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Portland enjoying success of light rail
by Ken Hoffman, Houston Chroncle, June 12, 2000

 
PORTLAND, Ore. -- As I scooted around the country, checking out cities that have light rail, I kept hearing the same thing from transit officials:
 
"Wait till you get to Portand. They're doing it right."
 
They were right about Portland doing it right.
 
Thirty years ago, downtown Portland was left for dead. There was no heartbeat. Traffic was at a standstill. Nobody could find a parking space. At 5 p.m., the place became a ghost town.
 
Sound familiar?
 
Then Portland decided to create -- and take -- the road less traveled.
 
The city invested in a massive 33-mile light rail project, stretching from Hillsboro in the west, and winding its way through downtown to Gresham in the east.
 
Portland also began thinking differently about downtown. They passed laws limiting the construction of parking garages. Businesses were restricted to one parking space for every four employees. Office buildings had to designate the first floor for retail stores and restaurants. Money that once went toward new road projects was directed to light rail.
 
They haven't had, or needed, any road construction downtown in 25 years. Man, how jealous are we?
 
The facts and figures of light rail's success in Portland are staggering.
 
Ridership on light rail has tripled since the first route opened in 1986. Sixty thousand people ride the train on a daily basis now. That's 37,500 fewer cars a day pouring into downtown, snarling rush-hour traffic and choking the air with unhealthy filth.
 
That's 1,700 tons of pollution a year not going up in smoke.
 
Since about 65 percent of a city's pollution problem is caused by gas engine exhaust, you literally can see the effect of light rail in Portland. There's no grimy haze clouding your view, itching your eyes and making your clothes stink.
 
Imagine that for Houston.
 
In Portland, three-quarters of the people on a train have cars at home. They take the train because it's convenient, it's clean and it's comfortable. And don't forget, there's no place to park, anyway.
 
The train cars are roomy, with 72 seats, including some that fold out during rush hour. Trains hit a top speed of 55 mph. The fare is $1.45 for most rides. You can purchase tickets from machines at all 50 stops along the route.
 
There are "Fare Inspectors" on board who check tickets. It's a $250 fine if you're caught trying to beat the system.
 
Some of the cars have several minilevels, like sunken living rooms. The only thing missing is shag carpeting and disco music.
 
Here's something neat: All rides within a central 300-square-block area of downtown Portland are free. So you can hop on and off, reading menus in restaurant windows. Downtown bars and eateries are thriving. It's fun just walking around, people-watching.
 
Not only downtown has benefited from light rail. More than $2.4 billion in commercial and residential development has occurred within walking distance of train stops since 1986.
 
Portland has an outdoor lifestyle. So the train cars are built with bicycle racks aboard. One drawback: I did notice some guys riding the train without shirts on. Come on, people.
 
The trains have horns that sound like the steamship in those Old Spice television commercials.
 
The day I got to Portland, the city was in mid-celebration of its annual Rose Festival. It's just like our Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, except without the livestock show and rodeo. OK, so it's nothing like the Rodeo.
 
Mostly the Rose Festival is a carnival along the banks of the Willamette River and a series of parades through downtown.
 
This is no ordinary carnival. It makes our rodeo midway look like a child's backyard birthday party. One ride, called the Ejector Seat, shoots you from 0 to 60 mph in 1 second --straight up. It's a giant slingshot producing four G's of acceleration force. It's $25 a ticket, not including Maalox.
 
There was a giant tent featuring all the stars of TV infomercials demonstrating their products.
 
The first infomercial I ever saw was for Liquid Lustre car polish about 15 years ago. At the Rose Festival I saw Pete Nathan, inventor of the super unbeatable incredible car polish, setting his own car hood on fire to show how Liquid Lustre protects the finish.
 
Granted, if your car is on fire, its shine is the least of your problems. But watching Nathan demonstrate Liquid Lustre was like watching Leonardo da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa.
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