Transit Mall Plans: A new pain in the S?

Frequently in comments on this blog, I’ve stressed the importance of actually going to meetings. It appears I should have heeded my own advice: Although I’ve attended the vast majority of meetings regarding the Transit Mall light rail project, my work and travel schedules have largely required me to take a break since September.

I was just going over the minutes of the September CAC (Citizens Advisory Committee) meeting, and discovered something interesting: The MAX Green Line alignment into Old Town is being rerouted.

[Updated: Added map images for clarity]

(More after the flip)

Due to concerns about traffic flow, property condemnation, and the preservation of a historic structure, the alignment of MAX as it would enter the Union Station area from the Steel Bridge has been changed. Instead of a direct ramp, it is now planned that MAX will go down from the Steel Bridge on Glisan, and make a tight right turn onto 3rd, and then a tight left turn back on to its original planned alignment.

This new “S” curve (subsequently approved by the CAC) would mitigate a number of issues, but for transit riders it will add two very tight turns in a row and an estimated 16 seconds of travel time each way.

Sixteen seconds may not sound like a lot, but this is in an area where MAX is already encumbered my multiple interlocks (the Rose Quarter area) and very low operating speeds. If you’ve ever been frustrated riding MAX as it proceeds slowly from Rose Quarter to Old Town, close your eyes and count to 16. That’s how much MORE delay you will experience on the new Green Line.

Although I support the Mall project, I have always expressed concerns about the bottleneck of the Steel Bridge and related interlocks. It now appears that we could spend millions and wind up with something which further degrades performance in that critical area.

Map of Original Route (approx.):

Map of New Route (approx.):

(The curve indicated by a question mark may not exist, it was difficult to tell from reading the minutes.)

I do not know if this new route is set in stone, and unfortunately much of this ignorance is my own fault for not keeping on top of issues raised at the public meetings. I strongly encourage anyone here with an opinion on the matter, especially regular riders who cross the Steel Bridge, to contact TriMet with your thoughts.

Here’s a link to the CAC meeting minutes page:

Here’s a link to the Transit Mall project feedback/comment form:

35 responses to “Transit Mall Plans: A new pain in the S?”

  1. Glisan is quit wide between the Steel Bridge and 4th Avenue…maybe lightrail should just follow Glisan with the Union Station/Bus Terminal station on Glisan between 4th and 6th. A bit more walk for folks headed to Union Station, but a lot less travel time and project money.
    Open Houses next week and the week after.

  2. You write or call or FAX to TRIMET:

    We want Portland brings trolleybuses back on the routes again. We want trolleys on the urban trunk lines NOW, your prefence to comment to them. In addition, you can want 60-articulated bus includes biodiesel and trolleys of Seattle’s models or others.

    Please pass to all people urge to write or call or FAX to TRIMET. Thank you for our help needs.

    David Johnson

  3. David –

    Thank you for your comments, but I’d prefer to keep this thread about the specifics of the Old Town MAX route.

    – Bob R.

  4. Yeah, we’re just talking about one possible boondoggle here, not 2!

    But on a serious note. The mall expansion is really a BAD idea for north south traffic. North south should go right through the east side with Loydd Center being a primary connection point with the existing light rail. This connection point is NOT going to do much to get new riders.

    The number one complaint I hear all the time, usually of people that aren’t taking transit specifically because of the complaint, it takes 2-5x as long to take transit to work.

    This change in plans looks just like another extended time taker for transit users and another barrier to prospective transit users. Personally, it bugs me and worries me. I’m a rather active transit user but I can say right now, along with many others, if Trimet/Metro/City of Portland, botches up the already slow light rail even more, they can kiss a bunch of middle and upper income earning individuals goodbye. Sure we’d be replaced, but eventually this hard headedness and lack of intelligent infrastructure instead of just infrastructure for infrastructure’s sake will eventually leave the city without.

    If the system gets even slower I can bet good money on an easy win that the only people coming downtown would be the “thugs”, “vagrants”, and other types that no one wants downtown anyway. The yellow line as it is brings hundreds of these types of individuals downtown every day which causes more problems. The green line is likely to do that also, especially if it’s slowed and thus decreases middle and upper income earners from riding.

