The Hamiltonian reached out to our friends at Tri-Met, the agency that runs Portland's LRT lines to seek their insights and observations with respect to implementing LRT. As they have a vast amount of experience in implementing LRT, and as their system has been operational for a long time and continues to mature, we thought we'd check in with them. Enjoy our chat with David Unsworch, Director of Project Development and Permitting and Mary Fetsch, Chief Media Relations Officer.
(please note- the text is a transcript of a phone interview. Thus, please allow for truncated sentences. The transcript is verbatim and is not intended to be grammatically correct throughout, but reflects conversational tone.)
We've always heard that Portland is far ahead with LRT, in terms of understanding the technology and implementing it, and so what we really want to get at, is, what are the experiences you've had in terms of making it work, and has LRT met your expectations. More specifically, if you folks had any targets that you set, in terms of ridership, or profit, or whatever the indicators you might have set at the onset to determine has been successful; we're interested in understanding whether you met those targets and how did you measure the implementation's outcomes.
We have over 60 miles or light rail. We have a region that is growing and has grown around light rail,
and when we look at success for that, we look from a ridership standpoint. More than 100,000 people- 100,000 trips per day are being taken on light rail. And it's required us not to build as many freeways. Really about a third of the people coming into the downtown, from a workers standpoint, both on the east and west sides of downtown, are coming via our light rail system- our MAX system. So, it's the cost of not expanding those roadways.
We had a highway revolt that happened here in the 1970's where great swaths of land, schools, grocery stores , single family homes and businesses were being taken for building roadways, and this community said- stop- there's got to be a different way of getting people from A to B than just building freeways. So, let's fix some bottlenecks but let's invest in transit. By that, we also mean busses and commuter rail and certainly light rail.
We see our transit system, our light rail, and we have frequent service routes which are 15 minute or better all day long. Bus routes that carry most of our ridership between, that and light rail, they carry most of our ridership. And so when we look at our keys to success, we look at a vibrant downtown. So, the city of Portland, almost a 24 hour city, is a place where people pay to park on a Sunday. Which is kind of unheard of.
When we look at the investment that has been made by private industry around communities, you see about 13.2 billion dollars of real estate that has been invested adjacent to our stations since we decided to start building light rail. And that return on investment is going to keep giving and giving and giving. As we are a growing region, we are finding that it is getting more difficult to get people from A to B, in reliable travel times which, when you have a separate right of way, with something that you run on it, you have that reliability, that it's going to take you 30 minutes to get from A to B all the time, as opposed to some of our freeways where it may take you 15 minutes on one day but if you really need to plan to be there, you probably need to plan for 45 to 50 to 60 minutes to be able to get there if you have an appointment because the highways have become less reliant to change. They've been so congested, that a small fender bender will back things up for hours.
So, it's a key tool for getting people around the region. And what the region has done is it's made a plan of saying, here are key regional and town centres, and we're going to try to connect those with our best and highest quality transit we have. So, when we look at our indicators we look at are we doing the right thing with land use. And check, we are- the 13.2 billion dollars. And you can go and look at our stations and think, wow, some of them have done really well. And you can look at our ridership. For a city our size, we are punching way above our weight class. We're probably the 26th largest city in the United States, but our ridership per capita is probably around 9 or 10. So, we've done very well because we've done a good job of connecting the dots, making the stations convenient, safe and thinking about the investment from an urban design standpoint.
So we spent a lot of time thinking about how a station fits in with the fabric, the sidewalks and making sure that we connect the dots. By that I mean that we're connecting to where our baseball team plays, where our soccer team plays, where our football team plays, where there are civic institutions that we have lots of. And also, park n rides, and our stations are usually where we connect busses into it. So if you can't get that last mile, or the first mile..and so, in addition, we're making sure that- the last project we just opened up this last year, we spent 65 million dollars on bicycle and pedestrian improvements to make sure people can walk safely to the stations.
You've already answered this, but just to be clear. One of the question marks out here is whether the installation of light rail transit actually results in uplift in the communities. From your answer, it sounds like it has in your implementation. One of the questions out here is whether that's going to hold true, or whether there is an exaggeration about the effect that light rail has on surrounding communities and stations. It sounds as though you have been fairly successful out there.
I think we're seeing that around the United States. People want walkable communities. They want to get out of their cars. They want vital places. And you start making that by urban design and making great places. And you connect those with transit, so, absolutely.
We have a thing called tax increment financing, which basically is value capture. And so our economic partner, has put money into these projects because they see the value. The private industry sees the value of high capacity transit. We're going to bring people to their door. It's going to be there for a long time. And so that return on investment is not only being seen by the transit agency, but more importantly is being seen as a city building, a place building thing, that there's return on investment for the private side. So, we have a street car in town, and the Chair of the streetcar committee has said, to many people that have come hear, the day that we decided to put a streetcar hear, my property values went up three times. He will say that loudly and proudly and say, fine we're paying more taxes on it, it brings more customers here, it brings more value and I'm able to capture that in the future. So, it it's done right, if you pay attention to details, like urban design, how you're connecting the dots, I think it clearly pays off and we're seeing that across the United States where people are investing in better transit. It's not just the highway. People are now focussed on building their cities. And we're seeing a return to cities, in America. Which is really strange; it's been happening here in Portland for a long time. But part of that is based on, can you get around without your car? And part of that is reliable and understandable transit service.
