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Cities take a second look at light rail Anti-MAX cities reconsider views

Milwaukie and Vancouver, Wash., now see some advantages

Don't look now, but two communities that once voted down light rail have it under serious consideration again.

Milwaukie and Vancouver, Wash., both find light rail among their choices for transit improvements.

However, both proposals are in the planning stages, especially in Vancouver. No concrete decisions have been made; there are no definite routes, no price tags, no payment methods and no clues whether voters will vote on either project Ñ if either gets that far.

In Clackamas County, two routes are under study: one that starts in downtown Portland and ends in downtown Milwaukie, running via Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard, and the other running south on Interstate 205 from the Gateway Transit Center to Clackamas Town Center.

In Vancouver, the line could run north from downtown Vancouver, east on Washington Highway 500 or Fourth Plain Boulevard, then south along Interstate 205 to Portland International Airport.

The line is one element in a study by the Portland-Vancouver I-5 Transportation and Trade Partnership, a panel appointed by the Oregon and Washington governors to look at improving transit along I-5.

The surprise is that the communities are considering light rail at all. Voters in both cities rejected light rail by a 2-to-1 margin Ñ Clark County in 1995 and Milwaukie in 1998 as part of the regionwide vote on the failed south-north line.

But supporters, including some of the harshest critics in the past, say light rail is again an option because new highways are expensive and consume a lot more land.

The two projects aren't linked but are influenced by the same forces. The more the line grows, the more attractive it becomes to communities without it, said Fred Hansen, Tri-Met's general manager.

The MAX system now averages nearly 78,000 riders each weekday, an 11 percent jump from a year ago. The airport connection in particular seems to have helped change opinions.

'Where there had been embittered opposition, people are starting to see how successful light rail is and see it as a part of the community they want to be,' Hansen said.

The opposition probably will remain should either of these proposals reach fruition. Light rail continues to be a hot-button issue for opponents who decry its cost and impact.

But Hansen said there are numerous reasons that Milwaukie residents opposed light rail in 1998, including the route, the cost, the payment method and its impact on neighborhoods. The new plans for a Milwaukie line differ from the south-north project and have the backing of previous light-rail opponents.

'Last time they weren't listening to the folks who have to live here,' said Ed Zumwalt, chairman of the Historic Milwaukie Neighborhood Association and one of the most vociferous opponents four years ago.

'It's by far a better process now. They seem to be listening to us. There hasn't been the animosity that tore the town apart in 1996 and 1998. It was bad.'

Bus plan fails

Metro started planning transportation improvements into Clackamas County in 1999 after the defeat of the south-north line. Light rail, in fact, was specifically excluded from the new study.

A busway running parallel to McLoughlin Boulevard gained the most support but suffered after plans surfaced to put the buses on a 17-foot-high, elevated structure or in a 22-foot open tunnel.

One night about a year ago, the heads of Milwaukie's seven neighborhood associations met with other city officials in a long session at City Hall to discuss transit options. They emerged four hours later with 14 points they said could make light rail the preferred option for Milwaukie.

'It's about getting the right line,' said Zumwalt, who was at the meeting.

The points included running the line to downtown Milwaukie, using the Hawthorne Bridge to cross the Willamette River, staying out of residential areas and employing local, not regional, planning.

This, remember, from a town that recalled three members of its City Council in 1997 in part for their support of light rail.

'The biggest reason we have had this transformation is that four years ago a plan was developed elsewhere and presented to us as a fait accompli,' said Milwaukie council member Brian Newman.

'There was a lot of resistance locally to having something forced on the community. This time around, the neighborhood leaders drew the lines on the map themselves. That made all the difference in the world. É a plan that was homegrown.'

Clackamas County later developed the I-205 line, and both are under study by Metro. A report is expected later this year.

Part of I-5 plan

The Clark County line is part of a study being prepared by the bi-state commission looking at the 14-mile I-5 corridor from Interstate 84 in Portland to I-205 in Clark County. The recommendation includes a new bridge to replace the Interstate Bridge over the Columbia River.

Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard said light rail should be part of a larger transit plan that could include roads and express buses. A local debate will begin soon on routes he'd like to see citizens consider in addition to an east-west line. A line to the county fairgrounds or the Washington State University branch campus, he said, should be on the table as well.

'We intend to have a community discussion about a system that would serve the entire community,' Pollard said.

Pollard said Vancouver's increased population and the arrival of light rail have changed the political climate for rail. It's virtually within sight of Vancouver at the airport, he said, and at Hayden Island, where the Interstate MAX line is visible. That line opens in September 2004.

'It's different from previous years,' he said. 'There are more people willing to talk about it. We're envisioning the future, not the next five years but the next 50 years. I don't know what the alternative is except to sit back and wait for gridlock.'

Contact Don Hamilton at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..