Green is Good

As part of my involvement in the Portland to Milwaukie Light Rail project, I was honored to be invited on a preview ride of TriMet’s green line yesterday, poised to open in less than a month!

I’ve been very excited about the green line since I stumbled onto the project web site in an early phase, around late 2005. My very own neighborhood getting a MAX line! If you have talked to me at all in the past couple of years, you probably know how excited I am about it.

During that time, I’ve eagerly watched the slow progress of the project whenever I traveled the mile east of my house to I-205, as well as at my (former) office located along the line in NW Portland. During my last two months on the job, I got daily reminders of progress: encountering groups of operators being trained; hearing the gentle, old-timey “clang clang” of bells on the new trains (above); and watching the installation of brushed aluminum bus shelters, bike racks, and garbage cans in the street next to my workplace.

Yesterday’s preview ride started on NW 5th, a block away from my former office. It was the last preview ride being given before the line opens September 12. The two rail cars were packed like sardines, mostly with staff members of the Portland Development Commission and Columbia River Crossing, along with others with random connections to the project, such as me.

The noise level in the train was excruciating during the first leg of the tour, the bus mall in downtown Portland along 5th and 6th Avenues. Not only were most of the sardines trying to have loud conversations instead of enjoying their preview ride, but TriMet staff were using an overly-loud intercom to point out interesting development projects along the line. It seemed the intercom was experiencing major interference of the buzzing sort whenever the train was in motion–possibly related to the electricity conducted in movement along the overhead wire. A elderly man representing Ride Connection was trying to make conversation with me, but between all the ambient noise, a miserable cold making my ears stuffy and my voice low and soft, and possibly his elderly hearing loss, we were not very successful.

Eventually we made our way by Union Station on a new segment of track, and started east. Since I have taken the MAX from NE 60th to Chinatown fairly regularly, this segment was mostly old news. However, I did take the time to notice the larger windows on the new trains, shiny aluminum edging on the new seats, and the friendlier partition between MAX operator and passengers (plexiglass with an openable window vs. solid wall/door on the old trains, making it possible for passengers to actually see ahead of and behind the train!). It was also very fun to go by existing MAX stations, like Hollywood, and move past a whole platform of people with completely befuddled looks on their faces (“Why isn’t this train stopping? It says ‘Not in Service’ but it’s full of people!”).

Once we got to Gateway, the real preview started. This is where the green line turns south to the new rail segment, eventually terminating at Clackamas Town Center. I’ll admit it wasn’t a particularly scenic tour, particularly if you drive I-205 with any regularity. There was a lot of freeway, beds of rock, grassy highway waysides, and freeway noise partitions. The real draw was being able to finally get a close-up view of each station.

Platforms along the route are fairly simple, with roofs evocative of old-time train stations, built in a more modern aluminum. One of my favorite features is the beautiful iridescent tiles surrounding the post of each of these structures (above)–tiles at each station are a different color. I imagine this color coding could be a very effective way to quickly tell which stop you’re at, if you’re visually impaired and not able to see great distances, or missed reading signage as you passed it. It’s also reminiscent of the beautiful tilework of the New York City subway system.

In addition, each station has a unique piece of public art that was created specifically with that neighborhood in mind. There are a lot of problems with “token” public art like this: you generally have to design it to be vandal-resistant, it’s easily ignorable, and often ends up looking like a poor imitation of Isamu Noguchi’s work. There are definitely some pieces along the green line that miss the mark, like the blue, twisted up fence sculpture called “Sky to Earth” at the Division station, which screams to me “vandals attack construction site.” (If you think about it though, vandals attacking a construction site is very Outer SE Portland! And I am allowed to say that because I’ve lived here for 31 years.)

Fortunately there are a few installations that fare much better. Most notably “Shared Vision,” a kinetic sculpture featuring metal Chinese lanterns and a flame motif, with moving pieces that make gentle clinking sounds in the breeze. Apparently this sculpture has fiberoptic lighting to draw attention to itself at night. With such a large concentration of Portland’s Chinese community populating East Portland near this station at Holgate, it’s easy to identify its appropriateness for the neighborhood. It moves me almost as much as this piece from the yellow line’s expo center station, which I think is my favorite piece of public art of all time.

We were given the opportunity to get off the train at the Lents station, giving me better photo ops than those on the moving train. It was at this point I also noticed the tempered glass windbreaks under each shelter structure, featuring a marshy scene of reeds and sparrows. This stop also gave me the opportunity to notice the new elevated crossing built for the adjacent multi-use path as part of this project. (Crossing most of the highway-feeder streets on this path as a pedestrian or cyclist has always been dangerous at best, so eliminating even one of these is very helpful.) Here I also got a close-up look at one of the more engaging art pieces (above). Looking at the “Art on the MAX Green Line” brochure, I’m not sure if the piece is still unfinished or if the yellow and red flower tops shown in the brochure illustration were scrapped at some point, but this is another installation that will be lit at night using solar panels that live on the structure.

There are two problems that haven’t been solved for this new line. First, if you’re unfamiliar with the stops on a train, it can be very stressful to make sure you’re not missing your stop–a great way to help passengers avoid this stress is to post line maps above every door, at minimum, preferably with lighted dots that show the train’s progress. The last time I was in New York in 2004, it was a very welcome addition when I was riding lines my memory was a little fuzzy on, and I’m very surprised it’s still so difficult to get that basic information when you’re on a MAX train. Second, most of the stops have enormous, ugly parking lots that are difficult to avoid, but dangerous as a cyclist or pedestrian. Traversing through a parking lot is hazardous if you’re not in a car, and that’s the largest reason I’m choosing to use the tiny Flavel station over the larger, equidistant Fuller station–I can access the platform at Flavel from Flavel itself, rather than needing to traverse an area where people are rushing to park to make the next train, or not looking out for pedestrians and cyclists before they back out of a parking space. I know that TriMet has a better ped/bike awareness than most agencies, and strives to improve functionality and safety on their capital projects, so I hope these improvements will be made for the future Milwaukie light rail line.

After passing my future Flavel station, we climbed over the elevated structure at Johnson Creek Boulevard. It seemed natural to want to get a photo from the top of the structure I’ve watched slowly being erected over the last two years. Due to timing though, I only managed to get two off-center photos, one from the north side of the street, and one from the south side of the street. Living so close to Clackamas Town Center (the terminal station) my entire life, I appreciated a historical new perspective on the building, and took this shot of the mall (although in general I abhor the place and don’t think it’s much to look at).

At this point both my camera and iPhone had run out of space for photos, so during the ride back I mostly relaxed, watching my very own neighborhood roll by from a MAX train, and savoring my last month of anticipation before opening day.

See more photos from my tour here. And here is an interesting compilation of cultural history along the I-205 line.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Green is Good

  1. Aaron

    Very nice piece Heather.
    Thanks for sharing and I’m glad you got to experience this. I’m looking forward to looking through your pictures

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