Light rail: Blight or bliss?

Neighborhoods near tracks have felt positive, negative effects

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer


photoClick to enlarge
photoClick to enlarge

PORTLAND — Love it or hate it, light rail's tracks are firmly embedded in plans for the Columbia River Crossing. But what will that mean for Vancouver?

Opponents worry extending Portland's MAX light rail line to Clark College will import crime and blight into downtown Vancouver. Proponents see light rail as key to addressing long-term transportation needs.

Look at neighborhoods touched by Portland's 27-year-old light rail system and some trends appear clear: property values climb when trains arrive. Others are hazier: crime has fallen in the neighborhoods near MAX, but there's more crime on trains and at stations. And light rail is about more than just statistics. By spurring development of dense housing, transit brings renters into neighborhoods where homeowners have long dominated, boosts foot traffic on local streets, and changes the feel and composition of established communities.

Crime statistics

TriMet's crime statistics seem contradictory at first glance: criminal activity has been climbing on buses and trains, but it's down overall in the neighborhoods they serve. In part, that may be because of a rash of cell phone thefts on buses and trains. These crimes of opportunity constitute about 70 percent of all crimes on TriMet lines, and are largely responsible for the 12 percent rise in public transportation crime in 2011, according to the most recent figures. (TriMet's 2012 crime report is due out this month.)

In neighborhoods surrounding MAX, however, criminal activity and calls to police are down. Police received more than 37,000 calls from neighborhoods along North Interstate Avenue each year from 2000 through 2004. In 2005 and 2006, the first two years after the MAX Yellow Line began operating, the same neighborhoods averaged 36,000 calls to police. Since then, calls to police have dropped off even more, reaching roughly 27,000 by 2010, which is the most recent year available. At the same time, the population in these neighborhoods has climbed, with about 1,500 residents moving to North Portland neighborhoods served by the Yellow Line from 2000 to 2010, meaning that more people are making fewer police calls since light rail arrived.

Law enforcement officials in Oregon's Clackamas County, which received a MAX Green Line extension in 2009, are less sanguine about the crime connection. In a 2012 survey by the Oregon Department of Justice, a majority of Clackamas County officers and deputies said gang activity had climbed since the Green Line opened.

TriMet officials point out that this survey only measured opinions of crime, and that statistics measuring changes in gang activity don't exist.

Clackamas County Sheriff's Office data show that violent crime has been dropping in that county since the 1990s and continued to drop after the Green Line opened. Property crime dropped in 2009, the first year of Green Line operation, and then climbed in 2010, the most recent year available. Since the line started operating, more crime has been reported near transit stops, and less elsewhere in Clackamas County.

Randy Seifert, who has lived in his home near the Yellow Line since the 1970s, said it's unrealistic to blame or credit the MAX line for changes in criminal activity in North Portland. In the 1970s and '80s, he did not feel safe walking his neighborhood after dark. Today, that's changed. Seifert likes to sit on his front porch and marvel at the transformations he's seen along his street, which is two blocks from the Yellow Line. Crime is down, property values are up, and developers have torn down single-family homes on the block to make way for condos.

"But it's not the MAX that brought change — it's everything in general. Changes in society. Time," Seifert said.

Teri Wasco, manager of Ainsworth Wine & Gifts, moved to the neighborhood with her employer when it opened in its current Interstate Avenue location in mid-2004, one month after the Yellow Line debuted. Rents had been rising elsewhere in Portland, and the shop's current location was cheap by comparison.

Wasco believes MAX has been mostly good for business, and she does not worry about light rail's impact on crime in the neighborhood in general. But a light rail stop a few blocks from Ainsworth Wine & Gifts has become a popular gathering spot for teens -- some of whom could be up to no good, she said, though she added: "I've never felt unsafe."

Brian Renauer, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Research Center at Portland State University, said it's easy to cherry pick crime statistics to make arguments for or against light rail, but it's much harder to definitively predict how light rail might affect crime levels in Vancouver.

"Most criminal offenders do not travel very far from where they live, so it's unlikely that Vancouver is all of a sudden going to be drawing a bunch of criminal offenders from Portland to commit crimes," Renauer said. "However, it could create opportunities for people who are already living in the area, who are criminally prone."

Effect on property values

Oregon's example suggests that "crime train" fears are overblown, but how might a CRC MAX line affect property values and development in Vancouver neighborhoods?

In Portland, land use laws encourage development of high-density housing along transit lines. CRC advocates likewise support dense developments near light rail stops, and Vancouver zoning has for years encouraged multi-unit housing in the city's core.

Where light rail goes, high-density housing developments have consistently followed, as have other private investments. In the MAX Yellow Line's first five years, more than 50 new businesses opened along its length, according to TriMet figures. Over the same period, private investors spent $27 million and created 900 jobs along the Yellow Line.

TriMet officials have even loftier assessments of their older light-rail lines. They estimate that the Blue Line to Gresham, which was completed in the 1980s, has spurred $1.1 billion in development and construction of 5,759 housing units. Across its entire system, TriMet says $6 billion in private investment is linked to the MAX.

Property values have consistently climbed where light rail has been developed. A study by URS Corp., an engineering firm that has consulted for TriMet and the Portland Street Car, found that over a period of 10 years, houses near the MAX Blue Line climbed in value by 268 percent, while similar homes not near light right climbed in value by 99 percent.

But residents and business owners who see the changes that development can bring have mixed feelings about how light rail has altered their neighborhoods.

Wasco, the manager of Ainsworth Wine & Gifts, is watching eagerly as a new apartment complex goes up near her shop. She's hoping that housing density will boost foot traffic and strengthen the business' bottom line.

Down the street, Raschel Barton is less certain about the benefit of more apartments. As general manager and co-owner of Vicious Cycle motorcycle repair and supply shop, Barton said MAX is convenient for her customers. They can ride in, drop off a bike for maintenance, and then take the train home.

She's seen property values skyrocket and gentrification set in since cheap rent spurred her to move the business to its current location in 2004, the same year that the Yellow Line began to run. But she's heard speculation that high-density housing will bring more low-income people to the neighborhood, which could reverse some of the recent trend. "I don't know what to think," she said.

And Seifert, the longtime North Portland resident, is wistful about the transformations he has witnessed in recent years. As single-family houses on his block have been replaced by multi-unit condominiums, the makeup of the neighborhood has changed.

"There aren't any kids anymore," Siefert said. "Just a bunch of 20- and 30-somethings, and a few 50-somethings."

Most of the land within half of mile of Vancouver's four proposed stations fall within the city's central business district, where city codes encourage dense construction and allow for limited parking. According to estimates by the Federal Transit Administration, light rail in Vancouver could spur rapid changes to downtown, attracting 1,400 new residential units within 10 years. If Oregon's experience suggests anything, it's that if light rail arrives, it will carry new arrivals and change -- some welcome, some not -- to neighborhoods along the tracks.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian's former business and features editor and is currently a Portland-based freelance writer. She can be reached at