Expansion would allow TriMet to chase federal dollars needed to upgrade Gateway and PDX stations

FILE PHOTO - The last light rail expansion carried passengers south to Milwaukie beginning in Sept. 2015. An extension of the Red Line to the Washington County Fair Complex could open as soon as 2021.As early as 2021, TriMet could begin offering single-seat connections between Hillsboro and PDX via a 10-station expansion of light rail service to the Washington County Fair Complex.

The plan would also revamp stations at the airport, which would help TriMet handle tricky timing at its Gateway Transit Center in Portland during peak usage. But the project would only get federal funding if it also offered service to more passengers on the rapidly growing west side.

Currently, western Washington County passengers must change from TriMet's Blue Line, which starts at the Hatfield Government Center Station in downtown Hillsboro, to the Red Line somewhere along the way to the airport — and from Red to Blue on the way back. During off-hours, that can mean a long, cold wait.

Alan Lehto, TriMet Director of Business Planning & Asset Management, told board members extension of the Red Line to the fairgrounds has long been the plan to help balance demands on the west side — and should spark growth in ridership.

The project would add Red Line service at 10 stations: Beaverton Central, Merlo Road, Elmonia, Willow Creek, Quatama, Orenco, Hawthorn Farm and the Fair Complex. TriMet would purchase eight more rail cars and lay some additional track for switching purposes, along with a new operator break facility.

On the east side, TriMet would convert single-track sections to double-track sections at Gateway and PDX. At Gateway, TriMet would reconfigure the Red Line to approach the station from the north, instead of the current loop and approach from the south. TriMet would add a second platform for Red Line trains, and expand its storage facility in Gresham.

The changes would allow TriMet more time to recover from delays on the Red Line, which often reverberate across the entire system. Trains need a two-minute window between one another to operate safely, Lehto said, and Gateway is often pushing that limit during rush hour.

On the west side, during peak times, Blue Line trains (Hillsboro to Gresham) are often packed while Red Line trains are relatively empty. Lehto said adding Red Line service would help balance ridership.

FILE PHOTO - Red Line expansion would mean riders could take a single train from Hillsboro at the fair complex to Portland International Airport. The trip currently requires changing trains.While it wouldn't extend to downtown Hillsboro, the proposed extension passes close to several major job centers: Intel's Hawthorn Farm campus in Hillsboro and the Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton. Lehto said TriMet has heard from stakeholders at both major employers that delays through downtown Portland inhibit employees from taking light rail.

Plans for expansion also come as Washington County moves forward on funding an events center at the fair complex. The project would add conference rooms, build an amphitheater and expand the kitchen. Hillsboro approved a local lodging tax in August, with funds directed toward events-center construction.

"When you think about what is happening at the fairgrounds — if it all does happen — the fairgrounds is going to be a major user of light rail. So it will be nice that TriMet can do that," said Andy Duyck, chairman of the Washington County Board of Commissioners. "Some big things are in the works, all of which would drive a lot of traffic to the fairgrounds."

Duyck floated the idea of a parking garage at the fair complex.

Hillsboro Planning Department Director Colin Cooper also voiced his support for light rail expansion.

"TriMet has been discussing the potential extension of the Red Line for a number of years with the City and other community partners, and the City has been supportive of any increase in public transit service for the Westside," he said.

If TriMet includes expansion in the Red Line project, Lehto said, there could be as much as $100 million in federal dollars for the project — close to a 50-50 split with local funding. Construction would be almost entirely inside TriMet's current right-of-way, meaning minimal impact other than during construction.

Lehto said TriMet is looking at staggered delivery of various elements of the project in 2021 and 2022. A broader public outreach should be underway later this fall, with application for federal funds coming next year.

Pamplin Media Group reporter Peter Wong contributed to this story.