September marks the anniversary of 3 MAX lines

Just 19 years ago, the Portland region opened its first MAX light rail line. The first 15-mile segment opened in 1986 between downtown Portland and Gresham. There was excitement in the community as we opened one of the first modern light rail lines in the country. Of course, there were a few derisive comments before it opened, including a suggestion that we should leave the keys inside and just walk away from it.

But all these years later, MAX has carried 199 million trips, and has helped spur more than $3 billion in transit-oriented development along the entire alignment.

Eastside MAX opened with an average of 19,500 weekday trips, which has now grown to an average of 41,100 daily trips. During the planning for the line, the city of Gresham didn’t want the MAX line in their front yard. But has since spent years and millions of dollars turning the city toward the MAX line.

A decade later, the 18-mile Westside MAX line opened, with half of the riders in the corridor new to transit. The success of the line could be seen since opening day – standing-room only trains during rush hour. First year boardings averaged 22,800 and has since climbed to an average of 32,700 weekday trips.

1st train to plane on West Coast

When the 5.5-mile Airport MAX Red Line opened Sept. 10, 2001, less than 24 hours before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center buildings, it was the first train-to-plane connection on the West Coast. In these four years, 3.3 million people have ridden to or from Portland International Airport. The former bus line that served PDX averaged about 900 people getting on or off on weekdays. MAX has nearly tripled transit trips with an average of 2,600 weekday trips.

System expanding

TriMet’s overall MAX system now covers 44 miles with 65 light rail stations. Last year MAX carried 32 million rides, up from 27.5 million the year before. And Saturday ridership is 80% of weekday ridership, showing that ridership isn’t focused solely on commute trips. On similar systems, one out of four riders are choice riders, but MAX is carrying three out of four riders as a matter of choice – leaving many cars in their driveways.

Next month, the 8.3-mile I-205/Portland Mall Light Rail Project will enter the Final Design phase. The community is invited to provide comments on issues including station design, and how MAX can help enliven the Mall for retail, pedestrians and transit riders. The project will extend MAX from Gateway Transit Center to Clackamas Town Center, and between Union Station and Portland State University between 5th and 6th avenues. Construction is expected to begin in fall 2006 and open in September 2009. Get project updates by signing up at

Then what

The South Corridor Project Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement published in December 2002 that included the 2nd extension into Clackamas County – from Portland State University to SE Portland and Milwaukie – will have to be amended beginning early next year led by Metro. That work will focus on the connection across the Willamette River to Portland State University, and on the transit center and alignment in Milwaukie that was considered by a citizen committee last year and formally approved by the Milwaukie City Council. That South Corridor Phase 2 project could open in 2014.

In the meantime, a new phase of a bi-state study is considering a joint highway and transit project in the I-5 Corridor, crossing Portland’s other river to Vancouver. That study was led by the two state DOTs. A governor’s task force prepared recommendations in June 2005 that calls for a multi-modal approach to addressing the significant bi-state transportation needs. A light rail extension north from the Expo Center is being considered in that study, alongside bus options. Information on that effort is available at

MAX has become a signature of our region and a tool for providing mobility while building and preserving neighborhoods. The success of MAX has made the Portland region a national model we can be proud.

20 responses to “September marks the anniversary of 3 MAX lines”

  1. Mary,
    I’ve looked around the Tri-met and Metro websites, and I was wondering if placing MAX underground when it went through the transit mall was ever seriously considered? Were potential plans discussed and priced?

  2. Seattle built a bus tunnel that fed directly to freeway express lanes. It carried dozens of long, articulated buses every hour, for a total passenger capacity greater than most light rail systems. In a few years, Seattle’s light rail line, currently under construction, will share the tunnel with buses. I’d call that a pretty good case of planning ahead.

    Tri-Met already built a three-mile tunnel with one station under the West Hills. Would it really be prohibitively costly to dig a one-mile tunnel with three stations under downtown Portland?

    However, Tri-Met never seriously looked at a tunnel. They tossed out a few charts to show how expensive it would be. In the context of the South/North Salmon Creek-to-Oregon City line they were planning back in the 1990s, it would have increased the total cost of the project perhaps 10-15%, while doubling the potential passenger capacity of the line. (Underground stations allow four-car trains, while downtown surface stations don’t).

  3. I think part of it was to get more people on the surface streets of Portland to get people shopping and doing things.

    The other thing surface rail does is provide really nice photo opportunities – for postcards. However, if/whenever the aerial tram is built, we’ll have a better postcard for Portland.

    Cost would also be an issue, however, since if it goes underground in downtown, it would likely have to also go under the river – so it might end up having to be pretty deep. And now, since the Big Pipe also goes underground along waterfront park, it would have to go even deeper… not the easiest of scenarios to design/build in. Probably cost a pretty penny, too.

