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Buses to return May 24, trains already practicing trial runs
by: JAIME VALDEZ, TriMet light rail operator and training supervisor Robert Lynch watches as Portland State University students head to class during a test-run on a new MAX train along the newly renovated Transit Mall on Southwest Sixth Street.

TriMet is doing everything possible to make the redesigned Transit Mall safe. Now it's your turn.


That's the message regional transit agency officials are sending out as the time nears for pedestrians, bicycles, cars, buses and trains to begin mixing on the mall. Operators are already testing MAX trains on the new light rail tracks. The buses will return to the mall on May 24.

'It will be safe if everyone is alert and does their part,' said Allen Morgan, TriMet's operator training manager.

The redesigned mall runs along Fifth and Sixth avenues from Union Station at the north to the southern edge of Portland State University. It includes a new MAX line that connects to the eastside line at the Steel Bridge. In the Old Town area, trains and buses share a single lane. They weave through two adjacent lanes on most of the rest of it.

The challenge of maintaining safety on all 57 blocks of the mall line was readily apparent during a recent ride on one of TriMet's new MAX trains.

As TriMet training supervisor Robert Lynch piloted the MAX train through town, a skateboarder fell in front of it when one of his wheels got caught in the tracks. Several pedestrians talking on cell phones almost stepped off the curb onto the tracks as the train approached. And cars frequently wandered into the lanes reserved for trains and buses.

Lynch took it all in stride, repeatedly sounding the train's bells to warn those inadvertently putting themselves at risk. Most took notice right away. For those who didn't, Lynch sounded a much louder horn until they realized his train was bearing down on them.

'It's going to take a while for everyone to get used to us again,' said TriMet Communications Director Mary Fetsch, who was along for the ride.

As Fetsch explained it, the mall has not operated as a transit center for much of the past two years. During the remodeling project, all of the buses were moved off to different streets. Cars were allowed to park along portions of Fifth and Sixth avenues when they were not under construction. And lanes were not clearly marked on some of the completed streets, allowing cars to drive all over them.

But now the construction is almost complete and traffic rules are being imposed again. Some are very different than before the project began.

For example, cars can now travel the full length of both streets in left hand lanes. Right-hand turns are largely prohibited to prevent collisions with trains and buses. Instead, motorists will have to make three left-hand turns to turn right. Bicyclists can make right-hand turns at crosswalks, however.

Portland police admit some people may have trouble adjusting to the new rules. Vince Jarmer, commander of the city's transit police division, said the new trains are so quiet that motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians have to be especially alert for them. He said some of the new signs are difficult to see at night and need to be replaced with bigger and brighter ones.

'Is it perfect?' asks Jarmer. 'Not yet, but we're working on it.'

To increase awareness of the new rules, the police were scheduled to conduct enforcement missions on the mall from May 18 through 22. Violators received either a warning or $242 citation for disobeying a traffic control device.

Downtown business owner Phil Kalberer said he is cautiously optimistic there will be no persistent traffic problems when the mall reopens. Kalberer, who chaired the citizen advisory committee that helped redesign the mall, said TriMet did a good job of minimizing problems when the buses were temporarily shifted to Third and Fourth avenues.

'Traffic is down a little bit because of the economy, so that should help a little, too,' said Kalberer, president of the Kalberer Co. at 321 S.W. Fourth Ave.

Redesign costs $220 million

The mall was redesigned as part of a $575.7 million project to extend MAX service from PSU through downtown to the Gateway Transit Center and along Interstate-205 to the Clackamas Town Center. The mall portion cost around $220 million, including such amenities as new bus stops and art.

The project includes the purchase of 22 sleek new trains. They are more aerodynamically styled that the existing MAX trains, with a sloping front end and rounded corners. Each is about seven feet longer than the older versions, and they feature an open floor plan that allow them to carry eight more passengers. They are also quieter and use less electricity than the older ones.

The finished mall will have 31 bus stops and 14 MAX stops. Two of the MAX stops are scheduled to be added at PSU as part of a planned development at the school.

According to TriMet's Morgan, each block on the mall had to be custom designed to accommodate cars, buses and trains. Before the design was finalized, they were blocked out with yellow construction cones in the park lot at TriMet's headquarters in Southeast Portland to make sure they would work. The testing resulted in such fundamental decisions as reducing the number of bus stops and MAX stations to no more than one per block.

The testing also helped produce the lighted signal system TriMet installed to manage the trains and buses. Trains are controlled at each intersection by a special signal that tells them to stop or go. Buses are controlled at each of their stops by a signal that holds them while trains pass.

Although motorists can see these signals, they are not supposed to obey them. Fetsch said officials believe that they look different enough that drivers will not be confused.

Motorists and buses in the travel lanes are controlled by conventional traffic signals. Some intersections also have signals telling motorists they can turn left. Motorists are allowed to turn right at three intersections at the ends of the mall. At the north end, it is Northwest Sixth Avenue and Irving Street. At the south end, they are Southwest Fifth Avenue and Jackson Street and Southwest Sixth Avenue and Harrison Street.

Practice makes perfect?

TriMet drivers have already spent weeks practicing driving trains and buses along the mall. The goal is to coordinate the vehicles with the lights to keep both moving smoothly. As of Monday, TriMet had trained nearly 1,500 of its employees on the system, including 1,181 bus operators, 142 train operators and 128 supervisors and managers. An additional 182 employees of the Clark County transit agency had also been trained.

'Some of the drivers did not understand how it would all work until the practice began,' said Morgan. 'Then there have been 'aha moments' when they get it.'

Even after the signal system was devised, some blocks required special attention. For example, although cars are no allowed to park along most of Fifth and Sixth, a special parking lane was built in front of St. Mary's Academy, at 1615 Southwest Fifth Avenue. It is separated from the street with metal barriers.

'We knew that parents would want to continue dropping their children off at school and figured out a way to accommodate them,' said Fetsch.

The first bus scheduled to return to the mall on May 24 is Line 4 Division/Fessenden. It will leave the Rose Quarter at 5:18 a.m. and arrive on the mall two minutes later. Right behind that will be Line 12 Barbur/Sandy Boulevard. It will leave the Burnside Bridge at 5:20 a.m. and arrive one minute later.

MAX training will continue on the mall over the next three months. Practice will begin on the regular daily schedule on Aug. 30.

Full MAX service through the mall is set to begin on Sept. 12 - the 11th anniversary of the opening of Westside MAX service.

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