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After 35 years of waiting, TriMets Green Line hits all the parties

UPDATE • Thousands ride new I-205 lne that was born of a '70s freeway rebellion
by: JAIME VALDEZ, U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader speaks to guests Saturday morning during the grand opening ceremony of TriMet MAX Green Line at Clackamas Town Center.

It took about three decades to plan this party, but hundreds of people gathered in downtown Portland and along Interstate 205 Saturday morning to celebrate the opening of TriMet's new Green Line.

They enjoyed music, food, art and speeches by dignitaries at just about every stop along the new 8.3-mile route that stretches from Portland State University in downtown to Clackamas Town Center in Clackamas County.

TriMet reported Saturday evening that an estimated 40,000 people rode the new Green Line from downtown to Clackamas Town Center.

The Interstate 205 MAX line - the latest addition to the Portland region's ever-expanding light-rail system - sometimes appeared to be the project that would never happen.

Hopes for the line stopped and started as often as a TriMet bus in the 35 years since the concept sprang from a freeway rebellion of the 1970s. While the opening of the light-rail connection to Clackamas Town Center is coming at a particularly fortuitous time - when concerns run high about climate change, unstable gasoline prices and the country's dependence on foreign oil - transit boosters note that it wouldn't be happening at all if not for persistence and farsighted decisions made decades ago.

The Obama administration is so impressed by the new line that it is sending Federal Transit Agency Administrator Peter Rogoff to the Sept. 12 opening ceremonies. When he arrives, he'll see that area residents can easily connect to the rest of the light-rail system and ride from Clackamas Town Center to Portland International Airport, downtown Portland, Gresham or even all the way to Beaverton and Hillsboro in Washington County.

Because TriMet also extended MAX service along Fifth and Sixth avenues on the Transit Mall, downtown travelers can go as far south as Portland State University.

'Clackamas County is growing rapidly and this new line will link residents with jobs throughout the region, providing more transportation choices,' says TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen.

But TriMet and its partners on the project had to overcome many obstacles to complete it. Planning for the line actually began more than 30 years ago when I-205 was under construction. At that time, Multnomah County commissioners had to fight to convince the state and federal governments to set land aside for the rail line.

'We thought that I-205 would do a lot of bad things in East County, so we wanted to make sure it did some good things, too, like support transit,' says Don Clark, the former Multnomah County executive who led the fight for the right of way in the mid-1970s.

Despite that early vision, TriMet built four other MAX lines in the region first. Then the first effort to provide MAX service to Clackamas County along another route foundered. State and regional voters rejected funding for a line from Vancouver to the Clackamas Town Center through Portland and Milwaukie in the 1990s, forcing TriMet to find other sources of money.

TriMet persisted, however, aided by such allies as the Clackamas County commissioners and Metro - the regional government responsible for managing growth in most of the tri-county region. And the delay actually helped the I-205 MAX line become reality. In the intervening years, many potential riders moved to areas along the freeway - especially along Sunnyside Road and in Happy Valley - helping the project pencil out.

Some of those who opposed light rail in the past still criticize it, however. They include former Lake Oswego-area Republican state Rep. Bob Tiernan, who is the chairman of the Oregon Republican Party. He helped lead a successful campaign to block state funding for the original plan to extend MAX to Clackamas County in 1996.

'Light rail is too expensive, moves too few people and takes money away from necessary road projects,' Tiernan says.

Clackamas County Chairwoman Lynn Peterson disagrees, praising regional leaders for pressing ahead with the project after the setbacks.

'It's been a long time coming, but not for lack of trying by TriMet and the county commission and other regional leaders,' Peterson says of the new line.

Trains, not freeways

According to former Multnomah County lobbyist and retired TriMet Government Affairs Manager Dick Feeney, when planning started for the I-205 MAX line, the times were remarkably similar to now. The Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s had pushed up gasoline prices, raising questions about the wisdom of relying on automobiles for work and shopping. Automobiles were also responsible for a great deal of air pollution, a problem plaguing major American cities, including Portland.

'People were questioning our reliance on automobiles, something that's happening now,' Feeney says.

