Sidebar: How Light Rail Came to the Region

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When the Orange Line debuts, it will be almost thirty years since the first MAX line opened and TriMet stepped into the spotlight to become a national leader in public transit. But it wasn’t always that way.

In the early 70s, it looked like public transit in Portland was dying out. Ridership had been falling since the 50s, and Rose City Transit Company, the primary transit service and one of 34 bus and trolley companies to operate in the Portland region in the past hundred years, was going bankrupt.

In a last-ditch effort, the City took over Rose City Transit and called for the creation of a new transit authority to run it. In early 1969, state legislation created the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon — TriMet for short — which immediately took over the former Rose City Transit.

Shortly after, in 1971, the “Transportation Plan for 1990” advised the creation of 54 highways and freeways, believing the bus system would only be used as a source for downtown rush hour commuters. In response, TriMet batted around the idea of developing European-style light rail lines running along the existing railroad lines.

In 1977 TriMet launched Fareless Square in an attempt to increase ridership downtown and reduce air pollution.

Portland had used rail transit in the past — trolley lines and San Francisco-style cable cars — but those systems had died out. Planners, however, saw a revival of rail in the region’s future. Light rail had been used in Europe, but had only recently reemerged in the US. The first modern system — albeit a fairly limited version – had just been opened in San Diego.

Ten years after Fareless Square, the first Metropolitan Area Express (or MAX) opened, connecting Portland to its easterly suburb of Gresham. The Blue Line was eventually extended, tunneling under the West Hills, out to Beaverton and Hillsboro.

In the 1990s, TriMet was looking to replicate its success with the Blue Line and launched a $2.8 billion plan known as the South-North Light Rail Project to connect Clackamas Town Center to Vancouver, WA. It would have run from Clackamas Town Center\ through Milwaukie, along the Union Pacific rightof-way through Portland’s Brooklyn neighborhood, to Portland’s downtown and eventually north along Interstate Avenue to Vancouver.

In 1994, the plan was put to the region’s voters, and nearly two-thirds of voters on the Oregon side of the river approved the $475 million bond. Clark County voters, however, rejected a $237.5 million bond that would have provided Washington’s share of the funding.

On September 10, 2001, the Red Line opened connecting riders to Portland International Airport. In 2004, the northern stretch of what would have been the South-North line opened as the Yellow Line, stopping short of Vancouver and instead ending at the Expo Center. Five years later, the Green Line finally connected downtown Portland to Clackamas Town Center, but rather than running through Milwaukie, it made use of existing infrastructure and shares the east-west rails with the Blue and Red MAX Lines before turning south and following I-205 out
to Clackamas.

Still, Milwaukie remained unserved. Now that’s about to change.