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ClackaMAX: Day 1

After decades, light rail to Clackamas starts construction
by: patrick sherman, Poised on an embankment overlooking SE Portland's Harold Street, a pile driver rams home the moorings that will support a bridge for the I-205 light rail line.

Like the heart of a mighty, mechanical titan springing to life, the rhythmic, reverberating thump of a pile diver at work announced the start of construction on the I-205 light rail line this past week.

'It's really hard to say that there is one specific date when work started,' said Jeff Goodling, the I-205 Design/Construction Director for Tri-Met. 'On Jan. 8, we started putting up our field office, and since then we've been doing advance work on utilities all along the proposed alignment.'

Among them, a fiber optic cable belonging to the Oregon Department of Transportation that runs alongside the freeway, transmitting images from its traffic cameras and controlling on-ramp meters.

'We would have impacted that in a number of locations, so we relocated it so that it's out of the way of the work we'll be doing,' said Goodling.

Four huge pipes, four and five feet in diameter, that transport water from the Bull Run Watershed to the City of Portland, also had to be addressed.

'We needed to protect them, so they wouldn't be impacted by our construction or operation, and so any future repairs wouldn't impact us,' he said.

Preliminary preparations complete, the first work on the line itself began March 21, on a bridge to span Harold Street in southeast Portland.

'That's the first of seven bridges we will build,' said Goodling.

Groundwork laid in the age of disco

Much of the project is actually being built on a foundation laid almost 30 years ago, when I-205 was extended north of Foster Road, after a break in construction. In the interim, Congress passed the National Environmental Protection Act.

'NEPA required a larger buffer zone between the freeway a nearby neighborhoods, to reduce noise and air pollution - things that weren't considered in the early 70s, when the southern portion of the highway was built,' Goodling explained. 'Most important for us was that they set aside land and graded it for a future busway -here is even an existing undercrossing between SE Market and SE Division.

'The work from Foster on south is as challenging as any we have ever done, but a significant portion of the 6.5-mile alignment is relatively easy, because of that earlier work.'

The line is expected to open for regular service in September 2009, at a total cost of $557.4 million. Although geographically removed from I-205, the project also includes a light rail extension in downtown Portland. The federal government is paying 60 percent of the total cost of the project.

Building new relationships

'The important thing to understand is that Tri-Met doesn't design or construct anything,' said Gooding. 'We manage the overall process.'

As work gets underway, he estimated that the transit agency has 10 members of its staff working full-time on the project, with many more contributing on a part-time basis.

'According to the contractor, at the peak of construction, they will have 150 people working on it, plus they will have lots of subcontractors,' Goodling said. 'It's a very fluid thing.'

He himself is working out of Tri-Met's temporary field office north of Johnson Creek Boulevard next to the freeway. Consisting of five portable buildings, it gives shelter to his team and the joint venture firm heading up construction.

'Each field office takes on its own unique spirit,' he said. 'It has partially to do with the geography, and also the individuals involved in the project. Downtown, they are stationed in an existing office building, and we're in trailers. We have a nice parking lot, but they are really having to struggle.'

Bringing MAX to Clackamas has meant forging new relationships, both with local governments and with individual citizens.

'I think there was a bit of a learning curve for the Clackamas County staff,' said Goodling. 'They didn't know what to expect from Tri-Met, and we didn't know what to expect from them.

'It took a while for them to figure out that we weren't big bullies, and for us to understand how efficient and effective they are, but overall, they have been terrific to work with.'

Goodling also reported a groundswell of support in the local community.

'People are enthusiastic - more so than any other project I've worked on,' he said. 'I'd say that 95 percent of my contacts with local government and the community are positive. Clearly, some people are upset - especially those impacted directly by the project - but every day I run into people who are excited about the project.'

Being green

A key consideration in the development of the ClackaMAX light rail line is its ecological impact, according to Goodling.

'There are a number of important environmental aspects to this project,' he said. 'By the year 2025, there will be 38,000 people per day riding the I-205 segment of this alignment. Obviously, that means a lot less vehicles on the road, and less traffic congestion means less air pollution.'

New sound walls will be built along portions of the freeway, using a material derived from recycled tires, and much of the runoff from the five park-and-ride lots being built as part project will be treated on-site.

'Instead of being discharged into a stormwater system, the rain that falls on our parking lots will flow into bio-swales, which are essentially vegetated swale where the vegetation removes the pollutants that drain off the cars,' said Goodling. 'Where possible, that will be discharged into a dry-well on site.'

Flowing underground will cool off the water and provide a steady flow to rivers and streams, benefiting endangered salmon.

'This alignment is also unique in that there will be a significant bicycle and pedestrian route that will run almost its entire length,' he added. 'That will provide better access to our stations, and over the next 15 to 20 years, I see that becoming a very heavily used promenade.'