Want to help East Multnomah County? Consider light rail on Stark Street.

By Duke Shepard of Portland, Oregon. Duke serves on the Mt. Hood Community College Board of Education representing portions of east Portland and Gresham.

As the recent legislative transportation package has highlighted, we have many competing choices and opportunities for infrastructure investment. For the Portland metropolitan region, this is illustrated in the updating of the Regional Transportation Plan. In April I participated in Metro's exercise for visioning potential light rail development across the region - my personal focus was on east Multnomah County ("East County Must Push for Future Light Rail Lines", Gresham Outlook).

While interesting, the designs struck me as somewhat "top down"; that is to say, the lines are drawn for east county from a distant view at Metro HQ, rather than from east county with a focus on our economic needs and opportunities, albeit within an appropriately regional context of growth management. The proposed lines are largely about moving people around the edges of the area, without regard to existing development patterns, redevelopment possibilities, or economic development. Importantly, the fact is that the current Burnside alignment - the first and oldest light-rail line - has not produced great economic results for most of east county; it's primary purpose was really to move people to and from downtown Portland. A recent Oregonian story further solidified my belief that, for east county, a new and different light-rail line plan should be considered, one that builds on and connects Mt. Hood Community College, existing industry, "shovel ready" industrial land, multiple office and retail development sites, local cities' efforts, and the economically challenged area of Rockwood to the benefit of each.

In short, it's all about Stark Street. Lets start at Mt. Hood Community College and move westward:

Mt. Hood Community College is east County's key educational asset (full disclosure, I'm on the MHCC board, but am speaking only for myself), a major employer, and an institution with a special connection to east County's communities and our identity, particularly for longtime residents. MHCC also has forty acres of designated "shovel ready" industrial land, 62.6 acres of Metro owned and protected natural area , and a "100% corner" capable of supporting office/retail development at Stark and 257th/Kane. Working against the college is that it is isolated by location (at the far edges of Gresham and Troutdale) and design: the college is set well back from the street with acres of asphalt, large earthen berms, and a concrete bunker style of construction. Most importantly, the transportation connections are exceedingly poor. Light rail should have had its terminus at the college from the get-go, and it has long been the desire of many to rectify that mistake. As it stands, MHCC is auto-heavy with bus service that is often inadequate for student needs. Traffic around the college is brutal.

Legacy Mt. Hood Medical Center is the only full service hospital in east county past 102nd avenue. Legacy Mt. Hood employs approximately 600 people and recently celebrated an expansion of its Emergency Department. It's located just a short walk from the college.

ON Semiconductor owns what used to be LSI Logic's fab and employs close to over 400 people. While the fab's address is on Glisan, it is easily accessible from Stark. Moreover, the real opportunity is the additional acreage still owned by LSI -- 250 acres of "shovel ready" land, designated as a "Strategic Investment Zone", and targeted by Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis for high quality job creation.

Microchip Inc. employs over 300 people in Gresham and is the area's other tree in the Silicon Forest. Years ago I was on the team (with lots of other people) that helped bring Microchip to Gresham to re-use the old Fujitsu fab. As we'd hoped, the micro controller segment of the market has proven less volatile than Fujitsu's product line, and the company has succeeded.

At multiple points between Kane and 190th, vacant lots and older buildings are for sale or lease, presenting a range of development possibilities.

Finally, we reach Rockwood, a community with serious needs and complex challenges - both human and physical. However, Rockwood also has the twin development assets of a voter approved Urban Renewal Area and the former Fred Meyer "triangle" site. As documented recently in the Gresham Outlook , this is a site that has proven very challenging, though not for a lack of effort or goodwill. In my view, a strengthened connection between Rockwood's future development and that of the rest of east county's assets and opportunities is the best bet for really making a difference. We need to connect this area to more jobs, more education, and more opportunity. Most importantly for this discussion, Rockwood also features a light rail stop.

