Bus rapid transit between Portland and Gresham glided forward Monday as the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project steering committee expressed unanimous support of moving into a more detailed design and engagement project phase.
At a church in East Portland just a block north of where the new rapid transit line will run on Division Street, the steering committee had just a few amendments to a Transit Action Plan that includes a range of actions for Metro and other project partners to work on as the project gets closer to reality.
Their approval essentially starts what’s expected to be a "project development" phase to develop a more finalized plan for the line's route, station locations and other operational details, like where the line could get its own lane or jumps at traffic signals.
"We've gone about as far as we can in the planning phase," said Metro Councilor Bob Stacey, who co-chairs the steering committee with Metro Councilor Shirley Craddick. "We have to get more technical information about potential ridership, traffic conflicts and community impacts from the design-level work in order to get any farther" with making final route choices.
In particular, the project still needs to select a final route for connecting between Powell Boulevard and Division Street in southeast Portland and for connecting downtown Gresham to Mount Hood Community College, as well as a route in downtown Portland.
Entering a project development phase means the project can begin to match local dollars spent now with future federal funding.
Project staff have emphasized that the project development will continue extensive public engagement already underway, increase the detail of project option design and analysis, and start development of a plan to fund construction. The steering committee would make a final recommendation on what's called a locally preferred alternative sometime next year, which would then be considered by the governing boards of each of the project partners, culminating with the Metro Council.
Amendments for equity, safety offered
In its discussion of the Transit Action Plan, the committee raised points similar to those they've been making from the Powell-Division project's outset: make sure the best transit line gets built, but also make sure to have meaningful policies in place to improve neighborhoods and overall safety along the line while limiting displacement due to rising housing costs.
"If we’re not acting now…if we’re waiting for construction, we’re too late," said steering committee member Trell Anderson, director of community development and housing with Catholic Charities. "I just want to advocate that we need to start now with all the equity tools."
To that end, the steering committee unanimously approved adding additional language about working between jurisdictions on equity strategies in the Corridor.
Under an amendment proposed by Portland Bureau of Transportation director Leah Treat, the committee also approved considering a federal pilot program called Ladders of Opportunity, which emphasizes using bus investments to connect lower-income people to jobs, education and workforce training. And Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon representative Raahi Reddy successfully proposed adding additional language about exploring community benefits agreements which could ensure that future development in the corridor benefit existing residents, people of color and lower-income people.
Finally, the committee supplemented bicycle and pedestrian safety actions in the Transit Action Plan by emphasizing all modes of transportation in the corridor, and directed planners to incorporate the East Metro Connections Plan and ongoing Outer Powell Safety Project into the plan.
A lot of the work on community development and stability must happen through local strategies and policies. Planners from Portland and Gresham presented draft action plans of their own Monday evening to show what they're thinking of implementing in neighborhoods along the corridor, particularly around key stations.
The cities developed their action plans separately, with funding from Metro's community planning and development grants program. But they shared similar themes heard from public engagement and technical analysis: find a way to help more people find and stay in quality housing, support small businesses and workforce development and improve safety for people walking and biking.
Some of the proposals in the action plans are physical, like better crosswalks or development focus areas, while many others are concerned with higher-level policies and programs.
Gresham planner Brian Martin told the committee that his team's analysis had shown that Gresham is relatively affordable when compared to the rest of the region. But there are cautionary signals on the horizon, he said, in rising housing costs and in the demographics of many Gresham residents.
"When we look at these things together – where there are rents going up and where there are people vulnerable to displacement, there are many areas in Gresham where this is true," Martin said, adding that this would be a concern even without a bus rapid transit line coming to town in the near future.
Martin and his Portland colleagues introduced an ambitious set of strategies to protect housing affordability and quality while intended to promote development people say they want to see without displacing people who currently live in the corridor.
East Portland Action Plan representative Kem Marks said he found Portland's action plan for East Portland underwhelming, however – particularly its vision of what development could occur at Division’s intersections with 122nd Avenue and 162nd Avenue. "I think the market is moving a lot faster than you guys think," he said.
Reached by phone later, Marks clarified that he is concerned this will lead to both lower-quality development and a higher risk of displacement. “Their timeframe is that this [development] isn’t going to happen for 10 years,” he said. “But the reality is it’s changing already.”
Each city's plan will continue to be refined before its respective city council considers adoption. Portland plans a public comment period for its plan later this year, planner Radcliffe Dacanay said.
Frameworks for biking, walking
The committee also heard about efforts to create a vision for safer bicycling and walking in the corridor, which project manager Brian Monberg said was underway with considerable support and assistance from planning and GIS students at Portland State University and Portland Community College as well as local staff and biking and walking safety advocates. The corridor's safety for biking has been in the news lately after two high-profile crashes at the intersection of Southeast 26th Avenue and Powell Boulevard, but Monberg noted the corridor has been of concern for a long time, with five of Portland's High Crash Corridors in the vicinity.
"A lot of infrastructure investment is needed to resolve some of the gaps in the bike and pedestrian network" in the Powell-Division corridor, Monberg told the committee.
He said project staff would continue developing a policy framework that would look for opportunities to either make some of those investments along with the transit project or leverage the project to find additional opportunities for funding and constructing better, more-connected bikeways, sidewalks and crosswalks in the corridor. The committee will review that framework at a future meeting, he said.
Positive signals from feds, TriMet says
Early in the meeting, TriMet general manager Neil McFarlane told fellow steering committee members he is getting positive signals from the federal officials that, local leaders hope, will eventually chip in as much as half of the project construction costs.
"We are continuing to hear very strong encouragement from [the Federal Transit Administration] to advance this project," McFarlane said, noting that had been a recurrent theme of a recent JPACT trip to Washington, where federal transportation officials had expressed enthusiasm for "the kinds of transformational transit projects we are so good at in this region."
The Powell-Division line, which could open as soon as 2020, would bring a new kind of transit to TriMet's portfolio. Another bus rapid transit line, called The Vine, is set to open in Clark County this summer, where it will be operated by C-TRAN. Eugene's Lane Transit also has a bus rapid transit system, called EmX.
Learn more about the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project