    I’ll send another note to Trimet, but it seems vain and useless to offer more suggestion to a corporation who isn’t in the end responsible to customers, but instead to political pull, and who makes decisions by committee anyway with disregard for actual known need.

    …excuse the negativity, the mall is entertaining me in so many ways, but mainly for what seems like a lack of insight and intelligent design – almost like someone wanted to cut corners to spend more money on something. If they pull it off to a levels of success they’ve projected I’ll be amazed.

  5. As a notary and commuter, I am an active transit user as well. And this whole MAX route just annoys me. Like Adron said, the system is already slow and we are just compouning it with new systems. Trimet will not do anything with our emails and phone calls. I have contacted them twice. Surveys have stated that corporations like Trimet and others consider one negative phone call to be on a scale of 3000 people. I am not sure if this is true but I say we keep calling. Before we get too much in debt to stop it. Sorry about 2 negative comments in a row. Ill send a happy one later

  6. I agree, 16 seconds is a lot of delay when we’re talking about the already-slow process of crossing the Steel Bridge, and especially for a project that is touted as relieving bottlenecks, not creating more.

    In the minutes, it says:

    “The Urban Design Subcommittee voted all yeas (with a few abstentions) to support the
    new design, but asked the project staff to look into ways to soften the curve.”

    It sounds like nobody is willing to put a light on the bridge to stop car traffic so that the train can cut across to a ramp heading off to the right. While this might be reasonable in terms of keeping auto traffic moving, auto traffic doesn’t tend to move very quickly across this bridge anyways. I think this decision should be re-considered, with the goal of maximizing the speed of MAX train throughput through this area. MAX already has to backtrack to serve Union Station; the design should aknowledge this and try to make the operations through the area as fast as possible so as not to penalize riders for having service to a useful intermodal transfer point.

    I’m believe that we’re raising this concern not because the solution will be easy; we’re raising it because we know that the best solution will be difficult, and we urge Tri-Met to go all out and work with all of its partners to craft the solution that will ultimately be the most effective for transit operations.

  7. I think the photos above make the point well – the “s” curve is not the most efficient way to operate MAX in this area and the last thing we want to do is add more unecessary time to the ride. To that point, I don’t think the folks at Tri-Met are conspiring to make MAX slower and less efficient.

    I wonder if there is more behind their decision here that we are not aware of – do we have an idea of what the specific traffic flow, propety condemnation, or historical concerns were? There could be cost issues that we don’t know about or issues with condeming multiple parcels of land, we just don’t know. I would like to hear further explanation as to why the change.

  8. probably a dumb question but was taking the MAX line over the broadway bridge and back down to N interstate Ave. ever discussed? I am sure it is not the most cost effective way to do this but it could eliminate some of the congestion caused by relying on only one crosssing point

  9. Matt –

    That is an interesting idea, but it probably would cost too much. The Green Line, coming from Clackamas, will utilize the existing Red/Blue tracks along I-84. Conceivably, this could split off at Lloyd Center Cinemas and follow Multnomah, but then you have to jog North over the Broadway.

    Any time saved on Old Town portion of the line would probably be fully absorbed by street running on Multnomah, Grand/MLK, etc., plus there are potentials for conflicts with the proposed Streetcar extension which _will_ utilize the Broadway bridge.

    It should be noted that the Rose Quarter / Steel Bridge area is salvageable, but it will require a lot of reconstruction and partial undergrounding of the tracks. For more on this, please see my PortlandTransport post on the topic from last March, here:
    How I would Untangle the Rose Quarter

    – Bob R.

  10. I first heard of this change some months ago at an Open House and was told it was in part for cost savings…running down the existing Glisan ramp instead of constructing a new ramp just to the north. Auto traffic will have to be stopped with a traffic signal no matter the design just as on the existing westside ramp.
    I like the old firehouse, so believe it worth saving; likewise the old moving & storage building. Again, why not just run it up Glisan, and let folks walk a few blocks to Union Station.
    Also, don’t think it is too late to make this kind of change; the Interstate CAC moved three stations from 95% final design plans.

