Mary Fetsch, a spokeswoman for TriMet, the authority that operates most public transit in Portland, says whole neighborhoods have developed around light rail stops there, yielding billions of dollars in new growth. Portland also benefits from tourists who come from around the world to admire its transit system.
(For a closer example of the difference that transit can make, consider how the mid-’80s introduction of a trolley stop in the Davis Square section of Somerville, Massachusetts, helped transform the area from something of a backwater to a hip and desirable neighborhood.)
TriMet covers its tri-county area with 93 bus lines and 45 miles of light rail. Fetsch says 70 percent of TriMet’s uses are “choice riders,” meaning they have a car at home, or choose not to own one, because they would rather use public transit.
The environmental enthusiasm of the Pacific Northwest may be a key part of Portland’s forward-looking transit. After all, Fetsch says, it was public protest over the construc-tion of a new highway that led to the creation of Portland’s first light rail line in 1986, with money originally meant for the highway.
The federal government has contributed well over 50 percent of the money for Portland’s projects, but public and local support has also been critical, Fetsch says. “There’s no one cookie-cutter way of getting there,” she says, noting that every project has had a different funding mix.
Portland’s innovative streetcar line, for example, which uses eight miles of track to connect the city center with areas once marked by vacant properties, was made possible largely by investment from local businesses. The City of Portland covered about a third of the $100 million cost, in part with money raised by increasing parking rates at city-owned garages. The project, about equal in cost to RIPTA’s annual budget, also utilized tax incremental financing, and regional, state, and federal money.
The streetcar line has since been credited with accomplish its goal: enhancing the appeal of condos and office space in the formerly blighted areas it covers.
The streetcar trend is catching on nationwide, as rising concerns about global warming have sparked interest in cutting commuting times and enabling people to work closer to where they reside. Almost 50 US cities either boast at least one streetcar line, or are planning to build one.
“Endurance is necessary,” notes Rick Gustafson, executive director of Portland’s Streetcar Inc., the private nonprofit contracted by the City of Portland to design, build, and run the streetcar. He notes that it took about 11 years to plan and build Portland’s line, which opened in 2001.
Yet 11 years would be rather speedy in Rhode Island’s transit timeline.
A downtown streetcar line, supported by the business sector, could be part of Providence’s future, says Mark Therrien, RIPTA’s assistant general manager of development and planning, but it’s 20 to 30 years away from happening.Stuck in the status quo
In Rhode Island, those who pay an inkling of attention to public transit are frequently reminded of RIPTA’s ongoing budget woes and the seeming difficulty of moving forward.
As the Providence Journal reported on August 12, RIPTA’s projected $12 million budget deficit is only going to increase, presumably because diminished state gas tax receipts will continue to fall short of covering the authority’s fuel and operating costs.