All of the locations and economic assets I've listed are on Stark Street between Rockwood and MHCC, roughly between 181st and 257th/Kane street. What these locations lack is a purposeful vision of how the entire street connects them, rather than just running through or past them. It seems to me that, in the best case scenario, Metro, the east county cities, and Tri-Met should re-visit the current long-term plans for light rail extension and instead consider - in the near term - a spur from the Rockwood URA to MHCC.

This Stark Street spur would directly connect residents and potential development in Rockwood to some of east County's largest current and future employment centers. Moreover, it provides a direct link between development, employment, and education and begins to address the longstanding underachievement of the existing light-rail line.

At the very least, the following should be considered:

1) Pursue a designated Stark Street transportation investment between Rockwood's existing light rail station and MHCC, serving the employment centers and future developments in between. If the region is going to remain focused on light rail, then this connection should be a priority. However, if light rail is too expensive or difficult, there are other options that may be more cost effective while achieving the same ends, such as a Bus Rapid Transit line similar to the very successful EmX operating and continuing to build out in the Eugene-Springfield area, or possibly a Portland-style street car. Whatever it is, it should move to the head of the line, not tacked onto a plan for 30 years down the vision tunnel.

2) Start thinking of the Rockwood to MHCC section of Stark as a distinct, interconnected development corridor. There does not appear to be an plan that connects each of these individual assets and opportunities together. This could be as simple as branding and signage, or something bigger, but it should include a community engagement process with all of the interested residents, owners, businesses, and MHCC.

3) Leverage transit infrastructure to reconfigure the local view of MHCC from a spoke in east county's economic wheel to being the hub. While it's not an apples to apples comparison, the City of Portland has smartly linked its physical and economic development to PSU and (less smartly on the bio-tech pipe-dream, but I digress) OHSU. Certainly a community college is a different institution, but the range of current and potential offerings on the campus - and the vital connection to employers - is substantial. Besides, at one point PSU was simply the former Vanport College commuter school. Dedication, focused public policy (including rail/transit connections), and private sector demand have moved PSU to be more than it once was. The same can be true for MHCC. It is a unique east county institution that can be more relevant for more residents and businesses. Equally important is the demand-driven pressure this would put on MHCC to perform and evolve: if MHCC is expected to be a driver of the economy in a different manner than in previous decades, a different set of expectations for the college will emerge both on and off campus. The college will transform along with east County. A light-rail or other high volume transit line helps make this a reality by making the college more accessible, ultimately making the college a destination, rather than just a stop.

I hope that the willingness exists in east County and at Metro to look at a Stark Street spur option rather than adhering to the current light-rail maps. Looking decades out, a light-rail line to the 'Couv is a lot less useful to east County than would be a Stark Street spur. In the bigger picture for the Metro region, this spur would help to develop existing urbanized areas (perhaps in different ways than would otherwise occur) changing Metro's growth management choices on the east side and possibly relieving some amount of pressure on the Urban Growth Boundary.

It would be a shame to look back on Stark Street between Rockwood and MHCC 10 or 25 years from now (as we do with MHCC and the current light rail terminus) wishing we'd done something else and wondering why more progress wasn't made. I believe this kind of link presents the best hope for kick-starting and sustaining desperately needed economic opportunity and community enhancement in east County, while finally addressing some of the failures of the first light rail investment from the 1980's. Given federal funding cycles and the region's system of planning, time is of the essence.

  • Dan L. (unverified)

    I think Rep. Nick Kahl pointed this out to me last summer, but the idea of mass transit as development and neighborhood revitalization strategy didn't occur to anyone until the westside MAX alignment was being planned. Many of the stops on Burnside MAX alignment were built near busy intersections that have lots of traffic (traffic reduction being the primary goal), but transit planners didn't realize they were making a direct connection between high-density residential neighborhoods and commercial areas with nothing but liquor stores, parking lots, and payday loan centers. I don't think Gresham's quasi-nimby attitude back them it helped the situation at all, and the resentment towards TriMet and the MAX out there is still very potent.