  11. Lenny –

    I do not believe the firehouse was slated for destruction. Rather, by avoiding the property entirely, they can skip the various legal processes involved with historic structures.

    – Bob R.

  12. Please write or call or FAX to TRIMET about 60-foot articulated buses put in the routes with new low floor like as Seattle’s modes. It includes biodiesel and trolleys both at high recommendations. Thank you for heling!

    David Johnson

  13. I was also unhappy when I came across the plan to use Glisan. I believe that I was also told that it would not add any travel time. Also:

    *There appears to be enough room behind the fire station for tracks; however, it could be that that area is also protected.

    *Having tracks in front of the fire house makes it less accessible and seems to cause more harm than if they were behind.

    *If the tracks left at the end of the bridge, trains would have to cross a slope at an angle or the Glisan Street ramp would have to be re-graded.

    *Using the Glisan ramp just makes MAX more of a glorified street railway line and less the regional (serving longer-distance riders) rail system it should be.

    *Glisan to 5th & 6th was considered for the original MAX line. One of the problems was the turn at 6th & Glisan.

    *Is the capacity of the Steel Bridge, including switches at both ends and the Interstate Ave crossing, really that much more than Morrison/Yamhill Streets?

    Overall, it seems like the farther this project comes along, the worse it gets. A tunnel would avoid these problems and be a permanent solution for MAX in the central city.

  14. Geez, are they trying to make transit on MAX in general and any mode in Downtown Portland almost completely unusable?

    I’m all for separation of autos and light rail – I’m sick and tired of those that wouldn’t ride transit even if they had their licenses revoked complaining that whenever something is built for transit that it decreases auto capacity. I agree with that statement 100% about not only this, but the entire project in general.

    Makes me wonder if they’re trying to hide a tram-style cost overrun.

    The committee meets on the second Tuesday of each month at the Portland Building, 1120 SW 5th Ave., Room B, from 4-5:30 p.m. (from the Portland Mall website link above)

    So, by the time most anyone gets out of work, the meeting is over.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – how come nobody has attempted to force a PUBLIC VOTE?! If we could stop all of this somehow, maybe then they’d listen.

  15. What ever happened to simple and sweet, linear design?

    First, we put MAX on the Steel Bridge, which forces trains to slow down to 10 MPH; and has an extremely steep approach ramp on the west side.

    Then, we build an extremely sharp turn from Gateway TC onto Burnside.

    Next, we extend MAX west, but somehow cram it into a C-S shaped underground over 217, under the Sunset TC, under 26, alongside the 26 EB-217 SB transition…

    Further west, MAX is crammed into some sort of a worm from Beaverton TC to Beaverton Central.

    Then we build Portland Streetcar. First it was supposed to be a simple loop, but somehow it grew an appendix, crossing over itself and making two sharp 90 degree turns to end up at a stub track on some side street. We then expand on the brillance of this design, by forcing trains in both directions to share the same single track, and make another two sharp turns – so sharp that TriMet Maintenance has to grease the rails and the spring-switch weekly. At the end of this expansion, we put another single-track segment between two double-track segments, and force the Streetcar to wind around a bridge in an odd fashion, that the Streetcar actually severely shakes when going through the manuever.

    Back to MAX, we force the Airport MAX line to make a sharp 180 degree turn on a bridge at 10 MPH. Wouldn’t it have been faster for the trains to simply reverse direction and shoot the car northbound out of the station?

    And now, MAX is going to slink its way off the Steel Bridge onto the 5th/6th couplet with some sort of an S-curve, all for the benefit of…Amtrak?

    I think it’s time to realize that MAX isn’t rapid transit, it has too many design flaws, and they just keep coming with age.

  16. Bob R. says:

    “Please, let’s keep this to just the Green Line Old Town alignment. Thanks again.”

    If we had a Seattle-style system with trolley and
    hybrid buses, we wouldn’t have stupid issues
    like this S-curve. Now you see why I am so pro-BRT
    (in Portland’s case).

