MAX turns 30 years old

This topic contains 13 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by  edselehr 2 years, 10 months ago.

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    Dan Packard

    Portland’s Metropolitan Area eXpress (MAX) began operation between Gresham and Portland exactly thirty years ago. It ushered in a new way of thinking about transportation in our area. That getting somewhere doesn’t always require four wheels, an internal combustion engine and more freeways.

    Check out the first MAX opening video from channel 2 with a very, very thin Jeff Gianola (warning, audio level is very low and only from right channel).



    Here’s a great writeup on the death of the Mt. Hood Freeway and the genesis of MAX:



    A significant part of the right-of-way used for the Westside Expansion in the 1990s once belonged to the Oregon Electric Railway. My question to those who lived in Portland prior to 1986 is, what was in the right-of-way used for the original MAX line prior to its construction?

    Here are some photos of the Oregon Electric Railway trains and lines, from the early 20th century:



    Alfredo, the original Blue line starts on surface streets in the Transit Center (may ride occasionally on former electric car lines, not sure). I think the Steel Bridge crossing reestablished the old electric line that ran across it (Fun Fact: the Steel Bridge has more modes of transportation crossing it than any bridge in the United States: cars, light rail, freight/Amtrak, and pedestrian).

    From Rose Quarter to Lloyd Center it is on surface streets, then drops into the Banfield rail corridor. I don’t think it displaced existing rail lines, but was added in as part of the Banfield Freeway enlargement. When it emerges at Gateway it is back on surface streets, primarily Burnside, which had been automobile-only before that. At Ruby Junction the light rail merges onto a decommissioned freight spur that ran into Gresham and terminated at CLeveland Station, where MAX currently ends. Presumably, MAX could in the future continue from that point and merge back onto Burnside on the old Dodge Park trolly route for a bit and then proceed up the mountain following Highway 26. But not likely to happen until the UGB is expanded eastward.



    Wow! I didn’t realize that the Steel Bridge has a lower deck for Amtrak trains. Now I know:

    Diesel train at Steel Bridge



    The Springwater trail follows the alignment of an old inter urban rail line between Portland, Oaks Park, and Boring. (see the excellent book “Images of Rail: Portland’s Streetcar Lines,” by Richard Thompson, published by Arcadia Publishing in 2010; best book on the subject I’ve ever read. Available at most major bookstores.) The corridor was originally intended for the Mt. Hood Freeway project. When it wasn’t built, Metro bought it for the Soringwater trail as we now know it.

    An extension from Boring to Estacada, known as the Cazasero extension, is now under construction by Oregon State Parks. When that’s done, we’ll have a continuous ped / bike route running from Tillicum Crossing to Estacada. Long range plans call for another extension further east over the mountains. That Boring-Estacada section is also part of the old inter urban route.



    There is no doubt that Portland was very forward thinking on light rail. Look how many cities have followed suit.

    Interesting about the proposed Mt. Hood Freeway…I was familiar with the protests, but never knew that I80N was going to be named on that route. What I don’t understand is how that corridor would be designated that route with no freeway east of Portland where US 26 is today. Or would it have shared 205 up to the Banfield?
    Of course I80N was designated in Oregon, but on the entire route of what is now I84 in Oregon.

    Interesting look at KATU as well. TV news looks quite dated here, and yeah, Jeff looks like an entirely different person.


    Andy Brown

    Alfredo, that pic of the Steel Bridge showing the train is dated. The lower level now has a wide walkway for pedestrians and bicycles. I use that lower level on my daily bike ride.

    Here’s a more recent pic as viewed from the west side looking east.

    The 1973 Federal Aid Highway Act allowed states to transfer funds from segments of the Interstate system no longer required to fund alternative road or transit projects. Shortly after, local jurisdictions formally rejected the $400 million Mt. Hood Freeway project in response to citizen outcry. The region sought to transfer some of the funds to transit projects. The Oregon Public Utility Commission published a report proposing a regional light rail system based largely on existing railroad right-of-ways. The Oregon Legislature adopted Senate Bill 100 establishing land-use laws to protect livability and prevent sprawl.

