Friday, May 21, 2010

Five Questions about Milwaukie MAX

Next year, ground will be broken on the next extension to Portland's MAX system--a new light rail line running from Portland State University to Milwaukie. The line is scheduled to open in 2015. This will be the sixth major MAX project for the Portland metro area.  The line, as currently planned, will add over 7 miles of new tracks, including a new green bridge (serving MAX, busses, Portland Streetcar, emergency vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians) across the Willamette River, south of the Marquam Bridge, and 10 new stops (two on the west side, 8 on the east side of the river). TriMet projections indicate 27,000 new trips by the year 2030.

The project's Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) is due in the next few months--possibly as soon as this month (May).  While we wait for that, I have five questions about Milwaukie MAX.  Some of them are innocuous, some of them are loaded for bear:

(For those interested, an old discussion of this topic from two years ago is at

What color is it?  Orange, Yellow, Green--or something else?

The line is frequently referred to, in many informal circles, as the Orange Line--probably in part due to the planning map to the right (courtesy of TriMet) which shows the new line in orange.  Whether or not this is the actual proposed color of the line (indicating it's a distinct service from the four existing lines), or it ends up being an extension of the Yellow or Green lines (the latter seems like an unlikely scenario, but the former makes a lot of sense, given TriMet's longstanding desire to have a north-south trunk line), hasn't yet been announced.  It may well be undecided at this point.

My preference would be for the line to be a Yellow extension--while longer lines have reliability problems, an Oak Grove to Expo through line wouldn't be long enough to worry about--it would still pale in comparison to the present Blue Line.  Through-routing has numerous advantages, including increasing the number of places you can go without a transfer, and adding similar value to whatever line is extended south.

One other piece of evidence which suggests against an extended Yellow Line:  The table on page 95 of this document, listing the proposed traffic loads on the new Caruthers Bridge, suggests 8 trains at peak hour, which is twice what the Yellow currently runs.  Also, there's the little matter of the the PSU/Union shuttle, which may well be a placeholder for future Orange trains.  (One other possibility--it's a dual-colored line, with some Orange trains ending downtown, and Yellows continuing on to N. Portland).

Why does it cost so much money?

 Many of the numbers associated with the project sounds good.  Here's one that doesn't:  $1.4 billion.  That's how much the think is projected to cost.

Put your pinky to your mouth, draw breath through your teeth, and repeat that in your best Dr Evil voice:

"One point four BEEEELYUN dollars".

Or, about $200 million a mile.  $200 million was almost the cost of the entire initial MAX line from Portland to Gresham--of course, that was 1980s money.  More recently, British Columbia built the Canada Line extension to Vancouver's SkyTrain system--nearly 12 miles (20km) in total length, and entirely grade-separated (elevated in Richmond and near the airport, a subway in Vancouver itself)--the price tag of that was about CAN$2 billion.  Even at the current strength of the loonie (this morning, US$1 was about CAN$1.03), that's a much lower price per mile.  (Or kilometer).

Much of the Milwaukie line will be grade-separated, such as the stretch from Riverplace or thereabouts to the new bridge, and much of the route along the UPRR.  And some property acquisition will be needed in the OMSI area.  The Canada Line was criticized for being built on the cheap--in particular, the cut-and-cover construction techniques annoyed many.

But still--despite the fact that a lot of the money comes from Uncle Sam, it's still a pretty steep price tag; and one which will attract lots of opposition.

When will it reach Oregon City?

One of my main criticisms of the Milwaukie MAX project is the "Milwaukie" part.  Not that it goes there; but that it ends there (Oak Grove, more specifically).  The project, ultimately, needs to run the entire length of one of TriMet's most important transit corridors.

It needs to go to Oregon City.

I'm not complaining, too much. Half a line is better than none, and we don't live an a universe of unlimited funding.  Milwaukie is an important destination (Oak Grove, OTOH...)  The OR99E corridor currently has lots of busses running up and down it, and has sufficient volume for light rail. However, for the line to reach its true potential--it needs to reach Oregon City.

Unlike many of the other lines in the system, which have freeways in the vicinity, Milwaukie MAX is not competing with any freeway.  This is even more so south of Milwaukie, where OR99E (McLoughlin Boulevard) is an urban boulevard with tons of traffic lights slowing motorists down.  

There are quite a few valid reasons why a line only to Milwaukie (actually, to Oak Grove, an unincorporated community just south of Milwaukie) is a reasonable project. For one thing, money is an issue. For another thing, the route to Oregon City is undecided--for more discussion of this, see the next question. For a third, there's also the potential of a Clackamas-to-Tigard line in the future, crossing the river near Milwaukie or Lake Oswego, bisecting the Milwaukie line (or even forming part of its extension).

