The Portland area has gotten lots of recognition over the years for its urban trails and green spaces. But have you ever tried to bike, or walk the full length of them?
There are often detours, or gaps, or premature endings.
The Trolley Trail from Gladstone to Milwaukie opened last month on an old streetcar line. Area resident, Mike Biscugla tried it for the first time one warm morning recently.
“Oh, we’re going to go up to Jennings, and maybe down to Gladstone. What is that, four, five miles, six miles.”
His grandsons, Austin, Aaron, and Andy Van Houte, came along for the ride.
Austin VanHoute: “I really like it because it’s really just like a straight shoot, and you can just cruise along it.”
Aaron Van Houte: “I really like to coast on a bike, and I haven’t done it in a while.”
Andy Van Houte: “I have not gone on a very flat road, for a long time.”
Michelle Healy is the deputy director of the North Clackamas Parks District. She says many locals were so excited about the new trail, they rode it a little early.
“Actually, once the first ribbon of asphalt was laid, people were on it. They were getting out there on their bikes. I got a call ‘There’s a parade of people on that trail’. But none of the other stuff was done – the traffic control at the intersections, and the shoulders weren’t completed. It was great that people were getting to use it, but then they’d call and say ‘This isn’t done yet’. And I’d have to say ‘Because it’s under construction still!’ ”
Maybe it’s no wonder locals were impatient. The Trolley Trail has been on various vision documents for 20 years.
Passenger trains used the line from the late 19th century until 1958.
Mel Huie is now a regional planner with Metro. But his parents rode the line north out of Gladstone.
“They just got married, and they took the Trolley Trail streetcar to downtown Portland to stay at the old Multnomah Hotel for their honeymoon. They didn’t have a car, it was their main way of getting from A to Z, and that was the way most people traveled on the streetcar – and that’s why there are all these houses close by.”
The first key step in turning the rail line into a trail came in 1995, when Metro-area voters approved a bond to buy natural areas.
Metro only works with “willing sellers.” By 2001, Union Pacific agreed to sell the trolley line to Metro.
But it still took another 11 years before the trail opened.
Huie says all the current residents of those homes built close to the old streetcar line had an interest in what would replace it.
“So the public process involved many, many meetings. That’s another reason it takes long. And using federal money, it has a lot of paperwork, but it was a good source that got this project done.
Metro’s bond money is an important funding source. But that money is to acquire property not to improve it. Federal funding can cover improvements, but it can take years to get money from the federal grant process.
The long-term plan is to build a 1275-mile network. At the current pace, that will take … forever.
“190 years to be more exact,” According to Mike Wetter. He’s with a group called the Intertwine Alliance.
He contends piecing together a network isn’t the best approach.
“You can think about it, if we built a freeway system this way. If we built a section in Bend, and built a section in Baker City, and a mile and a half in Ashland, and then a few miles north of Eugene, and then stepped back and said ‘Gosh, it’s not getting that much use’.”
Wetter’s group is looking to coordinate funding to move things along faster.
But some of the most intractable gaps aren’t due to funding problems.
The Springwater Trail is the region’s most popular trail, with more than 600,000 visits a year.
But, it has a gap close to a mile long.
Metro started to close that gap two years ago, when it bought about a half mile easement. But the improvements aren’t done.
Kathleen Brennan-Hunter says some problems are big — literally — like the transmission tower right next to the trail.
“You know, obviously it has to get moved, which ties into the grid, into the bigger system of electrical transmission. Those kinds of questions just take time.”
Like the Trolley Trail, the Springwater follows a rail line. But it’s an active rail line — including the stretch of trail Metro hasn’t bought.
All Brennan-Hunter would say is that Metro is interested in closing the gap.
Dick Samuels with the Oregon Pacific Railroad says, “It’s operating railroad property for us, there’s a siding in there that we use on a weekly basis. We feel the trail going to 13th Street is about as much as we’re willing to give up right now.”
Samuels says there are issues even with that stretch Metro acquired two years ago. Most of the Springwater Trail has a fence between the rail line and the trail. Not the new section.
“Without the fence, it’s a liability to us. We’re not willing to even talk about the section between 13th and 17th, until they make good on what they have.”
Metro says a fence will be part of trail construction, slated to start next year. And if Metro can’t buy the four-block gap, officials will create a permanent detour onto city streets.
Separating the trail and private property is often a concern for neighbors, too, according to Metro’s Kathleen Brennan-Hunter.
“One place we were working where there were those concerns, and there were agreements about fences — so they felt that barrier between the new park and the property owner. And then, within about six months, there was a new little gate in the fence.”
Property owners’ stray gates aside, putting up fences tends to be the responsibility of the local park provider — not Metro. And while Metro still has tens of millions of dollars in acquisition funds available, parks’ officials are feeling stretched.
Back on the Trolley Trail, Clackamas parks’ official, Michelle Healy, says there’s a limit to what her parks district can do.
“We feel like we’re reaching our capacity. It’s really exciting to be able to build new things, and we want to be able to build new things. But that tax base only goes so far.”
By the way, there’s a gap in the Trolley Trail, too. It’s also because of an active rail line — or a soon-to-be-active rail line. Michelle Healy says the trail intentionally left more than half a mile incomplete at the north end.
“There is a piece that’s not built right now which going to be built by TriMet, when they do the Portland-Milwaukie light rail project. We just couldn’t build the trail in the right place, where it wasn’t going to get torn up by the light rail project.”
The 1275-mile vision is likely decades away. And it’s not the only ambitious plan for new trails in western Oregon and Washington.
“There’s long-term plans to connect our region to Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood through existing trails. And we’re also looking at a vision to connect to the Pacific Ocean,” says Mel Huie.
At the same time, the non-profit Intertwine Alliance is keeping an eye on the past, as it looks to the future. One board member is researching native paths that pre-date the rail cars that some recent trails replaced.
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