Inner Southeast light rail: Where things stand

Last year, in three consecutive editorials, THE BEE addressed what we learned from certain highly-placed officials in the area: A growing belief at Tri-Met that the long-promised McLoughlin alignment for MAX light rail from downtown to Milwaukie was no longer of much interest to people in this area. Apparently the rationale was that the lobbying for it which the area had done for twenty long years had died down.

Inner Southeast had been sent back 'to the end of the line' with the surprise decision that the Southeast line our part of town had gotten 'back on the table' after years of resident lobbying had been diverted to run the length of the I-205 median.

Although clearly a rail line down the middle of a six-line freeway is less critical to resolving traffic problems than is one paralleling a four-lane street with stoplights and cross-streets, it certainly is cheaper to build it down the middle of land already owned by the state for transportation purposes. And that was why the decision was made, and the Inner Southeast line was again deferred - till at least 2012 'if funding can be found'.

However, as we explained last year, the grassroots efforts for light rail in Inner Southeast had subsided only because we residents here had been promised our line - this time in 2012. But with the discovery that the lack of lobbying for it lately had been interpreted as a loss of interest, the grassroots effort was revived, starting with a meeting of various regional leaders at Piece of Cake on S.E. 17th in Sellwood, which THE BEE reported on at the time.

Where do things stand? Well, Congressman Blumenauer seems to have helped get federal funding for the I-205 line, which will help it get built, and of course there is a rail alternative being developed in the Tigard area, while Lake Oswego's trolley is being considered for inclusion in the downtown Portland trolley system. Downtown leaders are seeking to extend the downtown trolley to a loop in the Central Eastside, from the Lloyd Center south to OMSI, but that will require a way to get it back across the river from OMSI to downtown.

The obvious solution to that problem is the long-planned Carruthers Bridge, the construction of which has been the single most expensive component of the planned McLoughlin alignment MAX line. Therein lies an opportunity for our Inner Southeast Light Rail: If the trolley were to use the same bridge, the costs would be divided, and this element of the light rail line would become more 'affordable'. Even more so, if the bridge were built with vehicle lanes as well…and indeed, another bridge for travel into and out of the city by motorists would reduce congestion.

There's something else working in our favor, too. The new high-density residential and medical development in the South Waterfront area at the west end of the Ross Island Bridge does not have sufficient road access into and out of it to handle the population it is being built to accommodate. A light rail depot there, constructed at the west end of a Curruthers Bridge, linking to downtown and to OMSI and the Inner Southeast, with trolley connections northward, is actually part of the plan for that new development.

All that hardly makes it a slam-dunk for Inner Southeast, of course. We have seen our promised light rail line delayed and cancelled again and again, and it has only been the constant support for it--support which does indeed continue unabated to this day--that has kept it on the table, and public expressions of that support obviously are necessary as we go forward to help bring it finally to reality.

But we do have support from friends in high places, including Metro and the state legislature. To name two such friends: Metro Commissioner Robert Liberty, who has been working behind the scenes, and who plans a public walk of the entire Inner Southeast Light Rail alignment to draw attention to the need; and State Representative Carolyn Tomei, a former Mayor of Milwaukie who represents both Milwaukie and Inner Southeast in the state legislature, and who was recently appointed Vice-Chair of the Transportation Committee.

Inner Southeast has many compelling transportation issues, including the need to replace the Sellwood Bridge, and grappling with traffic issues along S.E. McLoughlin--traffic which would escalate to nightmarish if the promised Wal-Mart ever gets built on the empty land just southeast of the Tacoma Street overpass on McLoughlin.

But light rail is increasingly proving, for the other areas that have it, to be a vital transportation link in our growing congestion, and one growing in importance as the years roll by. THE BEE will continue to write editorials about and report on the issue, but clearly it will also require an ongoing, tireless effort by Inner Southeast residents, year after year till it happens, to put it over the top.

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