    The first MAX line, the eastside Banfield Light Rail Project, received federal approval to use freeway funds, using UMTA resources in 1980. Though used in Europe, the only modern US light rail had just opened in San Diego. Portland officials decided its bare bones treatment was not right for here and began to develop their own approach.



    Less MAX and more roads. Anybody enjoying the terrible traffic in Portland these days?



    Agreed to some extent. Traffic is as bad as ever in PDX. However, it probably would be worse without MAX.

    I think the fact that MAX was one of the first modern light rail systems in the US put road construction on the back burner. Look at the 80’s. 205 was under construction so it was going to be completed hell or high water. But look at I-5. Virtually no increased capacity from the Interstate Bridge to Tigard. I-5 in North Portland looks much like it did when constructed in the early 60’s, and traffic jams are automatic on a daily basis. (Ever wonder why traffic eases just north of the Interstate Bridge most weekday afternoons? ’cause WA expanded I-5 capacity)

    I’ve said this before about my hometown of Seattle, which is also slow in increasing road capacity…transit is great, but roads also need to keep up with population. I think this would go double for PDX.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 10 months ago by  paulwalker.


    Studies from the late 1940s recommended that cities build grids of controlled access freeways every three miles–or perhaps every 1 1/2 miles if popularity of the automobile exceeded expectations. That line of thinking has largely fallen out of fashion in most cities.

    In Portland, there have been about 40 years of momentum behind the movement to decrease car traffic. One prime motivator, I recently read, was that in the early 1970s, Portland had severe air quality problems, and the EPA was fining the city daily. In response, the city council voted down a project to build an 800 car parking garage in Pioneer Courthouse Square and eventually voted to close Harbor Drive and convert the former freeway back into a greenspace.



    paulwalker, you are correct that I-205 and I-80N were going to be duplexed between Rocky Butte and Powell. The Banfield corridor was going to revert to being US-30 while I-84 traffic would merge with I-205 then continue down the Mt. Hood Freeway to the Marquam Bridge. The vestiges of this plan remain in abundance. The biggest is the odd interchange at I-205 and I-84. Coming from the east, I-84 exits off of itself, and coming from Portland it merges onto itself. IT is clear that westbound traffic was meant to proceed straight, take the tunnel under I-205 and continue south on I-205.

    And the next time you southbound on I-205 approaching the Division/Powell exit, look closely at the freeway alignment. It is very clear that I-205 was going to split evenly, sending half it’s traffic to the right and under the Division Street overpass, to finally merge with the Mt. Hood Freeway. (They previewed this alignment with the Powell-only lane that goes under the Division overpass) Today, that space is used as a MAX station.

    Something I learned from the article I cited was that the traffic studies for the Mt. Hood Freeway made it clear that the Marquam couldn’t handle the traffic load, and that another bridge across the Willamette would be necessary, thus skyrocketing the costs. I’m sure this was the nail in the coffin for the Mt. Hood Freeway.



    Thanks, very interesting information.

    I wonder if this 205 to Mt. Hood Plan for I-80 N was due to the Banfield being not up to Interstate standards.

    Which means that the Mt. Hood freeway, if built, would have been an Interstate standard freeway.

    As it turned out, MAX brought the Banfield up to Interstate standards, though it was designated an Interstate well before MAX.

    Portland has a colorful freeway history. A whole other topic was the downtown river freeway that was built and later torn down. Not sure how big this artery was, but Portland didn’t like it.



    The Banfield is certainly not an ideal interstate alignment, as curvy as it is. But the main reason for shunting I-80N down to the Mt. Hood Freeway was to qualify it for interstate highway funding, which would have covered 92% of construction costs.

    Portland is a unique major city in that it early on said “no” to having itself sliced up by freeways. Our lack of freeways has certainly helped to keep Portland weird, but 40 years later our decisions are beginning to catch up to us, and gridlock in Portland has become almost untenable. We’ve spent a lot of time on alternative modes of transportation, and now we need to revisit our automobile grid and make some improvements.

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