  4. Re: Justin – I don’t think an underwater river crossing is needed even if the mall segment is underground… you could do just one of four things:

    1. Emerge from underground near the riverbank with a ramp to a new bridge.

    2. Stick with two-car trains at close headways and you can emerge from underground in the PSU area near the currently designated south terminus.

    3. Close selected blocks to auto traffic after the train emerges from underground so that 3 and 4 car trains can be accommodated above ground.

    4. Synchronize traffic signals along a short above-ground section so that 3 or 4 car trains can pass unimpeded from the tunnel portal to the river crossing.

    Re: djk –

    Whatever the costs of an underground mall alignment may be, there is no way to relate them to the experience of the west hills tunnel. A mall alignment would be under existing streets and businesses and would likely cause much disruption. Geology and drainage issues are different, and there would be 4 or 5 underground stations to be built along the mall.

    In the case of the above-ground mall alignment, I am not so concerned about throughput and average speed… the stations are 4 and 5 blocks apart, as opposed to the current 2 block spacing for east-west MAX, which makes going through downtown so agonizingly slow.

    On a different topic, I have a pet peeve with the Steel Bridge… When the green line opens, all 4 MAX routes (Blue, Red, Yellow, Green) will cross this one bridge, with complex switching arrangements at both ends, sharing with buses and autos, and limited to very slow speeds due to the age and condition of the bridge.

    Given headways of 10min for blue, 15min for red, 15min for yellow, and 15min for green, a train will be crossing this bridge in one direction or another every 1.6 minutes. Trains will very likely have to wait for switch/signal alignment as trains going the opposite direction move by.

    A single failure on this bridge (electrical, structural, vehicle accident, etc.) will disrupt and delay ALL max lines until the problem can be fixed.

    The slow (less than 15mph) speed across this span is already a daily insult to MAX riders, one which will only get worse even under the best possible conditions on the current bridge.

    Before we can talk about spending $$$ on underground alignments, we must first remove bottlenecks in the current system, of which the steel bridge is the most glaring.

    Simply put, MAX needs a new river crossing, either a bridge or a tunnel, somewhere between the Steel and Broadway bridges, which can handle 3 or 4 tracks and potentially a network of rail overpasses to eliminate switching bottlenecks. Properly designed, a new river crossing would shave a minute or more off of average commute times in each direction.

    – Bob R.

  5. Wow, what fantastic education!

    I am hoping someone will continue that learning for me. I’m curious about the differences between MAX and Streetcar. With the Lake Oswego to PDX discussion ensuing, I’ve noticed more criticisms of MAX with the expense factor. What I’d like is either answers to the following questions or direction to locating the answers.

    1.What is the cost difference between MAX and Streetcar?
    2.What is the carrying capacity difference?
    3. What is the speed/efficiency difference?

    Being from a place that has sketchy public transportation, it’s difficult for me to see the negative side of MAX, so it’s terribly easy to jump on the “move-ahead” wagon. Because there are clearly differing viewpoints, I am hoping someone could point me in the direction of the varied choices in public transit.

    I already know (in part to fliers and this site) about the Portland Transport class. Unfortunately, schedule conflicts prohibit me from attending.

    Thanks in advance for the help!

  6. My favorite subject, Michelle!

    1. Streetcar costs about $25M/mile to construct, MAX on the order of $100M/mile. Per hour operating costs for Streetcar are in between those for MAX (higher) and a bus (lower).

    2. A packed Streetcar vehicle can hold about 100 folks, a two car MAX train is probably several multiples of that.

    3. The Streetcar actually has a better power/weight ratio than MAX, for example a MAX car could not make it up the grade on Harrison from Riverplace that Streetcar negotiates today. The limiting speed factor on Streetcar is how often we stop to pick up passengers.

    I think of MAX, bus and Streetcar interoperating in the following way:

    MAX – Hi capacity backbone of the regional system

    Bus – Feeder system to MAX and service for corridors not yet covered by MAX

    Streetcar – Local circulator in densely populated districts, connecting to the longer-haul Bus and MAX systems.

    Lake Oswego will be a bit of a different case if Streetcar is selected for that corridor. The available right-of-way is much too constrained for a MAX vehicle in many places, and even Streetcar will be a tight fit (single track) in some places. Streetcar would need to have operating characteristics (speed, stop spacing) more like MAX in much of that corridor.

    Hope that helps your education into transit things Portland!

    Full disclosure: I chair the Citizens Advisory Committee for Streetcar and sit on the Portland Streetcar, Inc. board of directors.