But if you drive down Main Street in Oregon City, past the courthouse and the elevator, there are still tracks embedded in the road (tracks which are occasionally used by trains switching in the Blue Heron paper mill), and other visible remnants of the old Portland Traction line that once tied Portland to Oregon City. Four separate bus lines depart Oregon City and head downtown. The #33 is one of TriMet's most frequently used lines, and were MAX to substantially reduce the amount of time it takes to ride downtown (currently, almost an hour), the value of the project to commuters would grow tremendously.

By not reaching the end of the Oregon Trail, the line really isn't finished.

How will it reach Oregon City, and where will it go when it eventually gets there?

Here, I'm asking the 35,000 foot corridor question--not looking for a specific alignment.  But on Metro's long range high-capacity transit map, two possible routes to Oregon city are indicated--an alignment through Oak Grove and Gladstone, roughly along the OR99E corridor, or an alignment from Milwaukie along the Lake Road/OR224 corridor to Clackamas, then following I-205 to Oregon City.  The decision to terminate the current project in Oak Grove suggests a 99E routing is more likely--this route would serve more established communities--albeit some rather low-density areas; as McLoughlin south of Milwaukie is a notorious sprawlevard.  A Clackamas routing passes through some green and brownfields, possibly giving more opportunities for TOD, but might negatively impact the existing Green Line.
One other possibility for reaching Oregon City that would be a bad idea, would be to simply extend the Green Line.  While doing so might not be entirely bad, as part of a larger system, it would stink for OC commuters trying to reach downtown, or vice versa--depending on where you were headed, the existing bus service would be faster.

The main important destinations in Oregon City are probably the downtown area (including the OC Transit Center), the OC Shopping Center, and Clackamas Community College (including the CCC Transit Center, where TriMet interchanges with Canby and South Clackamas transit districts.  CCC would be a fine anchor--but it's located at the top of the hill in Oregon City, getting MAX up there might be an interesting engineering problem.

Getting MAX into downtown OC, in particular the courthouse and elevator areas, would also be interesting, albeit for a different reason--there's only two blocks between the river and the bluff on which everything (OR99E, the UPRR mainline, and numerous buildings) are sandwhiched.

How effective will it be, given its location between OR 99E and the UPRR mainline?

View Larger Map
One other criticism of the line concerns its location.  For much of the length, the Milwaukie line lies between OR99E, and the UPRR tracks.  North of Holgate, the line passes through the Brooklyn neighborhood, which will probably generate an adequate number of trips.  South of that, the line is literally between the highway and the tracks.
When the Green Line opened, it received some criticism for it's freeway adjacent routing--chiefly on the grounds that having a freeway on one side of the tracks limited development opportunities.  Freeways are generally unattractive to live close to, and because the freeway is a barrier to pedestrian access--even if an overcrossing or undercrossing is provided.  Others in the transit community have defended freeway routing.  The Milwaukie Line, in the stretch between Milwaukie TC and Holgate, will essentially have two such barriers, one on each side of the line.  The stations along this stretch (Bybee and Tacoma Street) will be center-island stations accessed from overpasses; getting to and from the station requires use of stairs or an elevator.  Sounds pleasant?

Of course, this is the same essential configuration as the Blue/Red/Green line between Lloyd Center and Gateway.  That line is sandwiched between a freeway and a freight line, and accessed from above--yet it is a very successful part of the system.  Here, station spacing is wide, and MAX functions more like a metro than like a tram.  Perhaps similar success will be met on the Milwaukie line.
Or perhaps not.  The Lloyd/Gateway stretch passes through a rather dense part of inner Portland, with numerous overcrossings of the line (including many without stations), and development which comes very close to the trench containing the freeway and the tracks.  And, the section is a trunk of the MAX system, with the three lines branching out at Gateway. 

For the Milwaukie stretch, crossings of the tracks and highway are much rarer, the distances involved to reach development are much wider, and the development that exists is far less dense (including uses such as a golf course and a large public park).  Whether or not the line will attract riders from destinations such as Reed College or Westmoreland remains to be seen.  Also, rather than being a trunk in the system, the line as presently planned more resembles a branch--it would be as if the eastside MAX line ended at Gateway, rather than branching off there.


In a forthcoming post, I'll have five more questions about the project--if we're lucky, perhaps the EIS will be released for public scrutiny.


  1. Great stuff, Scotty.

    What's your knowledge of the timeline on the EIS?

  2. Not great--looking at TriMet's page, one place says May (this month), another says "Summer 2010"--which could conceivably run to September.


Keep it clean, please