19: Portland

Light Rail
TriMet MAX
Streetcar
Portland Streetcar
Commuter Rail
TriMet WEX

portland 2-01

Portland-Vancouver-Salem, OR-WA
population 2,992,924 (2012)

Portland’s light-rail system was born in a freeway revolt. The Mount Hood freeway, proposed in the 1940s, would have headed west from downtown Portland, cutting through inner-city neighborhoods on its way to suburban Gresham. In 1969, the beginning of demolition for the new freeway prompted the election of anti-freeway activist Neil Goldschmidt to city council. As mayor, he presided over a city council vote to cancel the freeway. He also persuaded the federal government to allow Portland to reallocate $500 million in funding for the freeway to other projects, including a $214 million, 15-mile light rail line from downtown Portland to Gresham. Construction began in 1981, and service started in 1986.

The Gresham line, named MAX (Metropolitan Area Express), runs through the center of downtown on a pair of one-way streets. It crosses the downtown transit mall (opened in 1977 and also funded with Mt. Hood Freeway money), which provides frequent bus service to other parts of downtown. A more recent streetcar line, opened in  2001, also connects with MAX in downtown, with service to Portland State University, northwest Portland, and the revitalized Pearl District. The light-rail line uses an existing street bridge across the Willamette River to leave downtown. After a few more blocks of street running past the Oregon Convention Center and the Lloyd Center, Oregon’s largest mall, the tracks squeeze between a freeway and a freight railroad line to pass through residential neighborhoods. The outer section of the line is built mainly in the wide median of Burnside Avenue, a commercial street through residential neighborhoods.

Light-rail ridership grew steadily over the next decade, from just under 20,000 a day in 1987 to 30,000 in 1997. From 1990 to 2000, transit ridership in Portland grew by 49 percent while the population grew by only 24%. Light rail also spurred development; Tri-Met cites $3 billion on development along the line since the decision to build. A 1997 Portland State University study found that houses adjacent to light rail stations were worth 10 percent more than those further away. The success of the east line lead Portland to approve a western counterpart. Geography made this difficult: Between downtown and the suburbs of Beaverton and Hillsboro lay a range of hills. The only way through was a tunnel, three miles long, dug through solid rock. It includes the deepest subway station in North America, with a 260-foot-tall elevator to the gates of the Oregon Zoo. Beyond the tunnel, the line follows the side of a highway, old railroad lines, and finally a short street section through the suburbs. Unlike the east line, which is built through dense, pre-war neighborhoods, Westside Max serves towns that have only recently become suburbs, reaching to the outer edge of suburbia. Planners hope these areas will develop more densely around rail than they would have around highways, and that ridership will continue to grow as they develop. The Westside line proved an immediate success. Before it opened, only about 14,300 people a day rode Tri-Met buses into downtown from the Westside; by 2002 there were 13,600 bus riders and 29,000 rail riders — more than had been projected for 2005. Overall MAX ridership more than doubled, to more than 75,000 passengers a day in 2002. A TriMet survey found that 77 percent of bus and light rail riders have cars and are riding by choice. TriMet counts $1 billion in new development along Westside Max, including 8,000 new housing units.

The logical next step was a north-south line. But here TriMet’s suffered setbacks. In 1994 and 1998, voters in Portland and across the Columbia River in Clark County, Washington, rejected north-south line proposals. In Washington, most Clerk County voters saw no benefit in a line that would serve only a small part of the county. In Oregon, several neighborhoods along the the proposed line had concerns about the alignment.Without a vote, TriMet couldn’t issue bonds, but they could build if they found other ways to finance.  A land swap agreement with a developer enabled the construction of a line to the Portland Airport, on the shore of the Columbia. The city traded a large plot of land next to the airport to the Bechtel Corporation in exchange for Bechtel’s constructing the Airport MAX line, which also serves that property. Bechtel plans a transit-oriented mixed-use development there. Tri Met used that private funding — which enabled the Airport line to be built without federal money — as a financial match to obtain federal funding for a line along Interstate Avenue north from downtown and to the Columbia. When it opens in 2004, there will be two light rail lines directly across the river from Clark County, Washington, and TriMet hopes that voters there might change their mind and fund the system’s extension across the state line.

Like the Westside line, the airport line uses mainly private rights-of-way, in addition to a short section of freeway median reserved for transit in the 1970sThe Interstate line marks a departure from this pattern: Except for the northernmost section, it’s being built in what had been the center lanes of a commercial street, with more frequent stations to serve a built-up but somewhat impoverished area. Neighborhood leaders, who support the line, hope it brings revitalization.

In Portland light rail has been part of a broader vision that aims to combat traffic congestion with planning, not freeway lanes. Zoning codes have been adjusted to encourage higher-density development; a “growth boundary” has been established around the city to limit sprawl; and local governments have provided tax breaks and even financial assistance to developers building transit-oriented projects. Across the country, planners often cite Portland’s “smart growth” philosophy as a model for creating livable cities. Portland embodies many of those planners’ goals: a pedestrian-friendly downtown with retail and entertainment as well as offices; prosperous inner-city neighborhoods; commuters who choose to take the train instead of their cars. Anti-rail and anti-planning think tanks point out that most Portlanders still drive their cars to work and that highway congestion is still increasing. But locals, particularly in Portland itself, support the planning vision in general and light rail in particular. The growth boundary and the regional government that administers it have survived several attempts to abolish them. Tri-Met cites a 90% public approval rating for MAX. Portland’s reputation has also benefited; Money Magazine cited light rail when it named Portland the best place to live in 2000.