  7. I believe that a subway is the only way to go. In fact, I am going to mention it at the 9/28 board meeting along with my alternative to the fare increase (dumping the abused, confusing time transfers system). Moreover, I believe that a compromise can be reached between the various issues:

    *Bore a tunnel from the Lloyd Center area, under the river and to Goose Hollow. Cut and cover construction (digging up the streets) would not be done and utilities might not have to be moved. This results in increased speed and capacity while keeping the system simple (all trains share the same route) and attracts thru-downtown riders. It also leads to less disruptions, though MAX now runs thru parades.

    *Have only two stations downtown: near Union Station and PSU. This decreases construction costs, operating costs and security issues. There would also be stations at Rose Quarter and Lloyd Center.

    *Set up a shuttle system for local travel inside downtown between the two MAX stations, like in Denver. The vehicles would be designed for high capacity (instead of comfort), quiet, low/non-polluting and be used instead of the MAX shuttle trains planned. As planned, some diesel buses would be moved off the mall.

    And Bob R. is very correct. I have a view of Steel Bridge and there was just a Yellow Line car waiting at the end of the Seel Bridge to get on to Interstate, causing a Red Line train to wait on the lift span, backing up traffic (incl. a bus). These waits are common, even w/no Green Line.

    Overall, the present Mall plan is a decent plan (# of stops, routing, shuttle trains), but not a great one. As I said at the hearing*, “it will do nothing for westside riders” who will still have to put up with the present illogical route and only lead to more waiting for traffic signals.

    *I think I went right after you. Oh, and instead of “insult”, try “embarrasment”: C-Tran still goes to downtown and people supposidly transfered to them at Gateway

  8. I see a plan here to go underground for east/west MAX once the spokes have max’d out the capacity on the Steel Bridge. Maybe we will reach it after a few years with the I205 line to CTC is up and running with the increased densities to support the line. Also, if Vancouver ever decides to change some of their transportation investment into High Density transit support (MAX), then even more demand will be placed on the Steel Bridge.

    Once we hit this wall, moving to a subway for the main east/west line will be discussed. But not before that moment. My thought and hope is the surface lines in downtown will then be converted to streetcar operation. I can’t remember if the gauge on the MAX line is the exact same as the streetcar line. The conversion (MAX to Streetcar operation) will then require a loop to the constructed east side line (MLK at OMSI) at the Hawthrone Bridge.

    Just like my hope for High Speed Rail on the Eastbank, the move to a subway for Portland is twenty years off at the earliest. But we have to talk about these baby steps now.

    Ray Whitford

  9. The gauge is the same, however the spacing from the platform to the door is different (Streetcars are narrow), so at a minimum, station modifications would be needed to run regular Streetcar operations on MAX lines.

  10. Can the streetcar actually run up to 40 mph? Whatever it is on those trains make a very loud ‘whining’ sound when it does get up to speed.

    Also, I *highly* suggest replacing those damn flat wheels on whichever trains have them. They make the ride much bumpier than needs be (just ride the vintage trolley, it gives a much better ride than the new streetcars). I couldn’t imagine flying down the track at 40 mph with the constant thumping noises from the flat wheels scaring everybody…

  11. I’d agree with Jason’s proposed subway alignment, except I’d recommend a new high-speed rail station and inter-city bus station at Rose Quarter (turn Union Station into a public museum or arts center), with downtown stations at Pioneer Square and PSU.

    Ray is right: since Tri-Met will probably hold off on the tunnel until congestion makes it necessary, we’ll likely get a couple of additional (really, really expensive and overbuilt) streetcar lines out of the deal.

  12. On MAX versus Streetcar:

    Two important truths:

    1.Portland is to be envied for its transportation system 2. The federal budget deficit is going out of control (again).

    Therefore, where will the waste be cut next, just as Clinton-Gore had to achieve welfare reform in the 1980’s? I have always been an opponent of freeway construction (since seeing the 1990 Transportaion plan in 1970) and favorable to commuter rail, BUT, now we need to be exceptionally cost effective and use MAX only where the capacity will be fully utilized. I am obeserving many largely empty car during the day, so I am beginning to think that Streetcar could have more potential and certainly would allow a greater diversity of routes. The big hurdle perhaps would be getting federal funding and I hope Blumenauer is working on that. One would think that if the components become highly standardized, costs could plateau. One has to have a highly concentrated population along a corridor for MAX to approach cost-effectiveness. Other US taxpayers may grow weary of subsidizing our transit system.

    I think the Transit Mall downtown is putting the cart before the horse and needs to be thought through before committing to that particular plan. It certainly behooves us to not have to rework it later when the actual needs become more clear.

    Another note: Portland is held up as a model, but every city has a unique set of problems. Perhaps subways, especially in cold winter cities could have bikeways built alongside underground.