    Right on, David!

  17. Nick –

    How would BRT be different in this case? You’d either have to build a ramp for it, or it would have to follow city streets to get to Union Station (the S-curve).

    Downtown, buses and MAX are limited by the timing of signals on the one-way grid. There’s only so much efficiency that can be squeezed out of the 60-second cycle and 200ft blocks. You have to build grade-separated infrastructure to get performance out of either mode. (Seattle Bus Tunnel comes to mind.)

    This ramp to Union Station is perfect proof of this: Remove the ramp from plans, and MAX must follow the same zig-zag that any bus would have to follow. BRT would be no faster.

    – Bob R.

  18. MAX is a sometimes rapid transit, sometimes streetcar, sometimes something in between…which is its great virtue as well as its shortcoming.
    Bob, any idea how much $ they expect to save by not building new ramps? I do believe its a $ issue. As Randy Gragg pointed out on the Tram…Portland loves to go First Class at steerage rates.

  19. Lenny –

    I agree this is about $$$, the project budget is very tight with a lot of what people might consider standard items being left out as “add backs” to be implemented if contingency money is left over at the end of the project.

    I do not know how much the ramp would cost, surely it is in the low $millions. It may represent a substantial savings ($3 million will get you an additional Light Rail Vehicle, and some LRVs are on the add-back list).

    I’m all for making a few compromises to lower costs. However, this project has made many, many compromises to reach its current form, and most of those compromises have increased costs and introduced operational limitations (the auto lane, the serpentine operation pattern (made necessary by the auto lane), the provision for parking/delivery pullouts, etc.

    Each of those compromises has been debated quite a bit, but now this new compromise hits squarely at operations. It is not a theoretical limit or a cap on future growth, it is a built-in delay from the beginning. A built-in delay which affects transit riders directly, and in the part of the system (the Steel Bridge area) already prone to the slowest operating speeds and the most delays.

    It just doesn’t make any operational sense to me.

    – Bob R.

  20. I agree this is a poor place to save money. From your photo, it seems there would be room to run the ramp down behind the old fire station. If not, then maybe it has to go. And I agree it sure would have made life easier if lightrail could have run straight up and down the Avenues with boarding on the left where auto traffic is now redirected. I have never bought the argument that the Mall is a lousy retail environment…there are lots of lively corners where design is ped friendly, etc.
    That said, the MAX system has been designed and re-designed to accommodate all kinds of interests from day one; its something of a miracle that it exists at all and that it works pretty well.

  21. Thanks for keeping us upated on this Bob.

    I’m in agreement that this project looks increasingly risky.

    Really, shouldn’t we be keeping a broad vision for MAX and the streetcar? Instead we get a bunch of politically motivated, convoluted lines with crappy transfers.

    It seems like someone needs to step up and reign TriMet in before the f*ck up anymore MAX lines.

    I support mass transit 100% but Portlands version is the most slow and inconvenient of any city I’ve lived in. TriMet should be learning from mistakes like surface tracks thru downtown and the ridiculous bottlenecks and tight turns… Instead were seeing more of the same. More crappy planning and more crappy design.

    If there are $$ problems, then why don’t they simplify the project instead of ordering less LRVs or whatever. Like reducing headways is the dumbest thing they could do! I mean, really?? Who’s is the f’ing genious that decided it would be better to spend money on this crazy/overcomplicated mall design than to maintain or improve headways? Drop some stops, shorten the line, reduce the central city tracks…whatever you need to do. Just simplify instead of creating and expensive boondoggle.

  22. Nathan –

    Part of the problem, I think, is that every compromise made before this one has a strong constituency behind it…

    1. The auto lane

    This was the primary request of downtown businesses. It is quite possible that if this were not included in the project, businesses would not support the LID and other funding mechanisms, potentially dooming the project.

    Furthermore, from public testimony records (even from evening meetings), it is clear that the total # of people speaking in favor of the auto lane did indeed exceed those showing up to speak against it.

