All About the Portland MAX (and associated Transit)

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I hope we aren't getting too far into the weeds on this topic, but it is actually pretty relevant overall, because I think in lots of cities, rail terminals are in legacy locations that make them inconvenient for transit use, because of how the city has developed. So, here are some photos taken from Google Maps.

eLHTFEL.png


This shows the general area. The current last MAX stop is at the Portland Expo Center, towards the lower left. An extention would cross Hayden Island, probably having a stop there, and then stop in downtown Vancouver (right where it says "Vancouver" in bright red letters) and then head NE to Clark College, in the upper right of the map. It would cross I-5 either near Mill Plain, or near Fourth Plain. The Vancouver Amtrak station is just north of the river, right next to the BNSF Rail Bridge (called, poetically enough, 9.6). It is kind of visible from this map that it is in an industrial area, but not as apparent how little lies west of it.

Here is a close up of the area around the station:
i6cjzM2.png


So here we see it located in the triangle formed by the merging of the East-West and North-South tracks (Actually, the SPS route to Spokane pretty much originates here.) The best way to get to the station is along 11st Street, which involves crossing three separate railroad tracks, on a road that doesn't have a sidewalk. This industrial area, needless to say, is not very pedestrian friendly. It is not even really motorist friendly. Across from the station, there is a gigantic industrial metal recycling plant, which is appealing, but is not really bucolic tourist fare. And there is also no transit access to the station, not without walking a few blocks.

This is one of those cases where a little bit of inconvenience can really deter travelers. A commuter rail line between Vancouver and Kelso/Longview might appeal to some people...but just added the added burden of having to walk five blocks from downtown, and it can be quite an annoyance.

Of course, all of this is due to the fact that the railroad bridge was built in 1906. At the time these rail lines were built, the area in the picture was Vancouver: the current location of I-5 would have been the eastern border of the city, other than the fort. In the years since, and especially starting in the 1970s-1990s, the city poured out eastward. So the cities current transit choices are curtailed by the legacy of Vancouver being built as a lumber town over a 100 years ago.
 
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Update: I am in the Portland area now, specifically in Vancouver, and I have had a chance to ride the Bus Rapid Transit system.

It is...an incremental improvement on the bus it replaced, in terms of speed and service. It doesn't seem to be that heavily used, but perhaps using larger buses does that, spreads the people out a bit more. Entering and leaving the bus is a little easier, and it takes some time off its journey, but...I don't really know if it is a "Bus Rapid Transit" system, as much as it is an Articulated Bus.

j3fR2JJ.jpg
 

crescent-zephyr

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I don't really know if it is a "Bus Rapid Transit" system, as much as it is an Articulated Bus.

That's the issue... a bus system with dedicated lanes and dedicated right of way can be a great solution. But just plopping an articulated bus into the same traffic is not going to be a great solution, but obviously it is cheaper. Same with street running with LRT.

Dedicated right of way is always going to be best. The transit tunnels in Seattle that allow for LRT and Busses are a very ideal solution.
 

Trogdor

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I think it was the planned increase in rail traffic through the tunnel - too many of those darn trains running through it once the extensions and branches start to open.

Basically this. They start construction in the tunnel this winter to build a temporary platform at Pioneer Square to accommodate transfers while the lines deal with new crossover and switch construction related to the East Link (which will include single-tracking in the tunnel during this construction period). Then, once East Link opens, rail headways will go down to 3 minutes in the tunnel. Since buses already limit rail capacity, and because they wouldn’t be compatible with the coming single-track operation, they had to come out of the tunnel and head up to the surface.
 
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There are some sections of some lines that have their own right of way, but all lines have some sections that don't. And those sections kind of define the flexibility of the entire system: trains can zip between Lloyd Center and Gateway on their own Right-of-Way as frequently and quickly as they want, but it doesn't matter, because outside of that range, they have to constrain themselves to the demands of automobile traffic.

Probably one of the better decisions for the Green Line is that all the parts of that are exclusively Green Line (Gateway south) are on their own right-of-way. The Green Line when it runs on the same tracks as other lines (West of Lloyd Center) doesn't have its own tracks, though.
 

neroden

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The locals say that Vancouver, WA has an obsession with cars and an irrational fear of rail -- at least compared to Portland. There have been a gazillion proposals to extend Portland's light rail system over the Columbia, but "the Couv" comes up with fearmongering articles claiming that "the bad element" from Portland will ride the train to their suburb and so there's always a huge political fight against it. Nutters, IMO.

Portland and Oregon have laid down the law: they won't support a new Interstate bridge without a light rail extension. (It wouldn't pass environmental review anyway.) However, when it eventually happens, expect "the Couv" to shove the light rail station as close to the river's edge as possible and make it as inconvenient to walk to as possible.

It's pretty obvious that there should be a MAX extension across the Columbia -- it's a bottleneck. Even if it ended up being a park-and-ride station just at the terminus of the bridge, it would massively relieve traffic. According to some studies, there are currently lots of people with Washington State license plates driving across the bridge to park at Expo Center and ride MAX. Just moving their park-and-ride location across the river would save everyone a lot of hassle.

The hostility from previous Vancouver, WA governments and state officials has been extreme and insane. One can only hope that the demographics of Vancouver are improving enough that the irrational knee-jerk anti-rail hostility will recede *just enough* to allow for one station on the north side of the river!
 

