Leadership Exchange 2010: Why they ride in Portland

One hundred and sixty of Denver’s best and brightest regional leaders from the private, public and nonprofit sectors participated in the 2010 city-to-city Leadership Exchange trip to Portland, Oregon. What a group and what an honor for a kid from the housing projects of the Southside of Chicago.

We descended on DIA around 11:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning and there was an air of excitement as trip delegates checked in at the Denver Metro Chamber table near the Southwest Airline ticket counter. With our flight not scheduled to depart until 1:45 p.m., many delegates’ first priority was to find out where they could sit and watch the first half of the Denver Broncos season opener. I was one of those delegates.

After boarding the flight and ending up in the dreaded middle seat, the learning adventure began while seated next to two great gentlemen who are changing Denver for the better and who were representative of all the delegates on the trip: movers, shakers and decision makers.

After arriving at the Portland Airport, I took on the mantle of a first-time visitor and looked to see how easy or difficult it would be to get to the Portland Airport Light Rail station. Signage was very good and our group had no problem finding our way to the TriMet Light Rail station (good signage is something that I will highly encourage when RTD and DIA look to implement the commuter rail line from DIA to downtown Denver). Though I knew the Denver RTD transit system was larger in many respects-operating budget, bus fleet, light rail fleet, service hours, etc.-I also knew that the Portland TriMet transit system had experienced more ridership than RTD, Denver. I wanted to know why, and it did not take me long to find out.

Our group boarded the Portland TriMet Light Rail and started our journey from the airport to the downtown Portland hotel. I have always thought that going by public transit is so much more fun and cheaper than a boring taxi ride. Once on the train, I struck up a conversation with a bike rider who brought his bike aboard the rail car. After he hung his bike on the train car hook, I asked him what he thought about the system and its operation.

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“Joe” was extremely knowledgeable about the Portland system and told me he thought the Portland rail system should provide for more bike-on-train storage. He was extremely knowledgeable in regard to transit and understood what I call “transit economics”-that is that transit is heavily subsidized and is highly dependent upon sales tax revenue or, in Portland’s case, payroll tax revenue to fund transit. Joe was also cognizant of what he saves (about $9,000 per year-the same as Denver’s average) by using public transportation. He also knew how development in and around several light rail stations had ignited the region’s economy and how rail had revitalized the area.

Later during the trip, I arranged a meeting with some gentlemen who are senior managers of the Portland transit agency. I wanted to know what the agency is doing to mitigate what every transit agency is experiencing-dwindling revenue, payroll/sales tax shortfalls and higher expenses including diesel fuel costs,. Yes, the Portland transit system has had to increase fares, reduce service and defer capital projects. However, some examples of what it has done well are:

• Since the build-out of its renaissance street car system, the Pearl Street District has seen $3 billion in investment flow into the area. The Pearl Street District has everything necessary to sustain a community: restaurants, affordable housing, laundromats, churches and community centers. According to planners, none of these developments would have been realized without the creative partnerships between multiple city agencies and innovative developers created by this 21st century streetcar neighborhood.

The streetcars, with their frequent stops, have integrated nicely into the urban fabric of the district. What was revealing was the admission by planners that they had overlooked the idea of building a school in the district. They did not think families would be interested in living in the highly urbanized district and admit that they underestimated the interest families would have in living there. What planners now realize is that they should have planned for a school. Families interested in moving to the area want to expose their young children to the urban environment.

• Portland transit officials made a concerted effort to educate the entire population, including school children, on the benefits of bicycling and riding public transportation. It is as close to a European way of life as I have seen in the United States. People in Portland ride public transportation in big numbers simply because they understand the benefits: the environment, decreasing dependency on foreign oil and money savings, to name a few.

• Their transit and city governing bodies have determined their definition of success in transit oriented communities (TOC). They have defined success as a walkable, livable and transit-laden half- mile area where people live, shop, eat and have fun. One example of TriMet’s emphasis in the TOC area was its recent purchase of a site that housed a rundown hotel. The agency purchased the site and turned it over to a developer, which in turn built a transit-oriented community. That area is now one of the most vital transit-oriented communities in the region.

• They created and implemented a comprehensive transportation vision for the entire region. This vision includes walking, bicycling and public transportation.

As we completed our trip and, yes, I ended up in the dreaded middle seat again, I could not help but think about the possibilities in the Denver metro area. If this powerful group can agree to persuade the public to complete the most transformative project facing the Denver metro area, FasTracks, we can truly transform the region.
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