Portland’s new rail line shows the payoff when transit agencies hire bike planners

March 25, 2014

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer

Portland's $135 million bridge across the Willamette is the most visible of tens of millions of dollars in coming transit-funded bike improvements.

Headlines often predict that federal funding for public transit infrastructure is in long-term decline. They're probably right.

But a shrinking mountain is still much, much larger than a molehill.

When supporters of better biking can carve off just a sliver of the money and attention that local, state and federal governments dedicate to new transit projects, they can transform bike access in neighborhoods across the country.

Exhibit A: Portland, Ore., where the biking improvements bundled into a new 7.3-mile light rail project add up to one of the biggest urban bike projects in U.S. history, probably Portland's biggest single bicycle project ever.

In all, the agency says the Orange Line will include more than $40 million in biking and walking improvements.

By comparison, Portland's local funding for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure is just $1 million per year. In 2009, the city estimated that the replacement cost of its entire citywide bike network was $60 million.

"I've never heard anything comparable," said Roger Geller, Portland's bicycle planning coordinator, in an interview about the Orange Line plans. "This is going to change travel patterns in a really big way."

A TriMet rendering of the new OMSI MAX station, including new buffered and protected bike lanes and a bike box.

Within Portland city limits alone, the transit project will include:

  • nine new stretches of mixed-use path, including a mostly new off-road riverside loop
  • eight new bike-specific traffic signals
  • nine new bike boxes at intersections
  • eight streets with new conventional bike lanes
  • one new protected bike lane
  • one street with new advisory bike lanes, and
  • one street with new buffered bike lanes.

The new rail line will also offer 445 new bike parking spots, including two secure, caged "bike-and-ride" facilities with room for 70 bikes each.

And then there's the Orange Line's signature component: a new $135 million bridge across the downtown Willamette River that will include a 14-foot mixed-use path on each side of the rail tracks but no access for private cars.

"It’s likely that this (bicycling) investment is the largest in the U.S. related to a light rail project," said Mary Fetsch, a spokeswoman for Portland-area transit agency TriMet.

TriMet isn't the only agency wrapping major bike projects into much larger transit projects. Seattle's new protected bike lane on Broadway, which will be one of the nation's best when it fully opens this year, is being paid for as part of the city's $134 million First Hill Streetcar project, approved by voters as part of a regional transit funding ballot issue in 2008:

What made Portland's TriMet build so many bike improvements into its Orange Line plans?

"It wasn't someone's mandate," TriMet Active Transportation Planner Jeff Owen said. "Nobody told us we had to. But I think the project was a catalyst for thinking differently about how the connectivity to the stations could be improved."

Owen said he thinks TriMet managers were persuaded that people on bikes end up using a transit project whether the agency plans for them or not.

Planning the new bike network around a rail project in advance, Owen said, is cheaper than "having the project built and then realizing there's a gap."

Green bike lanes where TriMet's new rail line meets downtown Portland.

Liability played a role, too. In 2008, TriMet faced a $2 million lawsuit after one of its buses fatally collided with a 15-year-old boy. Within months, despite objections from its own operators, the transit agency was making dramatic improvements to bike crossings near its busiest station and had created a full-time position for Owen's predecessor, Colin Maher.

Six years later, Owen said he regularly fields calls from transit agencies considering adding a position like his to their own planning teams.

He tells them they should, of course.

"It's crucial to both the existing projects on the ground, projects that already exist, and also looking for those key opportunities in the planning stages," Owen said.

TriMet is already working with Portland's metropolitan planning agency, Metro, on a new high-capacity transit project that'd serve the city's southwest suburbs. This month, Metro Councilor Bob Stacey called it a golden opportunity to pay for the bike-friendly traffic signal changes that'd be required to add a protected bike lane, as well as a bus or rail line, to the relatively flat Southwest Barbur Boulevard.

"When you have a route like Barbur, which has a grade that's not even challenging to me at age 64, it's a wonderful opportunity to make it better and safer," Stacey said. "It's a great way to get to transit."

The Green Lane Project is a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. Story tip? Write michael@peopleforbikes.org.

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