Light rail will not be tunneling under Marquam Hill and Hillsdale, the Southwest Corridor Plan steering committee decided today, unanimously accepting staff recommendations to remove those options from further consideration for a high capacity transit line between Portland and Tualatin.
Meeting at Metro Regional Center, the committee also agreed with staff recommendations to continue studying a shorter tunnel option to serve Portland Community College's Sylvania campus, at least until October.
The decisions by the steering committee – made up of elected leaders from seven cities, Washington County and the Metro Council, plus top leaders from TriMet and the Oregon Department of Transportation – reflect a concern that the costs, risks and impacts of a tunnel beneath the medical complex atop Marquam Hill or the nearby neighborhood of Hillsdale were not matched by a sufficient increase in transit ridership.
They are also in agreement with most of the public comment received since the draft staff recommendations were released on June 12.
Related: Southwest Corridor staff recommend dropping Marquam Hill/Hillsdale transit tunnels, delaying Sylvania tunnel decision
Yet committee members were quick to point out that they did not mean leaving Marquam Hill – home to the main Oregon Health and Science University campus, several hospitals and numerous other clinics – entirely bypassed by new high capacity transit. Several members emphasized that a very high quality connection up the hill from a surface station on Barbur Boulevard or Naito Parkway would be crucial to the project's success.
"My support comes from the assurance that we can do a bang-up job of that connection," said Metro Councilor Bob Stacey, who represents Southwest Portland and is also co-chair of the Southwest Corridor steering committee.
Project manager Chris Ford said only preliminary concepts, such as escalators or elevators, had been drawn up at this point for what that might look like, but expressed confidence that a strong solution will be found.
Durham Mayor Gery Schirado said a surface alignment would avoid serious construction impacts to sensitive facilities on the hill. "In my career I've spent a good amount of time on Marquam Hill," he said. "I cannot conceive of OHSU, Casey (Eye Institute), the VA and Shriners hospitals delivering on their mission with three years of construction activity going on up there."
"I think we have to concentrate more on how we serve activity in South Waterfront," Schirado added, noting that's where a lot of OHSU's future expansion is planned.
TriMet executive director Neil McFarlane also noted that with plans to expand local bus service through his agency's Southwest Service Enhancement Plan, Marquam Hill and Hillsdale will continue to be very well served with transit, even if light rail or bus rapid transit stick to a route at the bottom of the hill.
Tigard Mayor John Cook said keeping light rail or bus rapid transit on Barbur Boulevard or Naito Parkway upheld the original vision of the Southwest Corridor Plan as building off local plans, including the Barbur Concept Plan, a land use and transportation vision adopted by the Portland City Council in 2013.
"We put all those (local plans) together," Cook said. "What these recommendations so far are doing is continuing that mission."
Cook's comments drew agreement from Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick, who noted that a Barbur or Naito alignment could help "reconnect neighborhoods" in South Portland.
Work remains on PCC tunnel question, Tigard and Tualatin
One of the questions about whether a PCC Sylvania tunnel is worth the community and fiscal costs – estimated at around $244 million – has revolved around the college's plans for future development. College officials have been clear that they want better transit service, but an existing campus master plan makes no mention of a potential high capacity transit station near campus.
Related: Serving Sylvania: more tough choices for Southwest Corridor Plan
PCC bond program director Linda Degman said a special committee at the college is looking at how its future development could support potential front-door service to campus, whether via a 53rd Avenue tunnel or bus rapid transit on Southwest Capitol Highway and 49th Avenue.
The college hopes to come up with a vision by early fall that could help the Southwest Corridor steering committee decide whether to keep the tunnel on the table in October. "We're doing a mini master planning process," Degman said.
Between now and the fall, Southwest Corridor staff also plan to talk with residents near the potential tunnel alignment, beneath a residential and partially unpaved section of Southwest 53rd Avenue.
Several nearby residents offered differing opinions in testimony Monday.
Far Southwest neighborhood chair Marcia Leslie expressed dismay that the tunnel option wasn't already being removed from the table. "We had hoped the 53rd Avenue tunnel would be voted out of consideration today, but we will start the next phase of efforts to remove it," she said.
But Morgan Thiers, a teenager who lives near the potential tunnel alingment, said the long-term benefits would outweigh the costs. "We need to make some sacrificies, which might be one or two years of disruptions," he said. "But I'm fine with that because I think once all of that is over, the rewards will be much bigger."
Thiers' father, Paul, agreed. "I hope that people whose lives will be disrupted will be compensated as robustly as possible," he said. "But ten years from now we will not regret having this (transit) line in our neighborhood."
In addition to gathering more research on the PCC Sylvania tunnel option, Southwest Corridor planners will now shift to engagement and analysis of remaining transit options in Tigard and Tualatin, and to the broader question of whether light rail or bus rapid transit is the preferred mode for the overall line. The steering committee will consider those questions in December.
Planners hope to identify a Preferred Package with a short list of high capacity transit route options, along with supportive roadway, local bus, bike and walking improvements, by spring 2016. The project would then enter a more detailed, federally-mandated impact study before choosing a final route in 2018.
Learn more about the Southwest Corridor Plan