Staff working on the Southwest Corridor Plan recommend removing from further consideration transit tunnels beneath Marquam Hill and Hillsdale in efforts to improve transportation in the southwest part of the Portland metropolitan region.
In a draft report released today, planners from the project partners also recommend delaying a decision on whether to keep studying a tunnel to provide direct light rail service to Portland Community College's Sylvania campus, saying they need to do more technical work and community outreach before deciding whether that option is viable.
Read the draft report
The recommendations will be considered by the Southwest Corridor Plan Steering Committee at its July 13 meeting. Southwest Corridor Plan staff are also seeking comments from the public via an online survey through June 26 and at an open house Wednesday, June 17 at Metro Regional Center.
Planners and the steering committee – made up of elected leaders from cities and counties in the Southwest Corridor, and representatives from Metro, TriMet and the Oregon Department of Transportation – are trying to refine options under consideration for connecting light rail or bus rapid transit from downtown Portland to Tigard and Tualatin.
Impacts, cost diminish Marquam Hill and Hillsdale tunnels
In short, planners say, the ends don't justify the means – or the money – for either a deep-bored light rail tunnel to serve Marquam Hill and Hillsdale, or a shallower tunnel that would just serve Hillsdale town center.
Substantial construction impacts on nearby neighborhoods and sensitive medical facilities at Oregon Health & Science University drove the recommendation to remove a Marquam Hill light rail tunnel from further consideration, Southwest Corridor Plan manager Chris Ford said.
"The vibration impacts to OHSU facilities, the physical damage to Duniway Park for the north portal construction site and the constant truck traffic over multiple years in Lair Hill and Hillsdale are major community costs," Ford said, "with only moderate gains in riders."
Ford said the large price tag of a Marquam Hill light rail tunnel – as much as $900 million in latest estimates – was also a concern. It could cost 35 to 46 percent more than a surface route with only an eight percent bump in total transit ridership, according to the report.
In their recommendation, planners acknowledge that they heard a lot of public support for directly serving Marquam Hill with light rail. But they maintain that light rail or bus rapid transit on SW Barbur Blvd. or Naito Parkway, with elevators or escalators connecting to OHSU, would provide improved service to Marquam Hill with fewer neighborhood impacts and at a lower cost.
A surface route, Ford said, would also improve transportation safety in South Portland and along Barbur, including adding new bike and pedestrian infrastructure at two notorious bridges along a wooded stretch of the road. Such a route would be within walking distance of high-density South Waterfront, where OHSU is building new facilities.
OHSU officials have said they don't want to be bypassed by high capacity transit, but have declined to say whether they'd insist on a tunnel. "As we grow, it's essential that we continue to have excellent [transit] service," OHSU associate vice president Brian Newman said in April. "That doesn't necessarily mean a tunnel, but it does mean that the project needs to serve Marquam Hill and South Waterfront."
A tunnel to serve Hillsdale alone would be shorter and shallower, and could work with either light rail or bus rapid transit.
But that tunnel option would actually result in fewer new transit riders and a longer trip from Portland to Tualatin, according to planners' analysis, at a significantly higher price. Additionally, its prospect had raised significant community concerns about multiyear construction impacts in the Hillsdale business district, which would have to be torn up temporarily for the tunnel to be built.
Planners also note that Hillsdale is already well-served by frequent local buses, and TriMet is planning improvements as part of its Southwest Service Enhancement Plan.
All that means a direct transit tunnel might not be worth the added cost of $230 million for light rail or $140 million for bus rapid transit. Planners suggest exploring whether local buses might be able to use any dedicated transitway that's built on Barbur or Naito from Hillsdale to downtown Portland.
More time sought to study PCC tunnel option
The costs and benefits of this tunnel are less straightforward, planners say. On the one hand, projections show it could substantially increase ridership by directly serving Portland Community College's largest campus, with over 32,000 students.The PCC Sylvania tunnel option would dig up SW 53rd Avenue, a partially unimproved residential street, to connect light rail from Barbur direct to campus, at an estimated cost of $244 million.
But local residents have been vocal in their concerns about the impacts of tunnel construction, which would potentially require relocation of several dozen residents in the Far Southwest neighborhood for at least a year.
Neighborhood chair Marcia Leslie said residents would present a petition to the steering committee calling for the option's immediate removal. She said the petition has "at least 60" signatures as of Friday. "I adore my neighborhood," said Kelly Knapp, a 10-year resident on 53rd Avenue, at a forum in Hillsdale last month. "I don't want to go anywhere."
But planners want more time to talk with local residents and to explore whether a light rail or bus rapid transit stop on Barbur could provide a viable alternative for serving PCC, particularly if shuttle buses or even a mechanized "people mover" could feasibly help bridge the half-mile distance to campus.
Planners also want to know more about how a light rail station might affect PCC's future development plans. College officials have been clear that they want to be served by the line, but the current campus master plan does not make clear what PCC would do in response to a light rail or bus rapid transit station on or near campus, Ford said.
"The college has been increasingly engaged in the project, and connecting to PCC is an important goal," Ford said. "But there are notable concerns about the impacts of a tunnel. Several more months would allow us more time to talk to the community and PCC and work to see if there are ways to reduce the impacts of tunnel construction."
Planners also recommend that a bus rapid transit option that would travel Southwest Capitol Highway and 49th Avenue directly to campus remain on the table for now as well.
October, December meetings to further refine options
If the steering committee approves rescheduling a decision on the PCC Sylvania tunnel, it would take the issue up again in October.
In December, the committee is expected to choose between light rail or bus rapid transit for the whole line between Portland and Tualatin, and consider which route options to keep studying in Tigard, Tualatin and Portland's Capitol Hill and Burlingame neighborhoods.
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 much more detailed, federally-mandated impact study before choosing a final route in 2018.
Learn more about the Southwest Corridor Plan