Southwest Corridor: Spiff up or tear up Barbur?

The final design is still many years away

Adding light rail or bus rapid transit to already crowded portions of Southwest Barbur Boulevard are among the challenges facing Metro planners. Undated photo. (Jon House/Portland Tribune)
Adding light rail or bus rapid transit to already crowded portions of Southwest Barbur Boulevard in Portland, Ore., are among the challenges facing Metro planners. Undated photo. (Jon House/Portland Tribune)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The final design of a Southwest Corridor light-rail line from Portland to Tigard is still many years away, but one of the key, early questions to be answered is what to do with Barbur Boulevard.

Spiff it up? Or tear it apart and start over?

One potential design unveiled Monday at a meeting of the Southwest Corridor Plan Steering Committee put the train along Interstate 5, and the other would run it down the middle of Barbur.

The former proposal would leave Barbur essentially unchanged. The latter would see Barbur torn up and reimagined, with light-rail tracks running straight down the center of the street — as the MAX Yellow Line does today on North Interstate Avenue.

Decision-making remains well in the future. If all of the regional, state and federal funding should come together, the earliest a train might run from downtown Portland to Bridgeport Village is 2025. One estimate puts the price tag as high as $2.8 billion.

Barbur came of age in the 1920s and ’30s as Portland’s highway to southern destinations, according to Metro planner Matt Bihn. The construction of I-5 changed that role, although large stretches of Barbur remain “auto-only,” with intermittent sidewalks, few bike lanes and, in some places, insufficient width for bus stops.

In the reconfigured design, Barbur would become extremely wide, with sidewalks on both edges next to bike lanes and then two motorized traffic lanes in each direction. In between the traffic lanes would be two sets of light-rail tracks, with stations in the middle, where appropriate.

That alignment would mean replacing several smaller bridges, adding signals at intersections, enhancing pedestrian crossings and more. Also, the bridge taking 99W across I-5 would be completely reconstructed.

Should the light-rail line be placed adjacent to I-5, some of those fixes might still happen on Barbur. But, Bihn warned, it is unclear if Metro could leverage federal funding for any projects not immediately on a light-rail line. Without that, “we’d be keeping it close to what it is today,” he said.

The other big outstanding question revolves around how to get people to and from PCC Sylvania, the largest campus of the state’s largest community college district.

One proposal would be a fleet of shuttle buses running between the existing Barbur Transit Center and the campus, along Southwest G Street, Lesser Road and Haines Street. That could result in up to 18 more buses per hour during rush hour.

The more innovative proposal is an autonomous, electric shuttle van bopping back and forth along Southwest 53rd Avenue between a park-and-ride lot on Barbur and the campus. The 12-passenger cars would be self-running, electrical and could be “on call,” moving whenever riders need them and sitting when they don’t.

“This is just a concept,” Metro planner Chris Ford said. “We’re trying to think innovatively.”

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.