Portland Transit

Author: Roger Bardsley

Last year I reported on the Denver Metro Area and its more or less successful completion of a light rail system that provides mobility throughout the region. I also mentioned that Denver and its environs are held together politically by a single council of governments (DRCOG) and a single Regional Transportation District (RTD). DRCOG also functions as the MPO for the area. The results have been impressive.

This year I journeyed to the Portland, OR metro area to see how things were working there. For planners, of course, Oregon is famous for urban growth boundaries and a bike-friendly culture. I found that the Portland metro area is well-served by TriMet, a transit district similar to RTD. They operate an extensive light rail system, a single commuter rail line, and a bus system. Of course, I was excited about light rail and decided to find out how and why Portland has pretty much blown away the competition.

It started back in the early 1970s when highway officials proposed several new freeways that would have damaged Portland and taken out thousands of homes. There was a citizen revolt and most of the projects got cancelled. Portland does have urban freeways but they are not as intrusive as in some other metro areas. Cancellation of, in particular, the Mount Hood freeway, provided funding for the light rail planning. Fast forward to 1986 when the first line opened, and then to today when TriMet has completed the following major projects:

MAX (Metropolitan Area Express) Blue Line – 33 miles from Hillsborough west of Portland, to Beaverton, to city center, and to Gresham east of Portland.

MAX Green Line – 15 miles from Portland State University, to city center, and on to the Clackamas Town Center.

MAX Orange Line – 7.5 miles from Portland State, to South Waterfront, to SE Park.

MAX Red Line – 25.5 miles from the Portland Airport, to city center, and to Beaverton.

MAX Yellow Line – 5.8 miles from Portland State, to city center to Expo center.

Tilikum Crossing Bridge that opened in 2015. A beautiful cable-stayed bridge that is exclusively for transit, bikes and pedestrians.

The WES commuter rail line – 14.7 miles from Wilsonville to Beaverton.

Total transit mileage, excluding WES, is 86.6 miles with 97 stations.

Not to be outdone, Portland decided to build three downtown streetcar lines, the A Loop, the B Loop and the North-South Line. These cars are smaller than the MAX trains and run in the city streets. To a tourist the distinction between light rail and street car is blurry, particularly downtown, but outside of downtown MAX operates in its own rights-of-way.

The city, in cooperation with the Oregon Health and Science University, also built an aerial tramway from South Waterfront 3,300 feet up the hill to the main University campus. The tramway rises 500 feet and is designed for commuters. It can carry 78 passengers and ridership has exceeded estimates.

In conclusion, traffic in Portland is heavy, but there is no reason that a resident or visitor needs to drive in the metro area. Those areas not served by rail have bus service. As a planner I was delighted to see handicapped people (one lady with her restaurant take-out dinner in particular) roll on to the MAX cars and then roll off when they reached their destinations. That is true accessibility when a person does not special assistance to go about daily activities.