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County's commuter rail work kicks into high gear

Tigard ceremony marks the beginning of project's construction
by: Jaime Valdez, Tony Roberts, TriMet’s senior safety specialist, has a close view of the massive P811 machine that will rebuild 14 miles of the commuter line in the next 30 days.

After nearly a decade of budget wrangling and planning, Washington County's $117.3 million, 14.7-mile commuter rail project breaks ground next week in Tigard.

If all goes well, construction should take about a year, with the rail line opening in late 2008.

After that, TriMet expects the line to carry hundreds of passengers each day on freight tracks in several roundtrips during morning and evening rush hours between Wilsonville and the Beaverton Transit Center on Southwest Lombard Avenue.

By 2020, the agency expects 3,000 to 4,000 riders each day for the 27-minute trip that includes stops at five stations in Tualatin, Tigard and Beaverton.

Officials in the mid-Willamette Valley are watching the rail line's progress, hoping to someday extend it to Salem and Albany.

'It's amazing when you think that this has been 10 years in the making,' said Mary Fetsch, TriMet spokeswoman. 'We're really excited.'

Joe Walsh, TriMet's project manager who shepherded the rail line through the federal application and funding maze, breathed a sigh of relief that the work was about to begin.

'TriMet is incredibly pleased that we've come this far,' Walsh said. 'We've had a lot of support for this project.'

Beginning Tuesday, a 1,000-foot-long machine known as the P811 made by Harsco Track Technologies of West Columbia, S.C., will begin its slow crawl along the Portland and Western Railroad freight tracks between Wilsonville and downtown Beaverton, almost chewing up and spitting out the old rails and ties and replacing them with new rails and concrete ties.

On Wednesday morning, officials from local, state and federal governments will gather at the Tigard Transit Center for the ceremonial groundbreaking, signaling the beginning of the year-long construction project.

Before all that happens, however, TriMet still has to sign the Federal Transit Administration's full-funding agreement, which should land on Walsh's desk sometime early next week.

Under the agreement, the federal agency will put up $58.65 million of the total $117.3 million cost, with Washington County ($7.66 million), the state ($35.34 million), Metro ($10.25 million) and TriMet ($5.4 million) pungling up the rest of the money.

Walsh said the mandatory review period for the agreement ends Friday. Sometime between Friday and Wednesday's groundbreaking ceremony, the agreement should be signed by FTA officials and shipped to Portland for local signatures.

A smooth ride

Planning for the commuter rail project began in 1996 with a county feasibility study as a way to relieve congestion on Highway 217.

The project jumped through several funding hoops during the past six years, coming dangerously close at least a couple times to being dropped from the FTA project list.

It took a few telephone calls and heavy lobbying by Oregon's congressional delegation and senators to put things, well, back on track.

Preliminary work on the project started several weeks ago as crews built a temporary bridge over Fanno Creek on the west side of Highway 217 near Southwest Denney Road and Allen Boulevard.

TriMet also has stacked up 37,000 concrete ties along the 14-mile rail line corridor as part of the reconstruction project. The ties will be laid with new track rails and ballast - the rock in between the ties that helps level the rails - by the massive P811 machine.

TriMet has contracted with Harsco Track Technologies to use the track-rebuilding machine for 30 days. The machine and its 20-person crew will travel after this job to similar rebuilding projects in California and Illinois, said Stephen Byers, Harsco's senior director of contracting.

Harsco operates three similar rebuilding machines in North America, Byers said, and has reconstructed about 7,800 miles of track in the past two decades.

'This particular project is relatively small, but we're very happy to participate in it,' Byers said. 'We believe that this new track will provide a smooth and uniform ride for many years to come.'

Vote with wheels

The P811 is being assembled in Beaverton's St. Mary's Junction and will begin its slow crawl in Wilsonville. The P811 is about 300 feet long and will tow a dozen track and tie cars that are each about 60 feet long.

It will operate about a mile a day, or 20 feet per minute, acting like a giant mechanical crab scooping up the old wooden railroad ties, popping the old rails up and then replacing both with new concrete ties and new rail.

As it chugs along, the P811 smoothes the ballast and replaces the rock in between each of the new ties that have been dropped about two feet apart. It also heats the rails to the 'neutral temperature' for the region so the rails won't expand or contract too much during hot and cold weather.

The public can see the machine in action, but only from a safe distance at a few areas along the route.

The rebuilt rail line will allow the passenger trains to go up to 60 mph along the route. Freight trains will be able to travel even faster.

When it's all finished, U.S. Rep. David Wu, who has worked with Washington County officials for a decade to gather funding for the project, said he hopes the rail line will be successful.

'It's like virtually any other transportation project, people will vote with their feet, or wheels, after the fact,' Wu said. 'I hope it is heavily used.'