SW Corridor Plan: Yes to MAX, no to PCC tunnel

SW Corridor Plan has been working to bring high capacity transit line to the SW suburbs

A MAX train at the Convention Center platform, May 25, 2015 (KOIN)
A MAX train at the Convention Center platform, May 25, 2015 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (The Times) — The future of the Southwest Corridor can be summed up in three letters: M-A-X.

On Monday, officials planning a new high capacity transit line from Portland to Tualatin approved MAX light rail as the preferred transit mode to come to the area, and said that they will not continue studying a tunnel under Mount Sylvania to Portland Community College.

The Southwest Corridor Plan has been working to bring some sort of high capacity transit line to the Southwest suburbs for years, but officials had not made a decision about which kind of transit line would be built until this week.

The project’s steering committee — made up of elected officials from across the corridor, as well as officials with TriMet and ODOT — approved MAX light rail as the preferred mode on Monday, May 9.

Project officials had also considered a bus rapid transit system, or BRT. The buses would be similar to Eugene’s EmX line, which uses a combination of public roads and private thoroughfares.

TriMet is planning a BRT line from Portland to Gresham, but Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen said on Monday that the line just wouldn’t work in Southwest Portland or Tigard.

“I had high hopes for BRT,” Dirksen told the packed crowd at Tigard City Hall. “I saw this as a real potential for a lower-cost option for improved transit for tying the Southwest Corridor together … But when we looked at the capacity of how it would actually work … it would not carry the capacity it needed in the long-run, nor provide the assurity of service that it would take to get through line and to your destination.”

Monday’s decision mirrors recommendations by Metro staff, who released a report last month saying that MAX light rail is better suited to tackle the area’s growing population over the next two decades.

“A light rail vehicle can carry 266 people per two-car train while (rapid bus vehicles) can carry about 86 people per bus,” the report reads. “Therefore, it would require far fewer light rail trips than BRT trips to meet rush hour demand. As a result, light rail could operate at about 7 minute frequencies to accommodate rush hour demand in 2035, while BRT would need to run every 3 minutes during rush hour.”

PCC Sylvania tunnel nixed

The committee also shot down plans for a tunnel that would run underneath Mount Sylvania to connect the line with PCC Sylvania.

Sylvania is PCC’s largest campus with more than 30,000 students. PCC officials had hoped that the steering committee would vote in favor of the tunnel, saying it would expand the public’s access to the community college, which relies on two TriMet bus lines and a shuttle service between campuses.

But neighbors in the area strongly opposed the tunnel, which would have forced them out of their homes during its estimated three-year-long construction.

That, along with the tunnel’s large price tag — Metro planners estimated the cost at a half-billion dollars just on the tunnel’s construction — pushed the committee to unanimously approve dropping the tunnel from its plans.

Metro Councilor Bob Stacey said that the tunnel was so expensive, the MAX line wouldn’t have had enough money to make it all the way to Tigard or Bridgeport Village.

“I will express my regret that we can’t meet this premiere destination as one of the spots that light rail serve directly, but I’d regret even more losing the opportunity to reach Tigard and Tualatin, which unfortunately given the vagaries of public finance and federal support might be an actual choice we’d face,” he said. “These are all premiere destinations. Extending the length of this corridor so it can reach Bridgeport and reach downtown Tigard is in the end more critical than making this connection (to PCC Sylvania).”

The tunnel would have run under Southwest 53rd Avenue to PCC’s campus. The tunnel would include an underground station, similar to one in operation at the Oregon Zo0. The tunnel would then continue through Mount Sylvania to a bridge, which would carry it across Interstate 5 to Tigard.

Tigard residents to vote on measure

Now that plans for the tunnel to PCC have been set aside, the steering committee will have to consider how the MAX line will get from Portland to downtown Tigard. Several routes have been suggested, running through the Tigard Triangle and into downtown before heading to Bridgeport Village.

Tigard Mayor John L. Cook voted in favor of light rail on Monday, but said that the final say in whether the city supports the project will have to come from Tigard’s voters.

Voters in Tigard, Tualatin and King City have all passed ballot measures which require public approval before any light rail line can be built through town.

Tigard’s charter amendment, which Tigard voters approved in 2014, calls for the city to formally oppose any high capacity transit project unless voters give their consent. The ballot measure would have to include the line’s approximate route, and cost.

“We’ll hold the vote to meet the rules of our charter amendment,” Cook told Pamplin Media Group after Monday’s meeting.

Cook said that Tigard voters could expect to vote as early as this November.

The choice between BRT and MAX wasn’t unanimous. Elected officials from King City and Sherwood voted against the plan, saying that MAX light rail provided little to no benefit for residents in those cities, although their residents would help pay for it.

“Great service is important for the entire SW Corridor,” Sherwood Mayor Krisanna Clark said. “…I want to hear from my citizens on whether this economic plan is one they are willing to shoulder. They are going to be economically impacted by this without seeing a dramatic service increase in our region.”

From here, the project will begin a federally required study of how the light rail line would impact the environment. That report is expected to finish by the end of 2017.

The Times is a KOIN media partner.

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