The first commuter rail in Oregon and another MAX line open within 11/2 years

Sunday, April 20, 2008DYLAN RIVERA

The Oregonian Staff

With two new lines nearing completion, the Portland-area’s rail system will add 23 miles of track and grow by 50 percent in the next year and a half.

The Westside Express Service commuter rail line will open this fall, connecting Wilsonville and Beaverton. A year later, the MAX Green Line will connect Clackamas Town Center to the Gateway area and a new north-south transit mall in downtown Portland.

“In a year and a half we will have opened the first commuter rail in the state of Oregon and opened our first line into Clackamas County,” said Mary Fetsch, TriMet’s communications manager. “That’s big.”

The new lines mark a turning point in the region’s 22-year relationship with rail transit. Commuter trains and streetcars will become more common — not just the familiar MAX lines used for commuting. Riders will be able to transfer more easily from one train to another, as in big cities where rail has been used for generations.

The lines under construction could transform surrounding neighborhoods. For Portland State University, the transit mall extension will open in the section of downtown where the university plans to focus its growth.

“It’s just a monumental event for Portland State,” said Lindsay Desrochers, PSU’s vice president for finance and administration. “It’s harder and harder to bring cars downtown. We really don’t want that many cars downtown.”

New rec center

The university is building a new recreation center at Southwest Fifth and Harrison, between the new MAX tracks. PSU plans a 600-bed dormitory nearby at the new terminus of the transit mall, Desrochers said.

When the transit mall opens, PSU will have access to two light-rail lines — with the promise of a third by 2015. The Yellow Line that serves North Portland will be rerouted: Instead of running along Yamhill and Morrison, it will join the Green Line down Southwest Fifth and Sixth avenues to PSU’s campus.

By 2015, Portland State’s light-rail terminus will be the launching point for a new MAX line to Milwaukie, via the burgeoning South Waterfront area. That will enable PSU to co-develop some facilities at Oregon Health & Science University’s new campus by the Willamette River, Desrochers said.

The Milwaukie line will entail building the first new Willamette River bridge in downtown Portland since the Fremont Bridge opened in 1973. The span would carry MAX light rail, the Portland Streetcar, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Connecting to the downtown streetcar line, Portland and Lake Oswego have plans to add streetcars in coming years to promote denser development.

Network diversifying

Clearly, the region’s rail network is diversifying.

Take the Westside Express Service, known as WES, for example. Unlike MAX trains, the line will not operate at night or midday. Its 32 trains will haul commuters between Beaverton’s high-tech corridor and industrial Wilsonville, but only during morning and evening rush hours.

Operating hours were limited in part to accommodate a freight line that shares the tracks, Beaverton Mayor Rob Drake said. “WES will be a really nice tool, and I’ll predict that within five to 10 years, WES will need to operate more than when it opens later this year.”

The Westside Express will be among the first commuter lines in the nation to connect two suburbs. It holds the potential to do more than just ease Beaverton and Hillsboro connections.

“If you work in Hillsboro but live in Wilsonville, you can get out to Hillsboro pretty comfortably,” Drake said. “You only have to get off one train and get onto another.”

Wilsonville commuters might use the train to get to work in Portland, Drake predicted. That’s because Beaverton has two MAX lines that go into downtown Portland: the Red Line, which serves Portland International Airport, and the Blue Line to Gresham.

Overlapping lines
Those overlapping lines send trains passing by MAX stations about every eight minutes, TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen said. That’s frequent enough that many riders won’t bother to check a schedule before walking to a rail station.

Such high-frequency service helps boost rail ridership, because people worry less about schedules, Hansen said. In coming years it could encourage riders to soften their resistance to transferring from one line to another during a trip.

“I think we will see this system start working the way New York or Washington, D.C., and others do, where it’s natural that people transfer,” he said.

Another MAX extension will get attention this year, as the region decides whether to include light rail in a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River.

Beyond the next few years, the passenger rail conversation probably will turn to potential MAX lines from Portland to Tigard along Oregon 99W and from Portland to Clackamas along Southeast Powell Boulevard, Hansen said.

There’s already talk of extending the Westside Express commuter line to Salem. Others are pushing for spurs off the rail network, rather than major new lines, Hansen said.

For example, Hillsboro is making a case for a spur from the existing MAX to the AmberGlen area, where it wants to create a high-rise district. Some have called for an eastern extension from Gresham to Mt. Hood Community College.

“The choice will be: Do we do some of these spurs as the next part, or will it be a major line?” Hansen said. “That will be among the choices facing us as a community.”

Dylan Rivera: 503-221-8532;

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