    I’ve always been neutral in my opinion on the auto lane, I can understand both sides of the argument. But there is no getting around the fact that the auto lane raises costs (over $20mil the last time I checked), complicates operations, and reduces the amount of dedicated pedestrian space and large-scale public art.

    One argument in favor of right-side LRV operation (the serpentine approach) that is often overlooked is that it improves automobile turning movements for common routes/destinations north of Burnside, and was favored by community groups in that area.

    2. Reducing project scope/simplifying

    There was much debate about whether or not to extend the line all the way south to PSU. I was one of the people speaking in favor of going to PSU.

    PSU is the largest transit destination downtown. It doesn’t make sense to me to put together a project this large and then ignore or require transfers to reach the most popular transit destination.

    Having the tracks go all the way south also provides a logical link to a Milwaukie extension that would have to be constructed anyway. (Yes, I know this requires a chain of assumptions, such as the need to run Milwaukie light rail into downtown in the first place, etc.)

    The PSU terminus also allows for future potential extensions in the Barbur corridor.

    By doing this work now, we do not have to tear up the mall again later to complete either light rail extension.

    Further, having these tracks south to PSU allows for already mostly-vacant land to be used as the turnaround and layover/staging area, which requires 3 tracks. Developed property will not have to be condemned for the turnaround. (A half-block is required for 3 tracks, see the original Galleria-area turnaround as an example.)

    Finally, this alignment allows for a downtown “circulator” train which traverses the entire mall in a N-S loop. This proposed circulator may be the compromise people are hoping for in the Fareless Square debate.

    The Missing Constituency

    The missing constituency in all of this is Green Line riders. They don’t exist yet.

    Red and Blue line riders will not be immediately detrimentally affected by the new Mall alignment (although the potential for growth of these lines may be limited). In fact, for Red/Blue riders like myself who live along the I-84 stretch, we will see improved headways between Gateway and Rose Quarter.

    But Green Line riders won’t know about this delay until they start riding. Yellow Line riders will be affected, too (because the Yellow trains will run on the Mall alignment), but they are a smaller constituency in total numbers than the other lines, and I don’t think many people yet know about this route change.

    – Bob R.

  23. Personally I have an issue with both of these Union Station designs. Union Station is located in a box canyon. Since the transit mall was extended to the Northwest part of town, the main vehicle entrance/exit to the station has been off Broadway at a busy and not entirely safe intersection. Currently, Sixth Avenue can still be used as an entrance. A back door was opened up with development in the Pearl District, but it for the most part only serves Northwest Portland. The easiest entrance from the inner Northeast and Southeast has been to use the side door, crossing the Steel Bridge and using Third or Fourth Avenues.

    TriMet’s busses have been serving the station for years. I have no figures, but I do not believe most people traveling Amtrak and carrying luggage use public transit to access the station. They are dropped off and picked up by private autos or go by taxicab (plenty of them wait there for trains to arrive). Either way, closing the side door Union Station access to motor vehicles has more negative consequences than positive ones. It really messes up and limits total Union Station access. Portland promotes walking, but doesn’t walk the talk when comes to a requirement that light rail that must stop directly at the door steps of both Union Station and PSU.

  24. Terry –

    Can you confirm that the project would really close off existing vehicle access to Union Station?

    I must admit its been a few months since I’ve looked at the maps, but I don’t recall any station entrances being closed off.

    – Bob R.

  25. A couple comments (OK, they’re veering out of Old Town/Chinatown):

    *Having MAX go up to Irving Street makes since. It will be more visible and accessible to tourists coming from Union Station with luggage. However, I think that, due to the turns, the stations will be more towards Glisan.

    *I don’t know about 4th/Glisan, but I do know that tracks are planned to go through North Terminal, the bus layover area between 4th and 5th.

    *I have herd that having Airport MAX go directly north from Gateway would be problematic, since trains would have to cross all of the tracks (or something) and operators would have to switch ends if trains were to continue towards downtown. The latter causes problems even today, though, without additional Green Line trains.

