Getting that station back into the plan

In a series of editorials in the last couple of years, THE BEE has pointed out that the Inner Southeast light rail plans - so often derailed, but now back on track supposedly - had originally included a station at the north end of Westmoreland, that the station had completely disappeared from the official TriMet plans by early this decade, and that the Westmoreland neighborhood rezoned itself at the request of both the city and of TriMet in the 1990's to place the high-density residential housing in the neighborhood at the north end to accommodate this plan.

The original north-end station had been designated for a spot on the north side of McLoughlin Boulevard between 17th and Harold Streets, near where Rag Muffler is located, and an overhead footbridge had been part of the plan to allow easy and safe access from the south side of McLoughlin near 18th to the light rail station. It is our suspicion that this planned station vanished from the plan because of the cost of building the long and high footbridge over six lanes of McLoughlin Boulevard at that point.

In April of 2004, THE BEE's headline story was, 'Getting On the Bus to Revive S.E. Light Rail' - in which we reported on a ceremonial bus ride down the proposed alignment for the service, with Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, Portland City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, and Fred Hansen of TriMet aboard.

What we found on that ride was that the north-end station had disappeared from the plan for light rail here, with no station planned in the 1-1/2 miles between Holgate and Bybee. Whenever the high-density housing would be built in the north end of Westmoreland, residents would have to hike a mile north or south to catch the train.

Hansen was then unaware that any such station had ever been planned. So we set about making sure TriMet and everyone else involved became aware that the station had been in the original plan, and including it now would NOT be 'adding a station' but 'putting one back'.

As the plans for Inner Southeast light rail again showed signs of revival, after the previous effort wound up being diverted to the I-205 alignment, where it is now under construction, TriMet and its partners in this venture looked at the map and realized that there IS a way to put the north Westmoreland station back in the plan without the long footbridge: Place it at S.E. Harold Street, where there already is a pedestrian-activated traffic light (at the entrance to the Union Pacific rail yard), and where people have been using it for decades to catch northbound buses at the Harold Street bus stop.

Although TriMet policy would not normally consider a stoplight at Harold the ideal way to access a light rail station on the east side of the intersection, the fact that the light has functioned for so long to provide bus access there already argues that it is sufficient. The pedestrian crossing there also spans just four lanes, rather than the six that exist north of there.

What this intersection really needs is an updated traffic light; although pedestrians use the light daily to catch buses, the electronics operating this light are among the most antiquated in the city, and far from responsive. The intersection, also used for vehicle access to the trainyard, badly needs an upgrade of this ancient traffic light in any event.

So now, the Harold light rail station IS back on the map - with an asterisk. It is not yet safe from disappearing from the plan again. We understand a final decision on whether or not it will be included 'will be made in June'. So now, it is again time for us to make our case for it.

And to start with, there is the neighborhood zoning that was done at TriMet and City request, specifically to accommodate access to the long-planned light rail line at the north end of Westmoreland. The current reluctance to 'add stations', thus potentially slowing the transit of the line somewhat, is a spurious argument in this one special case, since a station there was firmly part of the original plan as presented to SMILE at the time the Neighborhood Plan was drawn up. Therefore, putting it into the current plan is not 'adding' it - it is simply restoring what was planned there from the beginning.

But now, the inclusion of a Harold Street station has picked up a compelling new argument.

Up till the time McLoughlin Boulevard ('the Super Highway') was built in the 1930's, Westmoreland and the Reed neighborhood were directly connected by S.E. Reedway across the railroad tracks. That street was disconnected by McLoughlin, and travel from the one neighborhood to the other now requires driving at least two miles out of the way, via either Holgate or Bybee. But - the Reedway street alignment still does exist east of the railroad tracks all the way to S.E. 28th, at the northwest corner of the Reed College campus.

What that means is that if a small, relatively inexpensive bike and pedestrian bridge were built over the Union Pacific tracks at S.E. Reedway, there would be direct and convenient access to a Harold Street station from Reed College and the Reed neighborhood north of it. In fact, it would provide the only direct access to MAX light rail that the Reed neighborhood would ever get, and would make using it convenient for the many residents of the large apartment complexes just north of there, in addition to over a thousand Reed College students.

With 700 students living just three blocks away, Reed College favors the Harold Street station option, with two provisions - that the footbridge actually be built, so its students would not be tempted to risk walking across the Union Pacific main line tracks to get to the light rail station; and, that this station not be built in place of the Bybee Station. The Bybee station would require quite a hike for Reed students to use, but provides direct access to Eastmoreland and south Westmoreland residents, and is the closest access for Woodstock residents. The Bybee station should indeed still be part of the plan in any event.

Further, a footbridge over the tracks at Reedway would re-establish for the first time in 70 years the direct connection between Westmoreland and Reed, and would allow Westmoreland residents easy foot and bicycle access to the cultural events and resources on the Reed College campus - by crossing at the Harold Street light, strolling south to Reedway, and then crossing the footbridge to reach S.E. 28th.

With traffic on McLoughlin Boulevard getting heavier and heavier in commute times with each passing year, the need for light rail to downtown, the airport, the westside, and the outer eastside becomes more and more compelling. If there is value in providing light rail along a six-lane interstate freeway east of 82nd, there is then a far more urgent case to be made in providing this transit option along the McLoughlin alignment.

Indeed, the City of Milwaukie, which originally opposed it, now wants it; communities further south, all the way to Oregon City, which previously shunned it now are showing active interest; and the planned termination of the I-205 light rail line near Clackamas Town Center offers clear opportunity to 'complete the loop' at some point, and connect those rails with the McLoughlin light rail alignment.

So, since apparently it is still officially uncertain, THE BEE now once again politely demands that the Harold Street station be made a permanent part of the Inner Southeast light rail plans as they go forward. A 1-1/2 mile gap between stations at that particular point is contrary to the neighborhood zoning, and would preclude the north end of Westmoreland, the Reed neighborhood, and Reed College from having practical access to a vital transportation link.

Attention TriMet and the City of Portland: Please include the Harold Station, build the footbridge over the Union Pacific tracks at Reedway, and upgrade the Harold Street light for responsiveness to pedestrians and vehicles and to for improved safety.

And, let's get on with getting this long-delayed and often-cancelled Inner Southeast light rail line BUILT!

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