In this atmosphere, many residents rebelled against large freeway projects planned for the Portland area. One was the Mount Hood Freeway, which would have destroyed a large swatch of residential Southeast Portland. Another was Interstate 505, an intended connection in Northwest Portland between Interstate 405 and U.S. Highway 30.

Supported by growing public opposition, the Multnomah County commissioners and Portland City Council ultimately killed the Mount Hood Freeway and I-505 in the mid-1970s. The momentum also helped the commissioners push for major changes in the Multnomah County portion of I-205.

Work on I-205 started in Clackamas County. The first contract - to build the Willamette River Bridge at West Linn - was awarded in 1968. Six years later, most of the 17.9-mile portion of the freeway from Interstate 5 at Tualatin to Sunnyside Road was completed or under construction. The project was funded primarily by the Federal Highway Administration and overseen by the Oregon State Highway Division, as the Oregon Department of Transportation was then known.

In July 1974, Multnomah County commissioners retracted their approval for construction of the nine-mile portion through the county to the Columbia River, where I-205 was supposed to cross a new bridge into Washington. Led by Clark, an outspoken environmentalist, the commissioners objected to state plans to widen the freeway from six to eight lanes at Foster Road. Clark feared such a wide freeway would generate too much traffic in mid-Multnomah County and create sprawl in Washington County.

Clark admits that he never had the votes on the board of commissioners to stop the freeway. But he embraced an idea credited to former Commissioner Mel Gordon to keep I-205 at six lanes and reserve a right of way for a future transit line.

'Gordon was ahead of his time,' Clark says.

Clark eventually convinced Glenn Jackson, chairman of the State Highway Commission, to go along with the plan, which was approved by all parties involved in the project in 1976. When construction resumed, a transit right of way was graded on alternating sides of I-205, crossing under the freeway just north of Division Street.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW

TRIBUNE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW • Former Multnomah County Executive Don Clark stands in the transit right of way that he helped create.

TriMet on a roll

Despite the reserved right of way, TriMet did not build the first MAX line along I-205. Instead, it chose an east-west connection between Gresham and Portland, largely along Interstate 84. The reason for that decision was simple. The money for the line came from the cancellation of the Mount Hood Freeway, which had been intended as a new east-west connection in Multnomah County.

'We had promised East County residents a new transportation connection, and we kept that promise after the Mount Hood Freeway was killed,' Clark says.

The 15-mile Banfield MAX Blue Line opened in September 1986 at a cost of $214 million. By then, TriMet was committed to providing MAX service to all three countries in its service district. It picked Washington County for the next line, in part because of the large high-tech industries moving to the so-called Silicon Forest near Hillsboro.

In 1990, a whopping 74 percent of tri-county voters approved a November ballot measure for $125 million in bonds to help build the westside MAX Light Rail Blue Line. The measure also included funds to begin planning to bring MAX service to Clackamas County.

By 1994, TriMet was on a roll with its light-rail projects. Construction on the westside line was under way, beginning with the three-mile-long twin tunnels through Portland's West Hills. Then the agency presented the public with its most ambitious plan yet - a new south/north MAX light-rail line from Clackamas Town Center through Milwaukie and Portland to Vancouver.

The total project was estimated at around $1.3 billion, with approximately $1.2 billion expected from the federal government and $375 million from the state. In the November 1994 general election, tri-county voters approved a property tax bond measure for $475 million as the local match for the project by a two-thirds margin. For a moment, it seemed that TriMet could do no wrong. Then everything went off the tracks.

Ballot fights intensified

The first setback happened in 1995 when Clark County voters defeated a $237 million ballot measure to fund the Washington portion of the south/north line, plus a nine-mile extension from Vancouver to Hazel Dell. Then state funding for the project stalled in the 1995 Legislature. Although Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber supported committing $375 million to it, he could not find 18 Republicans in the Oregon House to agree to the measure - a number required by that chamber's rules.

As a result, despite having near-unanimous Democratic support, the regular session adjourned on June 10 without approval of the south/north funding measure. Because of a variety of issues, the Legislature reconvened in a special session in July. This time the Republicans agreed to introduce the bill and it passed - including an additional $375 million for road projects outside the Portland area.

