The hub of Greater Portland’s regional transportation system has become a bottleneck. Metro and its partners are taking first steps to explore one option to speed up greater Portland’s transit system: a light rail tunnel under downtown Portland.
This effort is still an early-stage idea that emerged two years ago in 2017 when TriMet examined options to address challenges with the Steel Bridge, used by all the region’s light rail lines – and many bus lines – to cross the river.
“The Steel Bridge causes issues for light rail,” said Metro planner Matt Bihn. All MAX lines merge to enter the bridge, which can carry only one train at a time in each direction. What’s more, trains have to operate at reduced speeds across the span.
In the big picture, the bridge is only one factor causing slow-downs in downtown, Bihn said.
“The light rail lines travel slowly through downtown because they interact with so many people walking, biking and driving,” he said. “The tracks cross each other at the Pioneer Courthouse area, and the MAX Blue and Red lines make a lot of stops. So all those things slow down light rail.”
Over the next 20 years, the region is expected to welcome more than half a million new neighbors; businesses are expected to create 378,000 jobs.
“As the Portland area continues to grow, it will be harder for people to get around, which affects everybody’s quality of life,” TriMet project manager Elizabeth Higgins said in a prepared statement.
TriMet evaluated several potential solutions that included a MAX light rail tunnel under the river. In that preliminary study, the tunnel offered the best results, saving close to 15 minutes of travel time on light rail through the central city.
Reducing travel times would allow people to get to work, school and home more quickly. People who live in east Portland, for example, could get to jobs in Washington County faster.
“This can be a game changer for transit,” Bihn said. “A tunnel can really be the backbone of an improved regional transit system because you would speed things so much through downtown, where so many east-west and north-south transit routes converge.”
That would help encourage people to rely less on their cars and take transit, helping ease traffic.
Bihn said Metro, TriMet and its jurisdictional partners are working to understand what resources they would need to conduct a formal federal study.
“It's going to be a complex study,” Bihn said. “Think of the engineering you need to design a tunnel under the river and under parts of downtown Portland.”
These partners are also introducing this concept to the public to gauge its support. Metro and the Federal Transit Administration invite the public to comment on the purpose and need for a light rail tunnel.
Learn more and submit your public comments.