she thought the Capitol Highway option was worth a close look – particularly if it could provide direct service to PCC Sylvania at a lower cost and with lower impacts than a light rail tunnel.
Yet Vranas and Johnson said they thought light rail was still the better choice – even if it bypassed PCC by using Barbur – because it's faster and enticing for more potential reiders. "I think a train bespeaks a modern, forward-looking system," Johnson said.
PCC plans undefined
Southwest Corridor planners might have an easier time justifying the costs of providing direct service to campus because of the potential for redevelopment on the acres of parking lots there. But PCC Sylvania is nearing the end of implementing its current master plan, as it wraps up a flurry of renovations funded by a bond voters passed in 2008.
Without a clear plan for future growth, PCC Sylvania and the Southwest Corridor find themselves in a classic chicken-and-egg situation, board member Frisbee said. "We can either say, 'Here are our plans and you build around those,' or 'Tell us what you can do and we can build around that,'" she said last week.
Either way, the master plan would need a major update, which could take a year or more.
Vranas and Johnson said they would support new academic buildings or athletic facilities on campus, but would likely draw the line at on-campus student housing. "They're generally good neighbors," Vranas said of PCC. "It's just that they are big and they will grow bigger."
'You have a way here'
Frisbee and other PCC officials clearly don't want to miss the train – or rapid bus – when it comes to this part of Southwest Corridor. Frisbee pointed to recent analyses that showed PCC needs to greatly reduce the number of car trips to its campuses in order to meet its sustainability goals.
"Accessibility is key to what we want to do [at PCC] – improving sustainability and reaching out to people to say, 'you have a way here,'" Betts said.
Roughly 60 percent of students drive to the Sylvania campus, where they pay $50 per term for a parking permit. One third take TriMet or one of the college's shuttles, though PCC students recently doubled their own transportation fees to be able to make more subsidized TriMet bus passes available.
If new high capacity transit doesn't directly serve PCC-Sylvania, a draft service enhancement plan from TriMet could also help. The draft plan, to be finalized this spring, would increase frequency on line 44-Capitol Highway, which serves PCC from downtown Portland via Hillsdale. The proposal would also extend the line's route south, providing new service Lake Grove and Bridgeport Village on every other trip.
Better transit could help connect the college's campuses and students with the opportunities of a broader region, Frisbee said. "As much as [the Southwest Corridor project] can do, we'd have more and more students here," she said.
"The role the community college plays in the regional economy is critical," Frisbee added. "So you come back to that question: How do we get students here, and how do we get them here in a way that can fit into their lives?"
When it meets in July spring 2016, the steering committee must balance that question with neighbors' concerns and the needs of travelers across a wide spectrum and long corridor.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the total area of parking lots at PCC Sylvania. This version has been corrected.