Pop Quiz: What makes more sense?
In the recent barrage of emails and press releases from TriMet regarding construction activities for Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail, I have noticed a shift in marketing for the line. The project, officially still called the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Transit Project, has long been unofficially known as the Orange Line, but that always seemed like a placeholder in lieu of an actual study of what would be best for the line. However, in the last month or two the Orange Line designation has been actually used by the agency and appears to be official. At a recent tour I attended of construction activities, the tour guide confirmed that the current plan is to run the Orange Line as a stand-alone line, terminating and turning around at Union Station (see the first map above). This is a disturbing development for reasons I will outline below.
Giving the new light rail line a new color is a serious mistake clearly driven by marketing concerns rather than any consideration of operational efficiency or rider benefit. It appears that TriMet (and perhaps the city of Milwaukie) want the line to have a new color because it increases the visibility of the project compared to simply extending an existing line. The problem is that this seemingly innocuous naming scheme will have negative implications for the high-capacity transit network the public relies on.
The most beneficial and efficient way to operate the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail line would be to treat it as an extension of the Yellow Line (see the second map above). Southbound Yellow trains would run from Expo Center to downtown, continue past Portland State University, and head down to Milwaukie. Northbound trains would run all the way from Milwaukie to Expo Center. There are three main benefits to this form of operation. First, it allows riders to go straight through downtown without having to transfer. Second, it reduces the need for layover space in downtown where it is most scarce.
A good transit network will, whenever possible, allow transit riders to ride through downtown if they live on one side of downtown and work (or have other destinations) on the other side. We have precedence for this through-downtown model in the form of the Red and Blue Lines. Sure, the majority of riders get and on and off downtown, but there are also plenty of people who ride from one side to the other without having to transfer. TriMet also does this with most of the bus lines through downtown, and many people take advantage of this feature. In any case, extending the Yellow Line would create a very strong north-south transit spine to complement the east-west Blue/Red transit spine, whereas an isolated Orange Line would not. We need a network that expands riders’ freedom to go to more places, and that means making them as long as is practical and not forcing downtown transfers for no reason.
One reason that most bus lines go through downtown besides rider benefit is the fact that layover space is very limited downtown. Some lines do a “live-loop” downtown and don’t have a layover at all, and some other lines layover at Union Station, but there is simply not much space for buses to sit around. For light rail trains, there are a couple turnaround/layover spots: one for the Blue/Red Lines on SW 11th Ave between Yamhill and Morrison (rarely used nowadays), and one at the south end of PSU where the Yellow and Green Lines currently terminate. Other than that, there are a few pullout tracks around Union Station, but these are not as good because they require drivers to switch from one end of the train to the other rather than just turning around.
So one problem with running the Orange Line only as far as Union Station before turning around is that it is not a good place for a layover. TriMet could have trains use the pullout tracks, but it will be more time-consuming and awkward than using a full turnaround space like the ones mentioned above. The other option would be to always live-loop and only do layovers at the other end of the line in Oak Grove. That could work in general, but it leaves less operational flexibility for dealing with inevitable service disruptions or getting trains back on schedule.
Another issue, perhaps minor but still something to think about, is that we have a limited color palette to choose from for transit lines. Why waste Orange frivolously when we don’t have to? What if we decide to give Bus Rapid Transit lines colors as well, following the lead of Los Angeles, where they wisely decided to treat light rail and BRT as one integrated network? There really aren’t that many colors that are acceptable for transit lines, unless we are excited about the prospect of a Fuchsia Line or Periwinkle Line in our future.
The only possible advantage I can see from running the Orange Line separately is that it would effectively boost frequency on the downtown transit mall by 50%, assuming 15-minute headways on Yellow, Green, and Orange Lines. This would have been a bigger benefit back in the days of the Free Rail Zone, when light rail served double-duty as a downtown circulator. It also isn’t much of a boost, going from average 7.5 minute headways to 5 minute headways.
Overall, the benefits of running the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail line as an extension of the Yellow Line seem so obvious that I can only conclude that some combination of marketing and politics has managed to dominate any rational discussion of what is best for the public. I hope this article can jump-start that discussion, because it is not too late to change course and do the right thing. Let’s extend the Yellow Line, and save the color Orange for a future line when we really need it.
Zef Wagner is pursuing a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree at Portland State University, specializing in transportation planning.