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Light Rail Reaches Crossroads As Portland Takes Trains to Polls

In this Northwest city, the path to the future lies along light-rail lines. With one Metropolitan Area Transit (MAX) line in place, and another nearing completion, the city is planning a third $1.5 billion line to reduce the number of cars on the road.

With the federal government's approval last month of $768 million to develop new light-rail lines in 40 cities next year, urban centers from Seattle to Dallas are examining Portland's model for managing urban growth without building more freeways.

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But as the light-rail movement gathers steam, it's also drawing critics. Detractors say light rail is often inconveniently placed, doesn't clear car-choked freeways, or ease pollution. Proponents say it can foster development and that many cities have no other option. And even in Portland, where residents pride themselves on cutting edge environmentalism, light rail is contested enough to require a referendum next week.

"The simple reality is that most light-rail systems don't go where people want to," says Robert Cervero, an urban-planning professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Most light-rail lines shuttle suburban commuters downtown, but suburban job growth has nearly tripled in the last 20 years and people want to travel between suburbs. "Virtually none of these systems have that," says Professor Cervero.

Light rail is attractive to urban planners because it's cheaper than heavy rail, faster than buses, and can share streets with autos and pedestrians since it's electrically powered by overhead wires. But to keep costs down, planners tend to lay tracks on inexpensive land - usually undeveloped areas not easily accessible to commercial or residential areas. Add to this a 1993 survey that showed most existing light rail projects spend two or three times their budgets, and that riderships are half original projections. So why do cities still fight for light rail?

Because given the right factors, experts say, light rail can succeed. Cervero says the "hardware" - light rail - must be combined with the "software" of government policy that fosters private development.

Even proponents agree light rail alone isn't enough. In 1979, Portland's land-use planning council, Metro, adopted a state-wide mandate to contain development. Its new strategy is to focus high-density development along light-rail corridors. To date it has provided local governments with $2 million in regional and flexible federal funds to develop residences and stores. The legally binding funding is to ensure compatible pedestrian-friendly residential and commercial planning.

Light rail is backed by those who want a strong downtown core and is credited with playing a role in revitalizing Toronto, Canada and Portland. The city's MAX played a significant role in attracting $767 million in new downtown development, says G.B. Arrington, director of long-range planning at Portland's transit agency. "Downtown has actually grown in size and scale, not just in jobs," he avers.

PORTLAND'S light-rail ridership has risen and now accounts for up to 40 percent of rush-hour commuters. That's not enough to convince opponents of the new third line. Oregon Taxpayers United has forced next week's statewide referendum, claiming it's illegitimate for Metro to use state lottery revenues. "We're not antimass transit," says director Bill Sizemore. "We're just saying there's no way you can justify the enormous cost of this project based on ... very limited benefits.

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At more than $2.2 billion, Portland's three-tiered line is expensive. But light-rail proponents question whether Portland can afford not to build. Keith Bartholomew, lawyer for an Oregon advocacy group, estimates the light-rail alternative would mean developing 20,000 acres of farmland that would cost taxpayers billions in infrastructure costs and do little to ease the problem of freeway congestion.

Cervero says light rail needs time. Citing Stockholm and Copenhagen as cities that made the initial investment in light rail 50 years ago and now have very successful systems, he says judging what light rail can do for cities is like judging what an infant can do. "It's all about potential."

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