MAX to change face of eastside

Rail construction brings disruption and development
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Work is already under way along the MAX route through Southeast Portland, including the intersection of 12th and Clinton, where one of six new stations will be built.

Inner Southeast Portland neighborhoods are starting to see a flurry of physical changes due to construction of the Portland-to-Milwaukie light rail line. Many of the changes will fundamentally alter the characteristics of the affected streets and adjoining neighborhoods.

The new transit bridge being built across the Willamette River has received the most attention, but many other changes are under way east of the river. Buildings along the route have been bought and demolished. Sewer lines at key intersections are being strengthened to withstand the construction. Nearby residents are being notified to expect road closures, traffic delays and other impacts.

"There's going to be a lot of noise. There's going to be a lot of disruption. But there's a lot to look forward to, including new development opportunities that will benefit the neighborhoods," says Mike O'Connor, chair of the Brooklyn Action Corp., a neighborhood association along the line.

Aside from miles of light rail tracks and new light rail stops, associated projects will improve pedestrian and bike routes, replace the bridge over Powell Boulevard at Southeast 17th Avenue, and establish a new quiet zone to eliminate freight-train horns at crossings between Eighth Avenue and the Brooklyn Rail Yards.

"There are a lot of very exciting and positive things that are going to happen that are not directly related to the project, but are going to happen because of it," says Sue Pearce, a member of the project's Citizens Advisory Committee. Pearce represents Hosford-Abernethy Neighborhood Development -- another of the neighborhood associations along the line.

The project has stirred opposition in Clackamas County, when the line ends. A September vote is scheduled on whether the county can use money or resources to support rail projects, and two anti-light rail candidates advanced to runoffs for county commissioner seats in the November election.

Recent polls show many Portland residents want more transportation money spent on road maintenance, but no organized local opposition to this project has surfaced. Terry Parker, the only anti-light rail candidate for Metro Council District 5, received less than 5 percent of the vote in Multnomah County in the primary election.

"If people are opposed to the entire project, they haven't been coming to our meetings. Most Portlanders support transit," says O'Connor, who represents his neighborhood group on the Citizen Advisory Committee.

Big changes coming

The Portland to Milwaukie Light Rail Project is budgeted at around $1.5 billion. The federal government is scheduled to provide half the money, with the state, Metro, Portland, Milwaukie and Clackamas County agreeing to pay the balance.

In Southeast Portland, the line will run east from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, then parallel the existing Union Pacific tracks that cross Division Street, Clinton Street and Powell Boulevard to 17th Avenue. It then will run down the center of 17th to McLoughlin Boulevard, where it will turn south and parallel the Union Pacific tracks, passing under the Bybee Street overpass and the Tacoma Street Bridge before leaving Portland and heading into Milwaukie.

The project budget includes $206 million for buying properties along the line. That money will be spent on 196 acquisitions and 109 relocations.

The biggest changes include:

• Construction of six new Portland MAX stations: just east of OMSI; at Clinton and 12th Avenue; at Rhine Street and 17th; at Holgate Boulevard and 17th; at the intersection of Bybee Boulevard and McLoughlin; and at the east end of the Tacoma Bridge, where a parking garage also will be built.

• Construction of a new bridge over Powell at 17th. The existing overpass and connecting ramps will be torn down and replaced with a much wider crossing that will include MAX tracks and improved pedestrian and bicycle access.

• The widening of 17th from Powell to McLoughlin. When completed, the light rail tracks will run down the center of the street, similar to the North Interstate Avenue MAX line. New sidewalks and other pedestrian and bike improvements will be included along both sides of the rebuilt street.

• The realignment and reconstruction of Clinton and Division streets between Eighth and 12th. The new alignment will include MAX tracks and improved pedestrian and bike access, with separated paths in some areas.

• Improved pedestrian and bicycle access into the area around OMSI from lower Clinton and Division, including separated paths in some areas.

• Creation of a federally approved quiet zone where freight trains will no longer have to sound their horns when approaching intersections between Eighth and Clinton and the Brooklyn Rail Yards. Without the crossing improvements funded by the project, MAX trains also would have to sound their horns at these intersections.

"For those who support transit, the new MAX line is a big deal. But all the neighborhoods along the line will benefit from better connections to each other and the inner eastside and downtown," Pearce says.

• Feds: Clackamas County must pay for MAX line

Despite organized public opposition, Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff says Clackamas County must pay its $25 million share of the approximately $1.5 billion Portland-to-Milwaukie Light Rail Project.

Rogoff told the Portland Tribune on Tuesday that county officials have signed a "legally binding agreement" to pay the money. Rogoff was in town to sign the Full Federal Grant Agreement that commits the federal government to pay 50 percent of the project.

Nevertheless, opponents are continuing their efforts to stop the project at the border of Multnomah and Clackamas counties. They have qualified a measure for the Sept. 18 special election requiring a vote on all public rail projects -- including, they believe, the Portland-to-Milwaukie line. A law firm representing one of the chief petitioners sent a letter to TriMet on Monday saying the upcoming vote "might adversely affect the full implementation of the project."

About a dozen people picketed outside a ceremony in Southeast Portland to celebrate the signing of the federal grant agreement.

The protesters included former Wilsonville Mayor John Ludlow, a light rail opponent who has forced Clackamas County Chair Charlotte Lehan into a November runoff for her post.

In a move that highlights the sharp contrast in the race, Lehan spoke in favor of the project at the ceremony, saying it will create needed jobs and provide transportation options for county residents.

Also praising the project at the ceremony were newly elected Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, who represents Northwest Oregon; Portland Mayor Sam Adams; Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette; Oregon Department of Transportation Director Matt Garrett; and Milwaukie Mayor Jeremy Ferguson.

TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane said the show of unity sent a signal of "full steam ahead" for the project.

-- Jim Redden