A transit pioneer heads back to the future

Mass transit isn’t keeping up with the times, longtime critic says.

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In 1971 Jim Howell fought the proposed Mount Hood Freeway and won — by helping funnel money intended for the highway into the nation’s first light-rail system.

Forty years later, it’s deja vu for Howell, a fierce critic of the state’s plan to add a freeway lane near the Rose Quarter.

Oregon’s latest road-building push “sends us back to the ‘60s and undermines our climate-change strategy,” Howells says. “It doesn’t solve congestion problems.”Howell lbaker

A die-hard transit advocate, Howell, 83, doesn’t let MAX off the hook either.

“It’s becoming an outdated system,” he says. The steel bridge gate to downtown is a bottleneck, with four light rail lines slowing service to a street-car crawl.

“The only way to eliminate congestion is to get more people on transit,” says Howell. “And the only way to get more people on transit is to provide fast, frequent service.”

In case you’re wondering, Howell has a multipronged plan to make that happen: a subway under the river, an elevated light rail line that bypasses downtown and speedier buses everywhere.

A former TriMet planner, Howell commands respect from state transportation leaders. But so far the powers that be aren’t heeding the call of a man who put Portland on the map as an urban mobility innovator.

“The same mentality isn’t there in the political leadership,” laments Howell. “We’re a lot more conservative than we were then. We could be bolder.”

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