After the special session adjourned, Portland bus advocate Mel Zucker and other light-rail opponents challenged the constitutionality of the bill because it included funds for a number of unrelated projects. The Oregon Supreme Court agreed and struck it down. Because of that, the Legislature was forced to hold a second special session in February 1996. At that time, lawmakers took the other projects out of the bill and passed it as a $750 million transit/transportation package.

After the bill passed, however, the fiscally conservative Tiernan joined with anti-tax activist Don McIntire to start a petition drive to refer the funding measure to the ballot. McIntire, an eastside athletic club owner, had opposed the I-84 MAX line as a waste of money. They were supported by other conservatives, including Bill Sizemore and Clyde Brummell, a Portland-area developer.

The referral drive gathered enough signatures to place the funding bill on the statewide November 1996 general election ballot, where it appeared with several proposed tax increases and tax limitation measures. Although transit supporters mounted a campaign in support of the measure, it failed by a margin of 704,974 no votes to 622,764 yes votes.

'People don't want light rail,' McIntire says of the result.

The next year, Milwaukie voters showed their continuing opposition to light rail by recalling three members of the City Council who supported the south/north plan - Mayor Craig Lomnicki and two commissioners.

Because the opposition in Clark County had changed the scope of the project, TriMet went back to tri-county voters in 1998 with a new $475 million measure for a revised version of the south/north line. Despite the overwhelming support first shown in 1994, it failed this time by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.

Transit supporters drew comfort from the fact that both the losing state and tri-county ballot measures passed in the city of Portland and in the precincts along the proposed line. But by 1998, the south/north line seemed dead in its tracks - including the long-promised connection to Clackamas County.

Ironically, the 18-mile westside MAX line opened that same year. The $963 million project connected to the eastside MAX line in downtown Portland, creating a single 33-mile alignment between Hillsboro and Gresham.

Attention returns to I-205

The idea of the south/north line did not die easily, however. Well before 1998, tri-county voters had created Metro as the regional government responsible for managing growth, including transportation planning. In the years after the south/north ballot measure was defeated, Metro helped begin a lengthy public involvement process to determine whether Clackamas County residents were still interested in being connected to the MAX system - and, if so, where.

Former Clackamas County Commissioner Bill Kennemer says he and his colleagues took the opportunity to lobby for a line along I-205, using the existing right of way in Multnomah County and extending it to the Clackamas Town Center, the original end of the defeated south/north line.

'We started saying, 'Hey, let's put it here (along 205).' With the right of way we have, it's not going to go through communities,' says Kennemer, who is a Republican state legislator representing portions of Clackamas County. 'Once we got the ball rolling, it was easy to get behind.'

TriMet and its regional partners also began funding light rail projects without asking voters to increase their property taxes. The first to be built this way actually used part of the existing I-205 right of way. In 1999, construction started on the the Red Line connecting the Gateway Transit Center to the Portland International Airport. The $125 million project was funded though a public-private partnership that included the Bechtel Corp., TriMet, the city of Portland and the Port of Portland. Most of it runs along the northern portion of the transit line first proposed by Multnomah County commissioners nearly 25 years earlier.

Then in 2000, the northern portion of the south/north line was revived. Construction began on the Yellow MAX line along North Interstate Avenue between the Rose Quarter Transit Center and the Expo Center. Part of the project was funded by a new urban renewal area created by the Portland City Council.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW

TRIBUNE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW • An aerial view shows smooth sailing for the Green Line - but that wasn't always the case in the project's 35-year history.

'Governments in the region don't listen to the voters, they just do what they want to do,' says Ted Piccolo, a Republican activist who helped lead the campaign against the 1998 funding measures.

The 5.5-mile Airport MAX Red Line opened in 2001. Then, two years later, Metro proposed using the rest of the I-205 right of way to provide MAX service to Clackamas County.

