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How do you solve a problem like Sylvania? The answer could be a tunnel to campus

SUBMITTED - A map of Southwest portland shows sevearl options for how a proposed high capacity transit line might serve PCC Sylvania, including a light rail tunnel underneath the campus.Planners of a proposed high capacity transit line through Portland into Tigard are facing an uphill climb. Literally.

This week, planners of the Southwest Corridor Plan, a years-long project that addresses transportation needs across the area, including plans to build either a MAX light rail line or Eugene-style rapid bus system (known as BRT) down Barbur Boulevard and into Tigard and Tualatin. But planners are having to ask tough questions about what to do with one of the most hard-to-reach stops along its path: PCC Sylvania.

For years the Portland Community College campus has been a focal point in the community, and with more students than any other PCC campus, it’s important that it be served by whatever mass transit option eventually comes through, planners agree.

But the campus sits atop Mt. Sylvania, a dormant volcano that is difficult to reach by light rail.

Light rail lines have trouble going uphill, planners told the SW Corridor's steering committee on Monday. That means the light rail line would either have to stop at the bottom of the hill — with riders forced to either walk the rest of the way to campus or take a bus to class — or build a costly tunnel that could displace people from their homes for years and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Members of the SW Corridor Plan steering committee — made up of mayors and city councilors from across Southeast Washington County, as well as Washington County commissioners, and representatives from the regional government, Metro, TriMet and the Oregon Department of Transportation — met on Monday, May 11, at the Tualatin Police Department to discuss the matter.

No decisions were reached on Monday, and the committee isn’t expected to decide anything about the fate of PCC Sylvania’s stop until July, but the meeting laid flat any notion that tunneling was cheaper or less intrusive than running a line down the center of the road.

“You may see increases in ridership (with the addition of a tunnel) but there are certainly are costs that come with it,” said David Unsworth, Senior Manager of Project Development at TriMet. “I think people may have thought, ‘Let’s do a tunnel because it will avoid impacts in those locations,’ but we wanted to make sure people understood that there are impacts with a tunnel. There are risks with a tunnel and there are costs with a tunnel.”

Expensive options

SUBMITTED - PCC Sylvania is difficult for a planned high capacity transit line to reach, planners say. A light rail line wont be able to climb the hill to reach campus, and a dedicated bus system would cut into traffic in the area.The cheapest option would be not to build a tunnel at all, Metro officials said.

If planners put the line’s PCC-area stop at the bottom of the hill, it will mean a half-mile uphill walk to campus for students. That’s far from ideal, say PCC officials, who are hoping for more direct access to a transit line.

“PCC would love to keep direct access to campus on the table,” said Linda Degman, the director of PCC’s bond program which oversees capital projects. “That creates huge opportunities of growth for us, because we will keep growing.”

That’s easier said than done, Metro planners said.

The problems are these: light rail trains can’t handle steep hills and would require a tunnel to access the PCC campus; a rapid bus line to the campus is easier, because BRT buses are better equipped to handle steep terrain, but would still require a dedicated lane of travel along the roadway, and rapid bus lines don’t serve as many riders as light rail.

“There are many ways to accommodate BRT on Capitol Highway,” said Brian Harper, a Metro planner. “But if we take out an existing lane, that will have an impact on traffic flow, going from two lanes down to one.”

From there, either a train or a rapid bus line would require a dedicated bridge across Interstate 5 into Tigard to resume its route.

A rapid bus system to campus would cost about $140 million, Metro officials estimate, far cheaper than cutting a tunnel for light rail, which could cost about $515 million.

“That’s adding about $244 million from the cost of just putting a stop on Barbur,” Harper said.

People in the way

A tunnel would also have significant impacts on local homes and businesses. Metro would likely have to purchase and demolish several homes along the tunnel’s path to make room for it, planners said.

According to a report by Metro staff about the tunneling option, “While the homes and other structures along the excavated street may not need to be disturbed during construction, access to those buildings can be expected to be precluded for two years or more. This impact would likely require full property acquisitions along much of the proposed tunnel alignment through the residential neighborhood.”

Whether or not a tunnel is built, TriMet general manager Neil McFarlane said that Sylvania plays an important role in the community and needs to have the best access possible for riders.

“Your client base is our client base,” McFarlane told Degman at the meeting. “No matter what, PCC needs, deserves and should get superb access to all of your campuses.”

July’s decision will be the first in a series expected through the end of the year that will finally answer which mode — light rail or BRT — will be put through to a series of in-depth studies.

The committee was supposed to have made that choice in 2013, but opted to delay a final decision between the two options until this year.

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