When you folks first started implementing; one of things that we're obviously going to go through if we proceed, is that there are a lot of vendors on the routes that we are implementing on. Of course, there is concern around the disruption to business and that sort of thing. How did you folks handle this, as we would imagine that the vendors and businesses out there would have probably had similar concerns as you started out. How did you manage that?
We have probably what I would say is one of the best community involvement groups around. And what they pay attention to, and our contracting methods require a conduct of construction. So we do a CNGC type of contracting which really brings the general contractor in very early on and they understand what our agency is looking for when we are doing construction on the neighbourhood. So, we're not blocking driveways, we are doing things that...we put advertisements out - in some cases on interstate avenue, we actually had lunch busses that we brought people from other places into town and drop people off at those businesses, during the heavy construction periods. And we have our staff on the streets with a cell phone/pager 24 hours a day if there's a problem with the consruction in blocking or impacting their property- they're the go to person. They develop a personal relationship with the property owner or the business person, so they are the face of the project and they know who to go to the construction side and our side, to make sure that if there's a problem, that we find ways to alleviate that.
Back in the day, when we first started, we were in downtown Portland and we did not go curb to curb in the street, we went building front to building front. And we also did construction from one end of the heart of downtown to the other end, where the project was. So, we learned that was too hard on businesses. It made sense from a construction perspective, but not from a business and community support. So, as we've done these various expansion,s and we just finished our sixth segment that we've built over these 30 years, we've gotten smarter and better. Now, a bunch of them are curb to curb. We'll only do 3 to 4 block segments. So, we're in and out. And we talk with the vendor and say hey, what's your busy time? If you're a florist and we block your access on Valentine's day, that's not going to work. So, there's a sense of- we understand your business, we understand your high point times and wedding season, don't block the florist. So, we really get to know them. Know their business cycle and then work around, with the construction schedule. And with a CMGC kind of contract, you get that flexibility to say, you know what, we have to move this work to another section because we need to support the business in this environment at this time. So we have that flexibility. So it really is a commitment. We're here to be a good neighbour. So that's a real value. We've learned over the years how to do that. So we do it in small segments, we let people know that we are there to answer and respond if there are any issues.
Really it's a partnership with the contractor that's building it. We don't let them loose on the community. Our relationship is too important. We have to ask for our partner agencies to give us money. So the project that we just got done building, which is a 1.5 billion dollar project, Tri-Met put 4 cents on the dollar, into the capital cost of that, so we had our partners from the state, our partners from the region, our partners from the county and local jurisdictions. We actually even had private industry donating property to the project because they saw the value of it.
Was there a lot of expropriation that was needed?
The project that we just got done with, we had 245 million dollars worth of right of way acquisitions. We did that with what we call eminent domaine here. We're able to pay people for their property and require them to do that. We have that in our back pocket, but we really try to negotiate for a fair, what they see as more than a fair market value. So, we have had lots of disruption and we're very careful about how we do that. There are several rules. It's called the uniform relocation act, we have to follow as we go through that. It really protects the person's property, and if we have to take their property, we're doing it in a way that minimizes disruption to that person. That doesn't say it's not disruptive. It doesn't say it's not hard,but, in comparison, we're about 32 feet of width for our trackway, and you compare that to a roadway, one lane with a breakdown lane on each side, you're already at 24 feet, so we're minor in comparison to what happens to a roadway and we can move a lot of people in a rush hour in comparison to that same freeway lane.
We imagine you have many stations; some of which did very well, some of which did as expected and some of which may not have done as well as you had hoped. For the ones that did not do as well as you had hoped, is there anything about them that you can identify as being a flag or something that you would want to watch out for?
The first thing is, these are projects that are successful over generations. This isn't just a project for today or for the net five years. And there are areas in town that are more ready for development, verses others. So, take that into account and our original alignment, there are three stations adjacent to a freeway, and they are not at grade; they're at lower grade. So, when you think about it, if we had our druthers today and had the money, we would want it more connecting to the neighbourhood. So, there are things you learn as you do this over 30 years. Every line we do, we've learned more. As a principle, crime prevention through environmental design is really important. We have some park n rides that are absolutely cram full, and some that aren't very full. Now they may change over time. There are some stations where we are now seeing redevelopment 20 years, 30 years after we put in the line. Probably the biggest lesson I've learned, is as we build extensions to the line, be careful of how many stations you put in. The number of stations and the travel times...so, it's a combination of how often do you stop and how important the stations are. We basically have a very long line and to get from one end to the other takes you a long time. So, be careful about the number of stations you put in. I think you need to find a balance between what's there today, what can you imagine can be there in the future, what are great bus connections, ...but everybody wants a station and you need to be frugal with those as you look at that extension. Make sure you're smart about when you're putting those in. Because it's really about high capacity transit. It's not a bus. There's a tool for every kind of transit. This is one where you wouldn't want a light rail train stop two blocks away from the other. How do you use the tool for where you are today, but also for future land use development.
Special thanks to David and Mary for their time and expertise! To learn more about Portland's transit system, click here.