Ray Polani knows he won't live to see all his dreams come true. But the Catholic mass-transit master sustains his hope for high-speed rail, Portland subways and better substitutes for the automobile.
Sweet yet tough, Polani turns 90 Sept. 1. Though he switched five years ago from trademark bicycle to a walker, Polani is still piping up about improving Tri-Met, re-imagining the Columbia River Crossing and laying tracks for fast trains in the I-5 corridor.
"Give motorists an alternative!" he says, thrusting a gnarled hand into the air.
Polani is co-chair of Citizens for Better Transit and director of Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates. Good cities, he points out, are designed not with cars in mind, but with people. He points to successes like Toronto, San Francisco, New York and Boston. Transit is so good in those places that it's advantageous not to have a car.
In Polani's view, two things make for a good mass transit system: frequency and connections. "We are competing with automobiles," he says. "We need to be good, really good."
In one of his chief dreams, Polani sees light rail dipping below ground downtown and under the river. As it stands now, MAX moves along well in the suburbs, but comes to a crawl downtown because of the number of intersections. Trains need to be short so they won't block traffic. A subway would mean higher speed, longer trains and more riders.
Polani, a member of St. Michael Parish downtown, argues that local officials erred in routing the Portland-Milwaukie MAX away from the inner east side, instead constructing an expensive bridge to the west side and threading through the transit mall. The alternative route — continuing the Yellow line directly south, would have helped nudge along a neighborhood ready to blossom and would have been straighter and faster, he says. He theorizes that west side power brokers pushed to get their way.
Polani envisions another downtown close-in on the east side of the Willamette. Some of the blame for transit woes falls in the federal government, Polani argues. Federal grants go for capital projects, but not for operations. He insists that federal agencies should link operations funding to ridership, giving incentive for systems to become appealing.
Many Portlanders have no choice but public transit. Government needs to look out for them, too, Polani declares.
The hottest regional transportation topic is the proposed new bridge taking I-5 across the Columbia River.
"The Columbia River Crossing was a disaster," Polani says of the $3.4 billion project, distressed at its focus on multiple lanes of traffic. He's grateful that a pod of Washington state Republicans scotched the plan, though they did it for the wrong reasons — hating light rail.
No matter. Now there is time to dream.
Polani backs the thinking of Jim Howell, another veteran planner who serves in the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates. Howell suggests two compromises for the bridge that could save $2.5 billion: build the bridge lower with an opening mechanism for ships (quicker technology now exists) and skip the full interchange on Hayden Island. The tall height of the current design means expensive and "ugly" interchanges at each end. Howell suggests keeping the current pair of Interstate drawbridges to take traffic in and out of Vancouver and to accommodate light rail, bikes and pedestrians. Light rail could stop in downtown Vancouver at a bus transfer station, Howell and Polani say.
Meanwhile, the governors of Oregon and Washington expressed support for a somewhat scaled down bridge, with no contribution from Washington's coffers. Business owners in Portland and Vancouver had urged that the project continue. Polani also urges an upgrade to the Columbia River railway bridge west of I-5 so that passenger trains can cross faster. That's one part of what he sees as a vital rail overhaul.
"The Willamette Valley is begging for good rail connections," Polani says. "Amtrak runs trains, but there is no frequency and they are running on freight lines." Underlying transit problems is inaction, Polani explains. Many people don't vote and many others simply grumble about traffic, buses and trains.
"Don't complain!" he roars. "Act, dammit! Be involved! If people don't act, a minority rules."
Born in Trieste, Polani recalls cycling through the streets of the northern Italian port city with a one-speed cycle on balloon tires. Educated in Greek and Latin, he came of age just as the Nazis were laying claim to his home city. He joined the resistance movement and fought Nazis during a guerrilla war in the Alps. A third of his unit perished.
He and betrothed Anita wed in 1951 in Italy and moved to the United States in 1953, soon settling in Portland. He mountaineered and rode his bicycle Polani started riding to work in Portland in 1961, a time when cyclists were mostly children. A savings and loan officer churning over the Terwilliger Hill, he drew a lot of stares.
Eventually, he became a transit activist, troubled by the sprawl of the American city. He advocated for light rail and advanced transit centers, both of which are seen as Portland successes.
The late Gov. Tom McCall once opined that Polani had "grown from pest to prophet."
His former pastor, Father Edmond Bliven, has said that Polani "has been right most of his life and in the minority at the same time."