    *Really, shouldn’t we be keeping a broad vision for MAX and the streetcar? Instead we get a bunch of politically motivated, convoluted lines with crappy transfers.

    This issue was brought up in an article about the Interstate MAX opening. The problem is that the feds fund things in cycles/by project. Its hard to get a long-term source of capital $$$ to build systems and not just lines.

    *Another “missing constituency” could be cross-region (eastside-westside) commuters who will get no benefit out of this project. And even assuming the Milwaukie extension gets built, north-south commuters will get only a small benefit–a slow, indirect train that may require a transfer downtown.

  26. Sorry for the negativity in my last post…I realize that there are practical reasons why the MAX system is being built the way it is.

    It is, however, quite frustrating that projects that are this important and expensive do not get the attention-to-detail they deserve.

    One issue I have regarding Union Station: Is it really worth it to route MAX close to station when:

    -at this point in time fast and convenient regional and long distance rail are fantasies. These types of rail transit do not attract high ridership

    -as terry points out, many people would take a taxi to the station because of luggage…

    -even though some major train stations are connected to metros, they require a fairly long transfer even if the transfer is entirely underground.
    Other stations are served by Metros but the portal is not necessarily convenient. People certainly are able to walk a hundred meters.

  27. Jason says:

    “*I have herd that having Airport MAX go directly north from Gateway would be problematic, since trains would have to cross all of the tracks (or something) and operators would have to switch ends if trains were to continue towards downtown. The latter causes problems even today, though, without additional Green Line trains.”

    I was living down the block when the Airport line
    opened and I thought the layout at GTC (with
    the single track looping back) was really stupid.

    Another problem that would probably not exist
    with a BRT system.

  28. Having very visible trains close to the station and not 2-3 blocks away is like a big advertisement and encourages people to ride transit instead of a cab or getting picked up/dropped off.

    While Portland Mall bus service does serve Union Station today, there are many people who are willing to take a train but not a bus. This seems especially true with tourists who have no local knowlage and could be for people with luggage. Airport MAX has a lot more riders then Line 12 did at PDX and luggage is common on it.

    Also the Green Line will be an improvement over Line 77 for eastside people.

  29. First it was supposed to be a simple loop, but somehow it grew an appendix, crossing over itself and making two sharp 90 degree turns to end up at a stub track on some side street. We then expand on the brillance of this design, by forcing trains in both directions to share the same single track, and make another two sharp turns – so sharp that TriMet Maintenance has to grease the rails and the spring-switch weekly.

    At one point my understanding was that the streetcar would run diagonally through the block between 4th & 5th and Montgomery & Harrison, so southbound trains would have two 45 degree turns instead of 3 90 degree turns, and northbound trains would have one 45 degree turn instead of 2 90 degree and one 45 degree turn.

    I believe that the Jasmine Tree on the SE corner of the block was recently brought into public ownership. Does Streetcar, the City and PSU still plan to fix this little mess here? A diagonal alignment would get rid of all those corners and could get rid of the single-track section as well.

    While they’re at it they could put a new Streetcar stop in the block (kidding, just kidding folks).

  30. Jason,

    I understand both points. Of course high-visibilty transit encourages more ridership….and of course riders prefer trains to buses.

    However, *my* point is this: how many tourists enter Portland via Union Station? My guess is very very few. And is it then fiscally responsible to spend $$ on catering to these very few people when the budget is so tight already?

  31. I attended the open house at the Portland Building earlier today, and specifically mentioned I heard about this routing on Portland Transport.

    The answer I received was that this alignment was recommended by the contractor as being a little less expensive, and the ground below the original alignment was fill material, which they felt was less stable.

    They’re aware of the increased time of travel tradeoff. I wonder if that’ll cause people to transfer from MAX to a bus at Rose Quarter TC, since those routes currently serve Downtown Portland more directly.

  32. Current MAX trains take 10 minutes to travel from Rose Quarter to Pioneer Courthouse Sq; I expect the new Mall route to be about the same regardless of the ramp question. Buses times can be less in non-peak, but generally run about 10 minutes as well, so would not be worth the transfer hassle for most riders.

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