18 Sep

New bridge and light rail line mark Portland cool, not Portland creep

Some cities celebrate sports championships, or the arrival of a large new employer, or a warmly admired political leader getting acquitted.

Portland rejoices over mass transit.

As cause for jubilation, it’s right up there with zoning.

So Saturday, thousands of locals brought their bicycles, babies and tattoos to ride the new light rail Orange line across the new Tilikum Crossing. They stood, mostly, in jammed (but engagingly air-conditioned) MAX cars, looking out at street performers, food vendors, parking lots full of information booths and cheerful bridge pedestrians waving back. Portland had a clear first impression of Tillikum Crossing:

A bridge too fun.

Two high school girls took a bus from Troutdale to Gresham, rode the Blue line downtown, switched to the Orange line and got off at the bridge, because, why not? When the trains stopped at several stations, live music blasted through the opened doors. Packed tightly together in a way to bring joy to a TriMet accountant, riders – including those made up as zombies – were bubblingly cheerful, maneuvering around bicycles hanging from hooks and Fiat-sized baby carriages, marveling at a sidewalk Darth Vader on a unicycle playing bagpipes.

Off the trains, an unending stretch of white-tented volunteers, pop-up markets and local businesses reached out to the rails. Extending from downtown Portland to downtown Milwaukie was a five-mile-long street fair.

Different people, of course, have different ideas of what there is to celebrate. This was the line, after all, that at virtually the last minute, a new three-vote majority on the Clackamas County commission did everything but lie down on the tracks to try to stop, in fear of “Portland Creep.” Saturday afternoon indeed offered various signs of how the line might change the territory it was covering, notably bilingual signs imploring “Look Both Ways,” omens of Orange line neighbors learning what pedestrians elsewhere have learned: A light rail train comes up on you quietly, and very hard.

There were other signs at the far end, such as an enterprising vendor selling $15 “Make Milwaukie Weird” T-shirts.
Portland creep.

So to speak.

But the new Orange line, and the new bridge it travels over, are also a direct expression of the newly emerging Portland, the city described in The New York Times Sunday – the day after the transit holiday – as “a bastion of good living, leisure and happy inebriation … one of our national capitals of cool.”
Because Cleveland doesn’t have a Darth Vader on a unicycle.

Portland has something else beside the street theatre and the “happy inebriation” (a phrase that should immediately appear on the city’s official stationery): It has major and expanding development along its growing light rail and streetcar lines, as people decide they want to live near the rails and the revelry. Reportedly, property values are already increasing along the system’s new tracks in southeast Portland and Clackamas. Benefits of proximity are likely to be widespread, extending from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry to the venerable strip club the Acropolis, right next door to a new station and likely at any moment to offer a transit rider discount.

Portland is also very fond of bridges, especially bridges that you can ride bicycles over. We like – we pay for the rights – to throw different colored lights on the Hawthorne Bridge; we commute across bridges in a steady pedestrian and two-wheeled stream (often stopping to marvel); and we’re eager to celebrate the new Sellwood Bridge, if it’s ever finished.

With the ripening of the Orange line, joining the Blue, Red, Yellow and Green lines, Portland is approaching a rail rainbow, with a track and trolley map looking hearteningly complicated, interconnecting the metropolitan area.
Except in one direction.

Riding over the new line and the bridge we have, you could also think of the bridge and line we’re not going to have. The line across to Vancouver, assumed to ultimately be part of the system since the first tracks were laid 30 years ago, may now have passed from possibility, overloaded by an impossibly convoluted process on one side and fears of Portland creep on the other. Now, the feds may have gotten off the paying-for-light-rail train for good.

Eventually, of course, the current bridge, although a valued memento of Woodrow Wilson, may just fall down, or the I-5 traffic across the river might just slow slightly from congested to motionless. But it seems less likely that we’ll have a new Purple line over a new bridge to Vancouver.

A shame, because that opening would be a real party.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 9/16/15.

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