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The Hillsboro Argus: MAX is 10 and still on track

Posted by The Argus September 11, 2008 18:19PM

The Westside MAX started operations on Sept. 12, 1998.

On a bright day 10 years ago, a region came together to welcome in a new era in transportation in Washington County.

With the opening of the Westside MAX, Tualatin Valley residents had a choice as they planned commutes within the valley and to Portland. And they were eager to see it first-hand, with more than 260,000 people crowding trains after Vice President Al Gore stood at the Hillsboro Central Transit Center and proclaimed MAX “the light rail to the 21st Century.”

But the Westside MAX wasn’t born that day, nor was it born when the first chunks of the West Hills were bored for the Robertson Tunnel in 1993.

In fact, the Westside MAX really was born more than 30 years ago, in Southeast Portland, with the proposal — and defeat — of a new alignment for Interstate 80N, now I-84, the Mount Hood Freeway.

When that controversial project was killed and light rail was adopted as the primary high capacity transportation method for the Portland area, Westside MAX was truly born.

“There was a great deal of interest on the Westside as early as that,” said Hillsboro Mayor Tom Hughes, who was on the city council in the 1970s. “There were a couple of maneuvers we had to sign off on to get the funding from the feds. Our agreement was we’ll sign off on the Eastside if you’ll put money on the engineering study for the Westside.”

More on MAX


Shirley Huffman’s legacy:Former Hillsboro mayor pushed MAX line.

Inside the cab: MAX operator shares tales from the driver’s seat.

Future plans: WES just the first of several TriMet plans for Washington County.

Security issues: Agencies learn from 10 years of policing the line.

Odd incidents: Memorable accidents and delays in the history of MAX.

Argus editorial: MAX had lasting legacy.

More: Maps, graphics and more in Friday’s Hillsboro Argus.


Of course, MAX had many hurdles to climb before construction could even start.

First, there was the lingering skepticism of whether Eastside MAX would work.

“Even Norma (Republican gubernatorial candidate Norma Paulus) quipped at that time that she thought somebody should just leave the keys in it and hope it was gone in the morning,” said TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen. “There was a real nervousness on both parties about what it would really mean.”

After the success of the Eastside MAX was secure, attention turned westward.

TriMet originally planned to build the line only to 185th Avenue, and Hillsboro officials, led by former Mayor Shirley Huffman, pushed construction to downtown Hillsboro and helped find the funding to get it done.

Then there was the matter of getting trains over the West Hills. Running the train line up Sylvan Hill near U.S. 26 was the first proposed route, but neighbor opposition and concerns over the steep grade prompted construction of the tunnel under the zoo, instead.

Construction on the tunnel began in 1993 and took nearly two years to complete.

Transportation choices

The Blue Line wasn’t built to replace the Sunset Highway or other roads connecting the valley and Portland.

Instead, MAX provides options to commuters. Instead of forcing people to use cars, they can take buses or trains to get around the Portland metro area.

“It helps people,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., while riding the train last month from a meeting in Beaverton to a press conference in Hillsboro. “I think we were able to make it clear this is about options, about choices, about alternatives for the citizens. In this community, it makes sense to empower people with more transportation alternatives.”

Wyden said MAX hits the trifecta, as he called it, of helping people, providing a good energy alternative and fitting the Oregon definition of a transportation system, with more options.

Hansen said the system also represents the anchor in a new way of thinking about urban development.

“In most communities … development occurs however it is to occur, and when you try to be able to deliver good transit to it, it doesn’t work,” he said. “This was intended to be able to provide a framework in which development would occur over time.”

Now, every community, from Milwaukie to Wilsonville, Mount Hood Community College to Pacific University, is trying to get on the system, Hansen said.

“Places now that had historically been very skeptical or outright opposed to it see it as a part of their future for their citizens, and this was before the incredible runup on prices of gasoline,” Hansen said.

The line was instrumental in bringing several developments to Hillsboro, including Orenco Station and the Pacific University Health Professions Campus.

“(Pacific) did a market study that said within a 45-minute commute from Forest Grove they could reach about 750,000 people, and from Hillsboro they could reach 1.5 million,” Hughes said. “The ability to double their area of circulation from using light rail was enough of an attractor that they decided to move forward.”

Ongoing growth at Pacific and in downtown Hillsboro, a new Portland Community College outreach center at Willow Creek and continued condo and townhome developments near Quatama all are part of the wide footprint MAX has now left on Washington County.


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