The same year Portland began implementing its urban growth boundary, Neil Goldschmidt became mayor. Goldschmidt quickly recognized that the land-use-transportation connection could be exploited to political ends, and this insight would make him the state’s largest powerbroker for decades to come.
In 1974, Goldschmidt canceled a major interstate freeway project
before it broke ground. Aside from the usual gripes about a freeway
reducing nearby property values, Congress had just passed a law allowing
federal highway funds to be used on capital improvement for public
transportation. More public transportation looked like a good way of
helping Portland stay within its urban growth boundary.
The problem was that the feds had allocated so much for the highway
project that the city couldn’t possibly absorb it all in buses.
Goldschmidt had to find an irrationally expensive new mode of public
transportation, and thus began liberal America’s love affair with “light
rail.” And light rail had another advantage over buses, namely that the
laying of tracks and the placement of stations allowed Goldschmidt even
more power to manipulate land use, making him a kingmaker among
developers. Naturally, Goldschmidt’s pioneering of a public works
project distinguished by its exorbitant cost earned him a job as Jimmy
Carter’s secretary of transportation.
Vaunted though it might be, Portland’s light rail system hasn’t been the
success its planners hoped. It’s called “light” rail not because the
trains are less heavy, but because it’s more lightly used by the public
than, say, New York’s subway or Washington, D.C.’s Metro. Over the
course of the 1980s, the city’s first light rail line was finally
completed, and the percentage of Portlanders using public transportation
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