    The regional planners have now figured out that light rail can either reduce auto congestion, or increase neighborhood traffic, but doing both is tricky. I'm in total agreement with your point though: a well-executed Stark St. transit and redevelopment plan and an overhaul of the Rockwood TC area is not hard, and it would go a long way to fixing the mistakes made on the Burnside MAX alignment. I think only after the current MAX line is made on-par with the rest of the system, that we should look at building a Hwy 30/northeast industrial-focused light rail spur.

  • Two Fat Tires and Bigger Balls (unverified)

    This is such a solid proposal, and would do so much real good in this neighborhood, that it will either be ignored or attacked by enviroterrorists like the "Amazing Bandwidth Eaters", Terry Parker and JK.

    The style guidelines for articicles should add a statement, to make your posting actionable! This is the kind of idea every single local, regardless of political stripe, will get behind, but few outside the area will give a damn about. That makes follow-up behavior very important. Propose some!

    The direct payoffs, payback and future profit from going all the way to Sandy would be staggering! This has legs; let's get it into the race!

  • mara (unverified)

    I can't speak to this proposal, but I can tell folks where the process is on updating Metro’s High Capacity Transit (HCT) Plan.

    JPACT* is scheduled to vote on the HCT Plan priorities on June 11, at a meeting from 7:30-9am at Metro. If JPACT passes the priorities, it would go to Metro soon thereafter.

    As Duke noted, there is no Stark Street alignment in the plan. The two Tier I (near-term) priorities recommended for JPACT approval are (1) a line going east from Portland to Gresham on or near Powell Blvd., and (2) a line going down Barbur/Hwy 99. There’s a Tier 3 priority that would go north-south from Gresham to Troutdale that would hit Mount Hood CC, but not the places between Rockwood and MHCC.

    You can find the JPACT agenda here, and from there you can link to the priority list and map on pages 19-20 in part 2 of the packet.

    Hope this is helpful – Mara CLF

    • JPACT is the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation, a committee made up of local elected officials and other government leaders in the Portland area. JPACT advises Metro, Portland metro area's regional government, on transportation issues. It's very influential, as transportation plans must pass through JPACT before going to Metro.
  • jamie (unverified)

    Two Fat Tires and Bigger Balls . . .it will either be ignored or attacked by enviroterrorists like the "Amazing Bandwidth Eaters", Terry Parker and JK. Well, Mr. Fat Tire, it has proven the most expensive way to move people in Portland. About the same as taxi fare.

    And its speed is about that of walking.

    It hogs a lane of traffic, causing congestion.

    It's only benefit is that it reduces imported oil by being powered by coal (which emits mercury, thorium and uranium into the air.)

    The only reason to build it is to feed money to developers to get them to build un-economic garbage, some of which money makes it back to the politicians' coffers.

  • Ms Mel Harmon (unverified)

    I'd suggest that we'd need a serious study on how much use such a spur line would truly get. People out here are wedded to their cars even when they have alternatives. And many, if not most, of the MHCC students that I've met are driving to/from work from MHCC or because they are coming from the South or areas not already served by MAX, that they wouldn't take MAX if it did run from Rockwood to MHCC. Those who do take MAX simply get off at the transit center in Gresham and grab the bus to the campus. It's not that far.

    It's an interesting idea, there just isn't enough data out there yet that I've seen to support it.I work two block North of Stark off 223rd and live 3 blocks south of Stark off 257th, directly across from the college and I've never heard anyone out here clamoring for MAX---more buses that can run more often, sure since they can be run in all directions, but MAX? Not so much. At this point, I'd say there are better places for MAX to go than down Stark Street.

    My two cents....

  • (Show?)

    Jamie -- Are you talking about streetcar or light rail? I've heard your arguments before about streetcar ("slower than walking!") but never about light rail.

    We'll start at baggage claim at PDX. I'll take the light rail. You walk. First one to Pioneer Courthouse Square wins. Loser buys the beer. You in?

  • (Show?)

    And by the way, the nonsense about the streetcar being slower than walking is that - nonsense.

    According to Google Maps, walking from the PSU Urban Center to NW 23rd and Marshall takes roughly 40 minutes.

