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Metro prioritizes Powell-Division transit

Agency lays plans to meet needs of future increased density


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - New apartments are increasing transit needs on Southeast Division but reducing the options for running a new high capacity line on it.The region’s first high-capacity transit line opened between Portland and Gresham in 1986. The newest one will open between Portland and Milwaukie in 2015. And the one after that also could operate between Portland and Gresham, if Metro planners have their way.

Metro, the elected regional government, was scheduled to take a major step toward fast-tracking a new high-capacity transit line between inner Southeast Portland and East Multnomah County this week. The Metro Council was expected to appoint a steering committee to guide the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project. The goal is to design a new line in 2015 and begin construction in 2018.

“We’re really looking at getting a project into development in the near term,” says Brian Monberg, Metro’s principal regional planner assigned to the project.

That’s sooner than expected for the Southwest Corridor Plan, which is farther along in the planning process. The proposed high-capacity line between Portland and Tualatin is not expected to be designed until 2017 at the earliest, and no date has been set for construction to begin.

A May 2014 ballot measure in Tigard could delay the plan even further. It would require a public vote on any new high-capacity transit line in the city.

Transportation planners from throughout the region discussed the Powell-Division project at Metro on Jan. 3. During a meeting of the Technical Policy Advisory Committee, they said it was being fast-tracked, in large part, because of other transportation plans in Portland and Gresham. The planners want to coordinate the line with those and not inadvertently preclude any options.

“The first rule is, do no harm,” says Lanie Smith, a planner with the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The eastside plan also is expected to move faster because many of the planners are leaning toward a bus rapid transit line, not light rail or streetcar. Although the decision won’t be made until March 2015, a bus rapid transit line can be built quicker and cheaper than a rail line. It only requires dedicated bus lanes, not in-ground rails and overhead wires.

Many other decisions remain to be made, however. The new line is expected to provide transit connections between the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, where TriMet is building a new transit bridge over the Willamette River, and such destinations east of downtown Gresham as Mt. Hood Community College, Legacy Mt. Hood Medical Center and the Vista Business Center being developed by Gresham and the Port of Portland. The exact route has yet to be determined, however.

Although both Southeast Division Street and Powell Boulevard run from Gresham to Portland, both have restrictions. Division narrows from four to two lanes as it heads to downtown Portland at Southeast 82nd Avenue. And the future of the narrow and underdeveloped stretch of Powell between Interstate 205 and Southeast 176th Avenue has yet to be determined.

Because of such issues, some have suggested running the line along Division from Gresham to Southeast 82nd Avenue, where it would jog south several blocks before continuing into inner Southeast Portland along Powell.

Idea has been germinating

The Powell-Division Transit and Development Project grew out of the High-Capacity Transit System Plan that was approved by the Metro Council in 2009. It identifies and prioritizes a number of potential future high-capacity transit corridors in the region, including both the Southwest Corridor and a corridor aligned with Division Street and Powell Boulevard through Multnomah County.

Metro was scheduled to appoint the steering committee for the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project on Jan. 14. The resolution authorizing the appointment says it will be co-chaired by Metro Councilor Bob Stacey, who represents parts of Portland, and Metro Councilor Shirley Craddick, who represents Gresham. Other members represent the cities of Portland and Gresham, the Oregon Legislature, the Oregon Department of Transportation, TriMet and Multnomah County.

Several community organizations also are represented on the steering committee. They include the Gresham Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, the Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Coalition, the East Portland Neighborhood Office, the Division-Midway Alliance, and the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. In addition, three advocacy groups are listed, including the East Metro Economic Alliance, the Audubon Society and Upstream Public Health. Also represented are three large transit users in the area, including Mt. Hood Community College, Portland Community College Southeast, and Catholic Charities, which operates a residential complex at 2740 S.E. Powell Blvd.

The inclusive membership list underscores the wide range of interests the plan aims to serve. Other popular destinations within the corridor include the current and planned OHSU buildings at South Waterfront, the Fred Meyer headquarters at 3800 S.E. 22nd Ave., three Multnomah County health centers, and six high schools — Cleveland, Franklin, David Douglas, Centennial, Gresham and Reynolds.

The term “development” in the plan’s title is significant. It means the new line is intended to encourage new development within the corridor. Some of the stations could be located at the centers first identified by Metro in 1995 in its 2040 Growth Concept. That is not a requirement if other locations seem more appropriate, however.

Money on the table

But the line also needs to be coordinated with other transportation plans that already are moving forward in the corridor. Although much has been made recently about the lack of sidewalks in certain parts of East Portland, the city has secured $47 million for transportation and safety improvements in the area since 2012.

The money includes $9 million in sidewalk, crosswalk, pedestrian, bicycle and bus stop improvements called for in the East Portland in Motion plan approved by the Portland City Council last September. Also included is $5 million approved by the 2013 Legislature for sidewalk and other improvements on Powell between I-205 and Southeast 176th Avenue, $8 million in sidewalk improvements funded by the city, and an additional $3.8 million in sidewalk improvements funded by the state.

In addition, the TriMet Board of Directors recently voted to restore bus service on routes in the area that were cut during the recession. They include frequent-service lines on Powell, Belmont and Hawthorne. TriMet is considering adding lines in coming years. The Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line that opens in 2015 will provide new MAX service to inner Southeast Portland neighborhoods. And TriMet is plannng to spend $12.3 million during the next five years to renovate eastside MAX stations between the Hollywood Transit Center in Portland and the Cleveland Avenue Station in Gresham.

Other eastside areas also have received attention in recent years. For example, Metro approved the East Metro Connections Plan in June 2012. It coordinates transportation planning among Gresham, Fairview, Wood Village, Troutdale, Pleasant Valley and the Springwater areas. The first system management and road improvement projects in the area are beginning to move through Metro’s transportation planning process.

Many challenges remain within the corridor, however. The 2013 Legislature approved $5 million for the ODOT to study alternatives for the most dangerous stretch of Powell. The I-205 to Southeast 176th project must be coordinated with the high-capacity transit plan to prevent the money from being wasted or preclude future improvements.

Inner Division is a special case. Its transit needs are growing exponentially because of a recent boom in apartment buildings, many with limited parking. Fourteen apartment buildings either have been recently completed or are under construction between Southeast 48th and 26th avenues. Such work will prevent that two-lane stretch of Division from being widened in the future to accommodate additional lanes for a new transit line. That stretch of Division is within walking distance of Powell, however.

Metro recently awarded Portland and Gresham a joint $681,000 grant to work together on a concept plan for the corridor. Portland also is looking at possible land-use changes in the corridor as part of its ongoing state-required comprehensive land-use plan update.