The MAX Orange Line: Better late than never

TriMet and the city of Portland have been trying to build a MAX light rail line to Milwaukie since the 1970s. In the mid-90s, a plan was presented to the public that would have created a MAX line from Milwaukie to Vancouver, Washington. Oregon voters approved the bond, while Clark County voters did not. After stagnating for over a decade these plans were tweaked a bit in 2008, abandoning the Washington connection. Finally, the Federal Transit Administration approved the plans in 2011 and now the MAX Orange Line will run from Union Station in Northwest Portland to Southeast Park Avenue in Milwaukie. It will join the other MAX lines downtown and link the heart of the city to the new Oregon Health and Science University waterfront campus and to OMSI, the Brooklyn neighborhood and finally Milwaukie.

To be sure, this new line has caused some controversy. Opponents of the new line complained about the necessary construction of another bridge across the Willamette, now officially called the Tilikum Crossing. Complaints about the cost of the bridge were numerous, and detractors pointed out that several bridges currently in use in the Portland area needed replacing. The Interstate Bridge and the Sellwood Bridge were commonly cited examples. The right-of-way required for safe passage of the trains necessitated the removal of trees and the engineering of raised track beds. Naturally, some people felt this was unacceptable.

Despite the controversy, progress is…well, progress. Downtown Portland is a prohibitively expensive place to live for all but the highly affluent, yet many of the city’s services are located there: OHSU is close enough to make no practical difference, Portland State sits in the heart of downtown, many of the city’s financial and business services are downtown, and the finest restaurants are in the heart of the city.

Yet housing is only to be had for those with significant income. This is not necessarily a bad thing; indeed, it follows the precedent set by most major cities the world over. However, with this nucleus of economic and social activity comes a very real need for public transportation into and out of the city.

Currently, TriMet buses service most of the metro area, but bus schedules are irregular and often change or are eliminated during the weekends or on holidays. While MAX trains can suffer from some similar problems, the effect is miniscule compared to the deficiencies suffered by the bus service. Additionally, the new Tilikum Crossing will link the Portland Streetcar stop at OMSI to the South Waterfront, thus significantly cutting streetcar transportation times from the eastern stations to downtown and the Northwest parts of the city.

Thus, the new Orange Line is a good thing. Students, shoppers, diners, patients and weekend visitors will be able to commute from the southern suburbs into the heart of the city with little fuss and little delay. Housing opportunities for students at PSU are limited at best and now that the MAX Orange Line will connect PSU and Milwaukie, students will be able to search for housing farther from campus, content with the knowledge that they now have reliable transportation to school should they choose to live in those areas. Businesses in Milwaukie will get a boost and land values will likely increase.

Much of the controversy has faded in recent months as the planned project nears completion, but there are still those that feel the new MAX line was and is a waste of money. However, the MAX is one of the most efficient and highly rated public transportation systems in the country and expanding it to meet the needs of Portland metro’s ever-growing population can only be a benefit to Portland.