  13. While living in Frankfurt a/Main in the 80’s my wife and I would take the streetcar into the Innenstadt (Downtown) from Bockenheim…about 15 minutes down the main arterial linking the two. Sometimes the sun was shining, but there was lots of interesting coming and going on the street, old & new architecture and so on.
    Then the U-bahn (subway)opened, and the streetcar went away. We descended from the open, airy streets into the underground station, rode into town looking out at tunnel walls (and at fellow passengers), and saved about 5 minutes.
    So while at some point the demands on MAX will require a tunnel, I don’t look forward to it and will happily stay with Streetcar, which I do expect will run on the “old” MAX tracks.
    Lenny Anderson, Swan Island TMA

  14. djk,

    Join me! We are talking two years of heavy lobbying. I’ve been voicing this concept for the last few years (in letters to politicans and websites) that true High Speed Rail will require a move to the East Side close to the Rose Quarter and the convention center (cut out all the time spent slowly crossing the Willamette twice). First I thought a transit center could be under the Memorial Colisuem. But my latest suggestion was in the Tribune on 8-19-2005 to dovetail into the whole issue of moving I5 into a new alignment under the Lloyd District and then below grade on 8th and 9th to a tunnel SW to I405. The “Trails End Transit Station” would be at the old I84/I5 Interchange (HS Trains, Streetcar, MAX, bikes, walkers, buses, watertaxis, maybe even a tram line going along the river but thats another subject). Basically you create a nature High speed corridor where I5 once was and also connect the Rose Quarter to the Lloyd District and the eastside to its river.

    I’m hoping that going to the Columbia River Crossing meetings and bringing up this long term plan again and again will catch fire in their hearts and minds.

    What does Arlo say in “Alices Resturant”? ” … and if three or more starts signing, they’ll think its a movement.”

    We might need a website at some point.

    Ray Whitford

  15. Ray: As far as I know, Jim Howell and Ray Polani over at AORTA ( have been pushing this concept for years. I assume their proposal will be on their website once they’ve finished building it. There are several options for a station in that area: the old hotel site, the Memorial Coliseum, and replacing the Dreyfus grain elevator are obvious. Your suggestion about the freeway interchange is new to me, but I can see it as another workable option.

    Lenny: When I visited London, I was prepared to go everywhere on the Underground. That was until I discovered the joy of riding on the upper deck of a double-decker bus. Nowadays, I’ll ride the bus over the subway in NYC when time isn’t an issue. I think MAX should go underground for reasons of both speed and capacity, but I’ll use surface lines if I’m not in a rush.

  16. Capital costs between MAX and Streetcar are closer than Chris Smith suggested ($25M/mile for Streetcar versus $100M/mile for MAX). Although the concept with Streetcar is to go light and low-cost with construction, it still needs rails and overhead wires and so many other things that add up, especially if bridges are involved. Recent MAX projects (Interstate MAX and the upcoming I-205/Portland Mall) have been in the $60-68 million/mile range. Though the original Streetcar line was lower, recent estimates for the proposed Eastside alignment have been in the $30-35 million/mile range.

  17. Mary,

    How much does the federal subsidy for MAX riders run? I’ve read as high as $2.75 per mile. I am not against commuter rail but shouldn’t we be doing better? Is the Milwaukie MAX-at only five miles- going to have the ridership to justify the $500 million cost? How about extending the Eastside streetcar to Milwaukie and also connectng over the Sellwood Bridge to the Westshore Line?

  18. *Steel Bridge: I remember reading in one of the general meeting notes from the I-205/mall project that the steel bridge is going to be changed for the green line. If i remember correctly, TriMet and the related parties are in discussions with the property owners to remove shared auto traffic with MAX, adding new signals on the bridge approach, and a track and electrical upgrade.

    *Subway: On Metro’s transportation website there is a PDF document called “Chapter 8: Comments and Responses” in which the question of a subway comes up several times and the responses are in relation to capacity, overall costs, and the City of Portland’s emphasis on street level activity.

    *Alignment: another issue with the subway is the alignment of such a tunnel as the current vision for the region has lightrail as possible HCT for Barbur Blvd. to Tigard and Powell/ Foster to Damascus. The additional alignments would make a total of 5 or 6 entrances to a subway depending on design. The current mall alignment would allow for a continuation of the green line down Barbur and for the proposed Caruthers Crossing bridge for the yellow line.

    I feel that the MAX system was a great investment for Portland and continues to be as we expand the system. I would like to see talk of potential plans for extending the current South Corridor Project from the Milwaukie terminus to Oregon City and from Clackamas Town Center along the proposed Sunrise Corridor Highway to the 212 junction or farther into the new Damascus UGB addition.

  19. Ron Swaren suggests using the Sellwood Bridge as a streetcar crossing. That seems unlikely, as the bridge is old and in poor condition. Hasn’t it in fact been closed to buses since 2004?

    That bridge was built as cheaply as possible, and not all that useful when it opened in 1925. If Sellwood is to be part of any transportation plan, it probably should be replaced with a safer, wider, and more modern structure.

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