Willbridge

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The locals say that Vancouver, WA has an obsession with cars and an irrational fear of rail -- at least compared to Portland. There have been a gazillion proposals to extend Portland's light rail system over the Columbia, but "the Couv" comes up with fearmongering articles claiming that "the bad element" from Portland will ride the train to their suburb and so there's always a huge political fight against it. Nutters, IMO.

Portland and Oregon have laid down the law: they won't support a new Interstate bridge without a light rail extension. (It wouldn't pass environmental review anyway.) However, when it eventually happens, expect "the Couv" to shove the light rail station as close to the river's edge as possible and make it as inconvenient to walk to as possible.

It's pretty obvious that there should be a MAX extension across the Columbia -- it's a bottleneck. Even if it ended up being a park-and-ride station just at the terminus of the bridge, it would massively relieve traffic. According to some studies, there are currently lots of people with Washington State license plates driving across the bridge to park at Expo Center and ride MAX. Just moving their park-and-ride location across the river would save everyone a lot of hassle.

The hostility from previous Vancouver, WA governments and state officials has been extreme and insane. One can only hope that the demographics of Vancouver are improving enough that the irrational knee-jerk anti-rail hostility will recede *just enough* to allow for one station on the north side of the river!
In late July I was frequently at the Parkrose station on the Red Line and it was close to park-and-ride capacity on peak days. About a third of the cars had Washington plates.

One issue that complicates things is that there are Washington interests pushing real estate eastward up the Columbia River Gorge. They prefer bridge alignments that encourage that.
 
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One issue that complicates things is that there are Washington interests pushing real estate eastward up the Columbia River Gorge. They prefer bridge alignments that encourage that.

Meaning a Camas-Troutdale Bridge.

The problem with this, than the cost, and even putting aside the environmental problems, etc, is that most of those people will not actually be going to Troutdale, or even to Gresham, but to downtown Portland or points west or south, is that they will still be dealing with the Banfield, the Sunset Highway, the I-84/I-205 junction, the I-84/I-5 junction etc.
Obviously even if the bridge works perfectly, it won't change the fact that the freeways in Portland aren't going to get any wider.
 
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So after a few years, it looks like there is more talk of replacing the I-5 Bridge over the Columbia River, and that federal grants are dependent on including the Yellow Line to downtown Vancouver. Right now, the plan seems to be to have only one stop in downtown Vancouver, and to connect to Bus Rapid Transit there, because there would be political problems with taking the Right of Way further.


Given that this is still in the early stages, it might be many years before this actually gets done.
 

Willbridge

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Portland is a nice town and may be transit friendly with all the different routes and bridges, The view from Interstate 5 driving north its butt ugly.
There are attractive and/or interesting places in North Portland, but the Interstate alignment was not selected for the scenery.

If the LRT line just goes into downtown Vancouver, it'll be history repeating itself. The Vancouver streetcar system was a separate company, as was the local bus system prior to C-Tran. The interstate service was originally a ferry connecting with the Portland system. When the Interstate Bridge was built it opened with narrow-gauge tracks taking the Portland cars into downtown Vancouver. Before the federal regulation of interstate buses, Vancouver-Portland Bus Co. gained grandfather rights and the narrow-gauge interurban was abandoned. Greyhound also provided several trips a day on local Pacific Highway runs.
 
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This is a YouTube video I made yesterday showing the "Central Park" area of Vancouver, Washington. This is an area that includes the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, as well as other local parks, a college, and a high school. Basically downtown Vancouver is bordered by a 3/4 by 1 mile block of public facilities and greenspaces. Which is a mixed blessing, because it is useful to have public spaces, but it also divides downtown from residential areas to the east.
In terms of where the light rail tracks would go, they have to cross I-5, probably right outside of downtown. This would mean going under I-5 along Mill Plain Blvd, taking a turn to the north, stopping at Clark College, and then turning east on Fourth Plain. So the light rail tracks would have to take two sharp turns on heavily-trafficked roads in about a mile. It isn't an insurmountable obstacle, but it does show some of the engineering challenges of the light rail line.

(Transit discussion begins at 6:30)

 
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I hope I am not going too far in addressing a very specific issue, but it has wider ramifications. In the video above, I point out one intersection that might be a place where the light rail would be routed. I was kind of guessing, so I decided to look up some maps. First I found a map of proposed routes from 2012, when the light rail proposal was defeated (narrowly) by Clark County voters.
Screenshot from 2022-06-20 13-30-05.png This route has three planned stops in downtown Vancouver, before turning eastward and terminating on McLoughlin Boulevard (one major road and 400 meters from the intersection I am showing in my video).
And here we have the second map, showing the current plan, and related to the bridge rebuilding:
Screenshot from 2022-06-20 13-40-21.png
Notice this one only has two stops after crossing the bridge into Vancouver. And they are along the freeway, not through downtown. It then terminates on Evergreen Blvd, (one major street and 400 meters before the Mill Plain intersection in my video). Apparently, according to this map, there would be a BRT line right there.
For me, the second map makes a lot more sense. But it depends on how people view light rail. As I said in my original post, light rail in Portland is very different in different neighborhoods. In some, it is almost a commuter rail system, while in others it is a trolley. One of the things that has held MAX back in Portland has been that when it was built, it had many stops in downtown Portland (which got business and community support, because it made the stops very convenient for people going to certain buildings), but also made it slow overall.
If the main point of the light rail extension north of the river is to carry commuters from Vancouver to Portland, then making it a neighborhood trolley will make the commute too long. One or two stops that connect to major bus lines or BRT lines makes a lot more sense.
 
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