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Regional transit agency wants to speed up rail and bus service with station closures, road projects, bus-only lands, and maybe a subway tunnel under Portland

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - TriMet is considering closing the Kings Hill/SW Salmon St. MAX station and two other downtown light-rail stops. The board of the regional transit agency is scheduled to vote on the closures at its June 24 meeting.Four minutes may not sound like a lot of time to save on a daily commute.

But TriMet already has endured months of criticism for proposing to close four downtown MAX stations to save riders two minutes on each direction of their round trips through Portland. And much bigger decisions — including whether to build a subway tunnel for light-rail trains under downtown and the Willamette River — are looming.

The agency's board of directors took one of the proposed station closures off the table at its June 26 meeting. But the controversy over the other three remaining proposed closures will continue until at least the board's July 24 meeting. Most board members agreed that light rail travel times through downtown are too slow, however.

TriMet has argued the four stations were unwisely built too close to other ones, which riders could easily use instead. Business organizations in Portland and Washington County supported the proposed closures to reduce travel times through downtown, if only slightly.

Many others opposed them, however, including Saturday Market operators, Multnomah Athletic Club employees and members, Lincoln High Schools students, and advocates for elderly and mobility-impaired riders.

The most controversy concerned the Skidmore Fountain Station, which is near Saturday Market, the University of Oregon, Mercy Corps and social service agencies. Supporters blasted TriMet for even considering the closure. The board agreed to keep it open for three more years, but to reconsider it for closure then.

The regional transit agency also was criticized for proposing to close the Kings Hill/Southwest Salmon Street Station near Lincoln, the MAC and Providence Park, home to the Portland Timbers and Portland Thorns soccer teams. Some club employees and students argued it was not safe to walk to the next-nearest stations. The board will vote to close it for a one-year test at its next meeting.

There was not as much opposition to closing the Mall/SW Fourth Avenue and Mall/SW Fifth Avenue stations. They are just a couple blocks east of the Pioneer Courthouse Square transit center. Their closure votes were also scheduled for the July 24 board meeting.

The three remaining proposed closures are projected to save three minutes of travel time. Although that isn't much, TriMet General Manager Doug Kelsey said the goal is important.

"They are part of a comprehensive strategy to speed up our transit service," Kelsey told the board.

According to TriMet, more and more riders are traveling through downtown. Gentrification has pushed populations out of close-in neighborhoods to East Portland and other outlying areas. At the same time, key employment centers have developed outside of downtown in suburban corridors, most significantly in Washington County.

"Crosstown trips are an important commute pattern," Kelsey said. "Communities of color and those who are financially disadvantaged now have longer and less predictable commutes to access job centers. Providing faster travel for people to access those jobs has become critical and will continue to grow in importance over time as these trends continue."

Goal is faster transit service

As Kelsey said, the proposed closures reflect TriMet's current commitment to reducing travel times as much as possible throughout its system — with even more focus on its bus lines. Overall ridership has been declining slightly for years, despite population increases within TriMet's service district.

Agency officials are convinced that is largely because MAX and bus trips are too slow, especially on heavily traveled city streets. Speeds on key routes decreased by more than 7% between 2009 and 2017. TriMet estimates it is spending an additional $14.3 million to keep buses on schedule. Riders consistently say trips take too long.

"We know that to attract riders, our travel times must be competitive with private autos," Kelsey said. "If we're too slow compared to the auto, those who have a choice on whether to ride will choose not to take transit — no matter how convenient or close the stop may be."

Because of that, TriMet also has been working with its regional partners to speed up bus travel. The following projects are either completed, underway or being considered:

• Small Portland projects: TriMet has been working with the Portland Bureau of Transportation on small street projects intended to speed up buses. Those completed include: adding a bus-only lane at the westside entrance of the Hawthorne Bridge; adding left turn lanes at the intersection of Northeast 15th Avenue and Northeast Fremont Street; adding bus-only lanes to Southeast Stark Street from about 82nd to 85th avenue; adding bus-only lanes on Southeast Washington Street between 80th and 83rd avenues; and restriping several other busy streets to create vehicle turn lanes. The TriMet board approved about $3 million for additional projects at its June 26 meeting.

• Central City in Motion projects: The City Council has approved the first of PBOT's large-scale City in Motion plans that includes numerous projects to improve transit. Planning is underway for the Southwest Portland plan.

• Division Transit Project station reductions: Funding has been secured to convert much of Division Street between Portland and Gresham into TriMet's first Bus Rapid Transit line. Among other things, the $175 million project includes reducing the number of stations along the existing line by increasing the distances between them.

• Bus-only Red Lane Project: The Portland Bureau of Transportation is planning to remove on-street parking and creating bus-only lanes on some high-frequency bus routes. They would be painted red. As first reported by Willamette Week, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees PBOT, supports the project to speed travel times, encourage more bus ridership, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The TriMet board approved $200,000 for the project at its June 26 meeting.

• Downtown subway tunnel: The most radical and expensive proposal calls for diverting MAX trains through downtown into underground subway tunnels. Although still in the concept stage, the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability first briefed the City Council on it in June 2017. Metro and TriMet will study the idea this summer. The regional transportation funding measure Metro plans to put on the November 2020 general election ballot has been discussed as a possible partial funding source.

"I believe the region will need to grow underground to speed up service. But that will take a longer conversation and cost a lot of money," Kelsey said.

Subway survey

Metro and TriMet are studying whether to build a subway tunnel for MAX trains from Goose Hollow to the Lloyd Center.

The elected regional government has created a webpage for the project where you can participate in a survey about the idea here.


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