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Wherein the editor discusses how traffic congestion has worsened at 17th & McLoughlin...and why

ERIC NORBERG - At 8 a.m. one sunny weekday morning in late August, northbound traffic on S.E. 17th was backed up all the way to Insley Street; moments after this photo was taken more vehicles had accumulated, and the line extended past Harold Street. In the beginning, TriMet served north Westmoreland with five bus lines, all of which could be ridden to go downtown. Buses 31, 32, and 33 came and went to Clackamas County via McLoughlin Boulevard, round trip northbound to the Central Eastside and from there to the center of downtown Portland and back, with frequent stops at S.E. 17th and at Harold Street.

Bus 70 traveled through the neighborhood on 17th, providing transit south to Sellwood and north to the Rose Quarter, from where a stroll over the Broadway Bridge could place you in the north end of downtown. And Bus 19 ran on Milwaukie Avenue south to Bybee, and from there east to Woodstock and beyond, while taking the Ross Island Bridge to and from the south end of downtown, and PSU.

But TriMet had a vision to improve transit for north Westmoreland, and in the 1990's came to SMILE, the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood association, to ask for its support in its request to rezone the area from Insley north to McLoughlin Boulevard (and some south of there on the western and eastern ends of north Westmoreland) for high density apartment development – because they would be building a light rail line along McLoughlin, and would have a station there to serve the area.

The original station was to be on the north side of McLoughlin, approximately opposite 18th or 19th, and connected to the neighborhood by an overhead walkway across the highway. SMILE voted to support the plan, and the zoning change was made. Today, TriMet has seemingly forgotten it ever made that request, but it did – it's in SMILE minutes, and some members of the SMILE Board are still there who remember it.

TriMet then put what is today's Orange MAX line on the ballot, and although Inner Southeast voted for it, other areas already had their MAX line and did not. So it took close to two decades for the Orange Line to be built and opened – and somehow, that north Westmoreland station, now moved around to Harold Street, and then Reedway, became an asterisk on the map, and it did not get built.

It would have been nice for TriMet to have acknowledged that, retaining bus service downtown for the neighborhood with buses 31, 32, and 33 – but it ended those lines in Milwaukie, and terminated their service north of there, on the very day the new MAX line opened – so public transit access in north Westmoreland became much worse.

Today, bus service is limited to Bus 70 – which no longer goes to the Rose Quarter but now veers off to the northeast toward Fremont Street; and Bus 19 – the last bus serving north Westmoreland that actually goes downtown, but it still does so over the Ross Island Bridge, rather than on the much faster Tillicum Transit Bridge, making for a very slow trip in commute times.

If a resident of the neighborhood wants to take MAX, one has to walk or drive over a half mile south to the Bybee Bridge, or over a half mile north across McLoughlin and Holgate Boulevards. TriMet owns a large property just west of the Holgate Station which could be used for a park-and-ride lot, but which it apparently intends to sell for development instead.

So, it is no wonder that, with all that new apartment housing built and under construction in north Westmoreland, so many of the new apartment residents own cars – some of them new cars – in order to reach their jobs downtown and elsewhere.

And they largely rely on access to northbound McLoughlin or Powell using S.E. 17th, which remains a vital connector between Highway 224 and Highway 99E for those living in Westmoreland. Milwaukie Avenue also has a direct connection to Powell, but not to McLoughlin, making 17th vital for commuters. Lately, two developments have worsened commuting via S.E. 17th at McLoughlin. The first was the sluggish timing set for the railroad crossing signal on the north side of McLoughlin on northbound 17th: MAX trains trigger the signal well before they arrive – probably to eliminate the need for the light rail train to stop there – but, alas, the train is long gone and nearly out of sight before the signals stop and the arm goes up after it has passed..

Very frequently this eliminates the opportunity for drivers continuing north of S.E. 17th to take their turn, delaying traffic at the intersection; and when traffic backs up northbound, those seeking to get into the left turn lane to turn north on McLoughlin cannot reach that lane, because northbound traffic is backed up so far in the single lane leading up to the turn lane.

Okay, that was bad enough. Now it is much worse: Inexplicably, the Portland Bureau of Transportation decided to reduce the speed limit on S.E. 17th only in Westmoreland, from Nehalem to McLoughlin, from 25 MPH to 20 MPH -- even though the sections of the street north and south of there, in Sellwood and Brooklyn, quite properly remain at 25 MPH.

And because of that unwarranted speed limit reduction only in Westmoreland, it appears that ODOT – the Oregon Department of Transportation – has slowed the timing of the lights favoring S.E. 17th, both northbound and southbound at McLoughlin, apparently as a result of Portland no longer considering it as a connector street.

The slower timing of the light is causing backups, particular northbound, that frequently become epic in the morning commute period – not just because of the light slower cycle, but because the Orange Line MAX trains, both north and south, usually cross somewhere in the vicinity of 17th and McLoughlin, and that means that up to two successive opportunities to cross northbound across McLoughlin may be cancelled, now stalling northbound traffic for as much as ten minutes.

In the morning commute time, missing two successive green lights northbound can back up traffic on 17th – as shown in the accompanied photo, taken at random on a recent weekday morning – to Insley Street as shown; and even to Harold, Ellis, and Reedway. Since there are few alternatives to using this vital connector street, the cars accumulate.

So what do we suggest? We certainly have not given up on hoping TriMet will do as they originally promised, and address the longest stretch of the Orange MAX line without a station in Multnomah County by putting a MAX stop near S.E. Reedway Street.

And we'd love it if TriMet would acknowledge the problem they caused by cancelling busses 31, 32, and 33 without providing corresponding MAX access. Even just one of those buses, reestablished as a route downtown via McLoughlin with stops at 17th and at Harold, would be a blessing.

And speaking of a blessing, much more traffic could get through if TriMet's signal and arm at the crossing at 17th at McLoughlin would switch off and clear the street as soon as the train has cleared the intersection (unless the opposite train is already close enough to keep it down in order, itself, to cross). This small change really would make quite a difference, and seems very do-able. That's how traffic signals respond when railroad trains clear a crossing!

But for right now, we are requesting that PBOT get back down here to Westmoreland and change S.E. 17th between Nehalem and McLoughlin back to a 25 MPH zone, as rightly it should be, and then notify ODOT of the change and request a return to a faster light cycle at its McLoughlin intersection.

After all, this section of 17th is at least as important as a connector street as is Woodstock Boulevard in its stretch between 28th and Chavez (39th), which is also in a primarily residential area, and even includes a college campus – and remains quite properly a 25 MPH zone.

There is no good reason why north Westmoreland needs to be the loser in every new city and state public transit policy.


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