The first-phase South Corridor Plan called for building a new light rail line from the Gateway Transit center to the Clackamas Town Center, the southern terminus of the original south/north line. By 2003, the population had grown so much along I-205 that the potential ridership finally justified the project.

At the same time, Portland and TriMet agreed to build a new MAX line downtown along Fifth and Sixth avenues from Union Station to Portland State University. Both lines were bundled together in a project called the I-205/Portland Mall MAX light-rail line.

By the next year, a new version of the south/north line was becoming reality. The 5.8-mile Interstate MAX Yellow Line opened in 2004 at a cost of $350 million. Two years later, construction began on the South Corridor Plan. Finally, after more than three decades, the vision of running a transit line along I-205 was finally being realized.

The full Green Line officially opens on Saturday, Sept. 12. It is budgeted at $575.7 million, including $220 million in Transit Mall improvements. Sixty percent of the project has been paid for by the federal government, with the state of Oregon, city of Portland, Clackamas County, Portland State University and TriMet paying the rest.

Phase 2 of the South Corridor calls for running a new estimated $1.4 billion MAX line from Portland State University to Milwaukie over a new Willamette River Bridge. The rail line is expected to open in 2015.

Clark believes more work will be done on the I-205 line in the future. He thinks that in 50 years, all of the existing and planned light rails lines will connected to a network of streetcar and other transit lines that will connect all neighborhoods in the region.

'I'm proud of what's happened so far, but it's just the beginning,' Clark predicts.

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HISTORY OF MAX PROJECTS


The Interstate 205/Portland Mall MAX Light Rail Green Line officially opens on Saturday, Sept. 12. It is the fifth light-rail line constructed by TriMet. The $575.7 million project includes an 8.3-mile rail line along I-205 between the Gateway Transit Center and the Clackamas Town Center with eight stations. It also features 1.8 miles of new rail lines with 12 stations in downtown Portland along Fifth and Sixth avenues between Union Station and Portland State University.

Here are TriMet's previous light-rail projects:

Eastside MAX Blue Line

Route: Gresham to downtown Portland.

Opened: Sept 5, 1986.

Length: 15 miles.

Stations: 30.

Construction: March 1982-Sept. 1986.

Cost: $214 million

Westside MAX Blue Line

Route: Hillsboro to downtown Portland.

Opened: Sept. 12, 1998.

Length: 18 miles.

Stations: 32.

Construction: July 1993-Sept. 1998.

Cost: $963 million.

Airport MAX Red Line

Route: Beaverton TC/Airport/City Center.

Opened: Sept. 10, 2001.

Length: 5.5 miles.

Stations: 4.

Construction: May 1999-Sept. 2001.

Cost: $125 million.

Interstate MAX Yellow Line

Route: Expo Center/City Center.

Opened: May 1, 2004.

Length: 5.8 miles.

Stations: 10.

Construction: Nov. 2000-May 2004.

Cost: $350 million.


MUSIC, PARTIES GREET NEW GREEN LINE


The opening of the MAX Light Rail Green Line will be commemorated on Saturday, Sept. 12, with free rides and special events along the route. Formal ceremonies will be held at 8:50 a.m. at the Clackamas Town Center Transit Center and at 10:30 a.m. at Portland State University's Urban Center. Those ceremonies will be followed by these special activities beginning at 11:30 a.m.:

• Pioneer Courthouse Square - Musical performances, theater, fashion shows, cooking demonstrations, shopping, deals and other entertainment.

• Clackamas Town Center (east end near JC Penney) - Musicians and performances, farmer's market, face painting, balloon magic, climbing wall, food and giveaways.

• Lents Town Center/ Southeast Foster Road Station - A street fair on Southeast Ramona Street between 92nd Avenue and the MAX station will highlight developments in the Lents Town Center with informational booths, live music, vendors and children's activities.

• Southeast Fuller Road Station - Entertainment, educational booths, coupons and food.

• Southeast Main Street Station - Music, health screenings, food and more.

Festivities will run until 6 p.m. Free rides continue until the end of the service day. For a complete lineup of performers, refreshments, attractions and activities at all five stations, visit the Web site, www.trimet.org/maxgreenline/opening.