By Roland Chlapowski of Portland, Oregon. Roland is Senior Policy Director in the Office of Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams.
At around 9:30 pm Wednesday night, April 11, after City Council unanimously voted to advance the Burnside-Couch Streetcar Couplet, a project that has its origins in the formation of a 1999-2000 community-driven scoping process. There have been some changes to the project along the way, but this is now the second unanimous Council vote on the couplet concept (the first was in 2002). The project now has a streetcar component, which is new, but the underlying project is largely the same.
Where did this project come from?
In 1999, it was clear to transportation engineers that Burnside was failing and needed to be rebuilt. This meant that the foundation of the street was (and still is) broken and therefore that a simple repaving won’t do. When a street is failed, you have to rebuild it from the base up.
As is normal, the Portland Office of Transportation (PDOT) started a scoping process for the rebuild and began talking with the neighborhoods adjacent to Burnside about the project. It quickly became clear that Burnside was a failing street in more than one sense. Each and every Neighborhood Plan adopted by the abutting neighborhoods had a list of problems pertaining to Burnside.
To make a long story short, a Stakeholder Advisory Committee and Citizens’ Advisory Committee were formed that had representatives from each affected neighborhood (both East and West of the Willamette) and neighborhood business district, as well as representatives from the area’s social service agencies, the Bureau of Planning, Portland Development Commission, Regional Arts and Culture Council, and stakeholders.
After a long, multi-year process that identified the problems of Burnside, outlined aspirations for the street, and looked at many, many possibilities, the Stakeholder and Citizens’ Advisory Committees came to a consensus on the Burnside-Couch Couplet project. Only this project would allow for significantly wider sidewalks, slow down traffic, increase pedestrian safety, provide for parking, add left turns, and change the feel of the area.
Now, I will be the first to say that the project is not perfect. No project is. But, this was a project that was basically the culmination of a methodical exercise in community decision-making. The community looked at the trade-offs, made priorities, and came to a consensus in a very public--and very long--process.
Some people don’t like the downsides of the plan--namely,
that it will put traffic onto Couch. But, it is easier to point out a plan’s
problems than it is to actually develop a project.
There are many who imply that you can get all of the benefits of the Couplet without any of the downsides, but regardless of their sincerity, they are mistaken.
You have only so much right-of-way, and you have many competing needs. Once you decide to dedicate 10 feet for a traffic lane, you lose 10 feet for other opportunities: wide sidewalks, bioswales, street trees, benches, art, parking, and public spaces.
Why the Couplet is Good
First, I have to say that I am a real believer in the community decision-making process. I believe the onus is on naysayers to come up with an alternative plan and a very good reason why the years of work done by community members before should be thrown out.
That out of the way, there are real, tangible benefits
that only a Couplet can provide.
First, there is safety--particularly pedestrian safety.
This was a priority of the Stakeholder Advisory Committee from the beginning,
and is in their mission statement. Six of the 10 most dangerous intersections
for pedestrians are on Burnside--4 of them are on West Burnside.
By reducing Burnside from four lanes of traffic to just
two, adding traffic lights and crossing signals at each intersection, making
traffic one-way (which makes it easier for pedestrians to judge) and adding
on-street-parking (which provides a buffer between people and traffic), this
project significantly increases safety. No other project can come close.
This project also creates the least amount of vehicle
emissions and fuel consumption of any alternative. It adds a transit line that
has everything that it takes to be successful, and it has transfers with the
existing MAX at PGE Park, the new MAX on the Transit Mall, the existing
Streetcar at 10th near Powell’s, and the new Streetcar line that is being built
on MLK Ave. and Grand Avenue.
This project takes ROW from auto lanes and provides room
for significant new public spaces and plazas. Right now, there are many places
(like turning onto 10th from Eastbound Burnside) where you can take a left by
going right in what’s called a “jug-handle.” With the couplet, you can take
left turns without these, and therefore build new public places where there
weren’t any before.
The Burnside corridor currently creates about 31 million gallons of stormwater runoff every year. This goes into the combined sewer system –which means it gets mixed with raw sewage- which sometimes overflows into the Willamette. The Couplet literally frees up acres of land to dedicate to bioswales, the sustainable alternative to the sewer system.
And, everyone who drives will be happy to know that while
traffic speed will be slower, you will wait at red lights less, which means
both shorter travel times and slower traffic speeds can be realized. Also, with
the addition of left turn opportunities, Burnside isn’t the barrier it is
I think it is important to point out that except for those
who didn’t want traffic outside of the Catholic Church on upper Couch, about
half of the people who testified against the Couplet said they were against it
since this project takes away lanes of auto traffic, and is therefore designed
to gum up traffic as part of the City’s conspiracy to make it impossible to
The other half have said that this project, like all
couplets, is purely auto-centric and made to move traffic through to the
detriment of the community and pedestrians, pure and simple. Of course, both
views can’t be right. (They can both be wrong, however!)
Issues with the Couplet
Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons to be against the Couplet. But they can basically be boiled down to just a few.
First is: “Not in My Back Yard!” (NIMBY)--New condo
owners on the Brewery blocks that don’t like the idea of more traffic outside
their downtown condos on upper Couch, as well as parents of children at the
Catholic school on Couch and 17th who didn’t like the idea of more traffic in
their neck of the woods, either.
Second is a fear of Gentrification. That is truly
legitimate, and that’s why we’ve worked with the neighborhood associations
(like Old Town China Town) and social service agencies like Central City
Concern very closely (they all support this plan). We are going to make sure
that as this project unfolds in a way where we retain the character of
neighborhoods and make sure that we don’t drive low income people away with the
redevelopment. We’ve already started to talk about affordable housing goals
along the project area, despite being years away from groundbreaking.
The third is that it is gritty and they like it that way.
All I can say is that while that might be easy for some people to say, when you
have the most dangerous street in the city up for redesign and are making
decisions about its future, I don’t think you do so at the expense of
sacrificing people’s lives. That’s not responsible and good decision makers
can’t do that in good conscience.
When Sam inherited this project in 2004--when he was made transportation commissioner--we halted the process, despite a unanimous Council vote in 2002, because we wanted to investigate the concerns of the Brewery Blocks condo owners and the Bureau of Planning. We did additional independent analysis on transportation operations, urban design, cost-benefit analysis, and potential streetcar alignments.
We found that the concerns were based in fear, not in
fact. We decided to honor the community and move forward with the plan they
Many people are often afraid of change, but Portlanders have always been willing to undertake bold plans and projects in order to get to a better future. Building the East Bank Esplanade, closing a highway to make room for Waterfront Park, scrapping the Mt. Hood Freeway and building MAX Light Rail instead… even the tram--all of these things were done in the face of some people who decided things would be better if they stayed the way they were.... If we didn’t do this, however, Portland would not be the city it is today, and it would not be a leader in transportation and land-use planning.
This is bold plan, yes. But it is also a very, very good