TriMet rides a big wave of construction to bring rail line up to date

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO JAIME VALDEZ - Repair work has already started at TriMets Sunset Transit Center. The MAX platform will be closed for almost two weeks but the parking garage will stay open.TriMet officials were recently shocked when a long-planned MAX repair project backed up train traffic throughout the entire system in a few short hours.

Officials knew replacing in-ground switching mechanisms in the Lloyd District would disrupt traffic and had arranged for shuttle buses to ferry passengers between the stations closed by the project. But when MAX trains almost immediately backed up into Clackamas and Washington counties, TriMet apologized to riders, suspended some more service and scrambled to get additional shuttle buses on the road.

The delays and confusion eased by the next day, but did not completely go away until the project was completed and full service was resumed on Aug. 18. Although the officials are still reviewing what happened, they have figured out a few mistakes, including having too many trains operating on the east side when the project started.

“We tried to do too much by keeping all the lines open and had too many trains on tracks. Reducing the number of trains actually provided better service for our riders,” says TriMet Interim Deputy General Manager Bob Nelson.

Figuring out all the answers is critical because TriMet has a lot of big repair projects scheduled during the next few years — some of which were delayed to save money during the Great Recession. The next one begins Wednesday, Sept. 3. It will require the closure of the below-grade Sunset Transit Center station platform for 16 days. The parking garage will remain open, but those who park there will need to take shuttle buses to and from the nearest MAX stations to ride the train.

After that, TriMet has 19 major MAX repair projects scheduled through 2019. They include eight switch replacement projects, totally nearly $9.5 million. Also included are 11 track maintenance and replacement projects, plus yearly rail grinding at various locations, priced at more than $4 million. Many of them will disrupt train service in certain locations — or throughout the system if things don’t go well.

“I’m feeling confident we can handle the disruptions better from the start going forward,” says Nelson.

The projects are included in the $31.8 million TriMet plans to spend maintaining, repairing and replacing tracks and related equipment during the next five years. The total budget for such work through the 2019 fiscal year is more than $503 million, including vehicles, facilities and technology systems.

Safety checks

Two outside evaluations in the past two years have concluded that deferring the repair and replacement projects has not yet created safety problems for MAX riders. The first was released by the Oregon Department of Transportation in March 2013 after the union that represents most TriMet employees, Amalgamated Transit Union 757, publicly said the light-rail line was unsafe. The second was done by LTK Engineering Services, one of the nation’s leading rail consulting firms, in preparation for the current budget.

But there’s no doubt that delaying the projects have caused some reliability problems. Aging in-ground switches and signals have been especially troublesome, breaking down and creating repeated delays throughout the MAX system in recent years.

TriMet is not the only agency that deferred such projects during the Great Recession, however. As Portlanders have learned in recent months, the City Council has failed to fully maintain and repair its streets and parks for years. Now Mayor Charlie Hales and Transportation Commission Steve Novick are pushing a controversial new street fee to fund both maintenance and safety projects. And Parks Commissioner Amanda Fritz has convinced the council to place a bond measure on the Nov. 4 general election ballot to pay for some — but hardly all — of the park system’s highest priority maintenance, repair and replacement projects.

Overall, a recent draft city report says Portland faces an infrastructure funding gap of a least $2.8 billion during the next 10 years.

The situation is similar at the regional, state and federal levels. For example, Metro, the regional elected government, says the region faces a $10 billion infrastructure funding gap during the next 20 years. The 2015 Legislature is expected to consider transportation funding package that could include higher state gas taxes and motor vehicles registration fees. And Congress keeps postponing action to shore up the federal Highway Trust Fund that is intended to maintain the interstate freeway system. It is expected to run out of money next May.

TriMet’s problems have attracted a lot of a attention for a variety of reasons. For starters, the regional transit agency is currently constructing a highly visible new MAX line between Portland and Milwaukie. Although planning, intergovernmental negotiating, and fundraising started in the 1990s, construction on the approximately $1.5 billion extension did not begin until June 2011, a few years after the start of the Great Recession. And the first project was the most visible — Tilikum Crossing, the new bridge across the Willamette River between South Waterfront and OMSI.

TriMet is also involved in a protracted and heated labor dispute with ATU 757. TriMet insists workers need to pay more of their health care costs to ensure the longterm financial viability of the regional transit agency. Union officials have repeatedly accused TriMet managers of poor spending decisions, including starting construction of the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project without properly maintaining the existing MAX system.

In fact, TriMet did not appear to prioritize maintenance until November 2013, when General Manager Neil McFarlane created a new Maintenance Division for both buses and trains, moving all maintenance responsibilities out of the agency’s Operations Division. At the time, McFarlane insisted the reorganization was not in response to the criticism or a growing crisis. Instead, he said it was a recognition of the fact that system was both growing and aging at the same time.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO JAIME VALDEZ - Failing tiles on the Sunset Transit Center MAX platform will be removed and replaced with concrete during the repair project.

Critical link

TriMet’s budget calls for spending around $160 million a year on maintenance, repair and replacement projects on the MAX system during the next five years. Work will include replacing 21 in-ground switches, some of which have malfunctioned in recent years. They included switches at both ends of the Steel Bridge, the critical link between the east and west sides of the MAX system.

As TriMet prepared its budget, the agency commissioned an independent study on the condition of the MAX system by the LTK engineering firm. In a one-page report presented to the board in May, the firm found that the system was in overall good shape except for certain segments of the track, where repairs were already planned.

“(T)he inspection of the rail right of way systems did not disclose any systemic issues or any indication that the system was in a state of disrepair,” according to the report.

The report recommended TriMet hire six more maintenance workers to meet future needs. The board approved the funding in the budget.

And the report points out that TriMet needs to modernize its computerized maintenance management information system to better track light-rail maintenance needs. The board approved funds to do so.

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