    But according to TriMet, it would take about 26 minutes via streetcar.

    Now maybe you're a little faster walker, but not that much faster.

  • (Show?)

    I don't ride the bus because I frankly don't have that kind of time. MAX and street cars are both faster and you actually know exactly where each one is going and more or less when it will get there. When I am already near the MAX and need to go somewhere else close to it, I ride it.

    But without expansion to connect N-S routes or spurs like that proposed, MAX is sadly a novelty, and not a competitive transportation option for the vast majority of PDX residents who don't both live and work within walking distance of the line.

    Mel, I don't think we're "wedded" to our cars as much as we're chained to them. I loved the Metro when I lived in D.C. and I'd prefer to ride MAX if it actually went anywhere near where I generally need to go. MAX lines connecting Washington Square Mall and Clackamas Town Center would be an excellent next step IMO.

  • (Show?)

    p.s. the lack of parking around most MAX sites, e.g. Lloyd Center or Hollywood station, also discourages ridership. Where there is parking, if it costs more less the same to park and ride as it does to drive into town and park--why bother with the loss of time and convenience by not just driving into town?

    Here's how it works: If people can't park at a MAX station, it means they have to take the bus to get to the MAX--but once they're on the bus it's probably out of their way to get to a MAX station instead of going directly where they need to go--but the bus is so freakin' slow and unpredictable they decide to drive--but since they can't park near a MAX they drive their car into town, the mall, the zoo or wherever. This is why PDX isn't hitting the mass transit ridership numbers it could be with a more fully developed system.

  • jamie (unverified)

    Oops. I was talking of the streetcar.

    I had no idea anyone was so silly as to propose LRT on stark - I assumed it was Sam's fill Portland with streetcars to take us back to the 1920's plan.


  • Lisa Marie Morgan (unverified)

    I support this proposal whole heartedly. Where can I sign up to push this foward?

  • (Show?)

    Running buses more often would be nice. Last THursday, for instance, the only way I could get to the MAX in order to be downtown before 7 a.m. was to ride the #20 towards Beaverton and get off in Rockwood and wait there for the MAX. Needless to say, that was not going to happen. Normally I would ride the #20 to the Gresham Transit Center, which is less than 10 minutes away by bus. But because the line starts at the Beaverton Transit Center, the first bus doesn't arrive here until after 6 a.m. And for anyone who needs to be to work at 7 a.m. or before, that doesn't get you there on time.

    But I do know that a heck of a lot of students at MHCC ride the bus. I ride several times a week, and you can always tell when classes are about to start or have ended, as several buses around that time are standing room only.

    I talk to a lot of students at the college on the bus, and all of them say that them and their classmates wish the MAX came to the campus. Many bring their cars to campus because getting there by bus takes too long - but would switch to MAX if it were an option.

    It's been my experience that a lot of people are riding to/from the Gresham Transit Center MAX station. Extending it out to MHCC would sure make it easier to get places.

    But expanding MAX is only a piece of the puzzle. You still need to be able to get to the MAX (which for many people in east county is hard because of our limited # of bus routes). You also need to be able to get around town. It is ridiculous that outside of Rockwood that Burnside is completely unserved by bus. The closest you can get is where the #12 and #20 buses cross Burnside at Eastman and Division. Many of Gresham's businesses are located along Burnside, including one of the cheapest grocery stores in town (Winco).

    We desperately need more bus routes out here. Take a look at the service maps, and you'll find we don't have many routes, and about half of them are commuter routes (approx 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., M-F). We have the #4, #9, #12, #20, #77, and #80 (80 runs short hours on weekends) that run 7 days a week - that's it. Almost all of then run East-West, which makes getting around town very difficult.

    We really need to look at the entire system and see how the needs have changed over the years. Many of the county's poorest residents - and those least likely to have access to a car - have moved to eastern Portland and to cities like Gresham, yet the public transportation systems have not followed. My neighborhood, NE Gresham, is second only to Rockwood for the most households without a car. As a member of one of those households, I know just how difficult it is to just do the basics.

guest column

connect with blueoregon