Jim Howell

Jim was an extraordinarily creative and dedicated proponent of better transportation choices. He had a profound influence on Portland’s roadway and public transit systems, described in part as follows:

Trained as an architect, he started his own firm, James M. Howell and Associates, with an office at NE Alberta and Grand. Professionally, he took on work as a neighborhood planner, designing Woodlawn Park for the Portland Development Commission’s Model Cities program. He also designed picnic shelters built at multiple Portland parks and did the site plan for a memorial fountain at Washington Park Rose Test Gardens.

His role as public advocate began when he helped organize demonstrations by “Riverfront for People” that ultimately led to removal of Harbor Drive, replaced by Tom McCall Waterfront Park. He then helped organize “Sensible Transportation Options for People” (STOP) that worked to stop the proposed Mt. Hood Freeway through southeast Portland.

After Portland’s bus system became publicly owned in 1969, he advocated for a “grid” redesign and co-founded “Citizens for Better Transit” advocating for “multi-destinational” transit, asking the Tri-Met (now TriMet) Board for better cross-town service, such as Line 72 Eighty-second Avenue, which is now the highest patronage bus route. Jim and fellow advocate Ray Polani connected with transit professionals who had distilled the essential elements of successful transit planning into a slide presentation, which Jim adapted to Portland. This became the basis of Citizens for Better Transit's advocacy to neighborhoods and local government. After legislation allowed transfer of federal funds from the now-defunct Mt. Hood freeway to transit alternatives, Jim served on the “Banfield Transitway Citizens Advisory Committee” for the project that eventually became the first MAX light rail line in Portland.

He joined “Oregon Association of Railway Passengers” which he later convinced to adopt the name "AORTA-Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates." In 1978 he went to work as a service planner at TriMet. He designed the west-side timed-transfer system, which sited transit centers at Cedar Hills, Beaverton, Tigard, and Washington Square, and worked on the Central East-side Transit Improvement Plan (CETIP) that rationalized east-side bus service into more of a grid system, designed to work with the new MAX line that was by then under construction. See Human Transit for details.

Continuing advocacy with AORTA, he fought the planned widening of McLoughlin Boulevard, and recommended a light rail alternative. He proposed repurposing Memorial Coliseum as a multi-modal intercity transportation center. In 1984, he co-founded “The Beach Bus” to take over Greyhound bus service between Portland and Tillamook following deregulation of intercity bus service nationwide. After adding a second round trip with service up the coast to Seaside, he and his partner sold the business in 1990 to a Greyhound franchisee. While doubling the amount of service, they carried four times the riders that Greyhound had, validating Jim’s often-stated belief that better service is the key to higher ridership.

He helped form the Transit Riders Association. He helped opponents of the now-defunct “West-side Bypass” revive STOP. He pushed for a tunnel alternative for the western extension of the original MAX line. TriMet eventually chose a tunnel over a surface alignment, albeit not the tunnel route Jim had proposed. He worked with “River Front for People II” to push for removal of I-5 from the east bank waterfront and helped form “Citizens Concerned about Freeway Expansion” opposing the East Marquam Interchange Ramps Project. He opposed the Water Avenue Ramp, a southbound ramp to I-5 that would have swooped out over the East Bank Esplanade. Parts of the interchange were built, but not the Water Avenue Ramp.

He purchased a 1950’s era self-propelled rail passenger car (Budd Rail Diesel Car) and restored it to operability, then leased it to the Port of Tillamook Bay Railroad for excursion service. He eventually sold it to the Port after TriMet rejected an offer for use on its WES commuter rail service. He proposed an alternative to the MLK/Grand viaduct over the UP Railroad, and advocated for a downtown subway as an alternative to the surface reconstruction of the Transit Mall that placed the MAX Green Line on the surface. He designed and built a station shelter at the northern extension of the Willamette Shore Trolley, later moved south to Bancroft Street.

He did volunteer transit analysis for the Rosewood Initiative and East Portland Action Plan and bird-dogged the Columbia River Crossing (CRC). He proposed a lower-cost “Common Sense Alternative” to the CRC. He renewed his advocacy for better alternatives when the CRC was revived as the “Interstate Bridge Replacement” project. He worked with Bus Riders Unite! (BRU) when it was formed, and continued until his death.

Jim urged TriMet to consider putting light rail in a tunnel to bypass the slow slog that Blue Line MAX riders experience downtown. He also proposed an east-side light rail bypass of downtown between the Rose Quarter and OMSI. He urged Metro to consider a higher-speed tunnel as an alternative to a slow Barbur Boulevard alignment for the Southwest Corridor project (which voters failed to fund in a 2020 election). He asked Metro and TriMet to consider alternative service plans for the Division FX2 bus line. He opposed TriMet ‘s “A Better Red” project in favor of more equitable, cost-effective alternatives and continued his advocacy for solving the MAX bottleneck at the Steel Bridge with a tunnel alternative. He opposed destruction of the Hollywood Transit Center.

Jim was frugal, and asked government to spend money cost-effectively. He lobbied legislators unsuccessfully to let voters decide whether to keep constitutional restrictions on use of gas taxes. No doubt this list is not complete. He will be missed. This story in “BikePortland” provides additional perspective on Jim’s advocacy.