While the Orange Line MAX understandably grabs much of the attention, it's not the only thing that's making it easier and safer to get around Milwaukie. City leaders and residents are celebrating a number of recent or planned improvements and efforts in the community. Here are a few.
Springwater links: 17th Avenue Trail
For a long time, anyone hoping to connect by bike or foot from downtown Milwaukie north to the Springwater Corridor Trail, Sellwood and beyond has had to traverse 17th Avenue, a busy connector parallel to McLoughlin Boulevard, without a sidewalk and only narrow bike lanes.
It's just a one-mile stretch from downtown to the Springwater Corridor Trail. But short, unsafe gaps like this are often the difference between a person or family choosing to bike or walk, or jumping in a car instead.
"17th was never something you wanted to walk along," said local neighborhood leader Dave Aschenbrenner. "You’d find diehards who’d bike it but you’d never see people who wanted to bike along there."
Starting this month, 17th Avenue will be a whole lot safer. Construction crews are putting the final touches on a completely separated, paved trail from downtown Milwaukie to Southeast Ochoco Street at the Portland city limits.
On the south end, the trail connects seamlessly to the Trolley Trail at Milwaukie Riverfront Park, creating a link all the way to Gladstone. At the north end, the path will one day connect to the Springwater Corridor Trail near Oaks Park when a small gap in that trail is completed; today, quiet neighborhood streets make the link.
Metro allocated most of the 17th Avenue path's $3 million cost through regional flexible funds, a pool of federal transportation dollars, in 2011.
Milwaukie resident David Burdick said the new trail would provide much safer access to the Springwater Corridor than squeezing next to cars on 17th Avenue.
"There's a missing link between where the MAX ends and where the Springwater Corridor really starts," Burdick said. "There's no real way to get on it from my place."
With the completion of a trail along 17th Avenue, that gap will finally be filled.
Across the pond: Kellogg Lake Bridge and Kronberg Trail
Kellogg Lake, a small reservoir, divides downtown Milwaukie from its southern neighborhoods. For a long time, the only way over this pool on foot or bike has been to go west 200 yards to busy McLoughlin Boulevard, east nearly a mile to narrow, sidewalk-less Oatfield Road, or to risk a dangerous and illegal crossing on a railroad bridge.
During the Orange Line's construction, the community saw an opportunity to create a new link across Kellogg Lake. The light rail project included a plan and funding for a bridge for walking and biking directly under the rails.
But as the light rail line neared completion, higher-than-expected costs meant the little bridge underneath stopped short, its ends tantalizingly close to the lake's banks but with a 9-foot gap on either end. An agreement with TriMet said Milwaukie would have to finish the bridge with its own money.
In 2015, Metro stepped forward to help, dedicating $320,000 from its voter-approved Natural Areas Program to complete the bridge's links. The finally-complete bridge opened in April.
But trail building is often an incremental process: While one link is complete, the next must often wait. At the south end of the bridge, a dirt path still passes through mostly undeveloped Kronberg Park, making biking or rolling tough and often muddy.
As a result, the historic Island Station neighborhood on the other side of McLoughlin, along with the nearby unincorporated Clackamas County of Oak Grove, remains somewhat isolated from downtown's MAX station, the closest for many residents in the neighborhood.
That should change soon. ODOT has announced a $1.2 million award through the lottery-funded ConnectOregon program to complete a trail through the park.
"It will shave a half-mile of my walk from my house to the Orange Line," said Adria Decker Dismuke, who moved to Milwaukie with her family two years ago and is building a house in the Island Station neighborhood. And the walk will be more pleasant and safe than a sidewalk on McLoughlin – meaning she'd be more comfortable walking with her 6-year-old son.
Construction on the trail is expected to begin in the spring.
Stepping up: Local funds for safer streets
Milwaukie has long recognized a sore need for safer sidewalks, accessible crosswalks and bikeways throughout the city, particularly its lower-density residential neighborhoods to the east of downtown, many of which were built at a time when developers were not required to build sidewalks along with houses.
"On Southeast 32nd (Avenue) we have a hospital right across the street from a large housing project, and unfortunately almost daily you see someone in a wheelchair having to ride in the middle of the street," said Angel Falconer, who chairs a volunteer public safety advisory committee for Milwaukie. (Falconer was elected to the Milwaukie City Council in November.)
But like many other communities, Milwaukie has lacked the resources to build a lot of these improvements.
Mayor Mark Gamba believes that making streets safer in Milwaukie starts with local commitment to pay for it.
"For a few years now, I've been preaching from the gospel of self reliance when it comes to transportation infrastructure – at the city level, the regional level and state level," Gamba said via email.
Last month, the Milwaukie City Council took action to fix the problem, passing a citywide fee to fund a citywide sidewalk and bikeway improvement program. It's called Safe Access For Everyone, or SAFE: a fee based on how many trips a home or business is expected to generate each year. A single family house pays $4.60 a month, while most commercial businesses pay an amount based on their square footage.
Falconer's committee worked with planners to develop a vision and list of priority projects to fund first with the fee, including filling in sidewalk gaps near schools and along several major streets, adding ADA ramps and removing barriers to accessibility citywide, and advancing several major greenways and paths.
Like most new fees, the program faced some controversy. Meanwhile, a lot of the projects depend on finding matching funds. But city leaders are optimistic about the difference the new revenue will make.
"In the passing of the SAFE fee, Milwaukie positioned itself to begin building out a huge portion of the lacking infrastructure in our city," Gamba said.
Connect the dots: Outreach shows strong interest in travel options
If you build it, will they come? Yes – but even more people try taking transit, biking and walking if they know how to do it in their community. Drive Less Save More: Milwaukie, a partnership between Metro, the city of Milwaukie and Clackamas County, is designed to help. And it's made a big difference for residents in Milwaukie and nearby Oak Grove in unincorporated Clackamas County.
As the Orange Line opened, the team launched a personalized marketing program for residents who live near the light rail line's southernmost stations. Letters were sent to roughly 4,500 residents, offering opportunities to learn more information not only about the Orange Line but also new trails, sidewalks and bike routes in Milwaukie and Oak Grove.
More than 1,000 residents asked for more information – a remarkably high rate for the program. They received custom "Go Kits" with a variety of maps, incentives and information about getting around without a car in their community, all delivered by bike by Drive Less Save More staff housed at the city of Milwaukie.
To gauge the effects, a survey was sent to the same residents near the line about their travel habits two months before the new line opened and again a year later.
The effects were real: A 10 percent drop in the number of trips residents took while driving alone, and a 50 percent increase in walking trips, saving local residents more than a million annual miles of driving and nearly $800,000 on car maintenance and gas.
Build it, and many will indeed come. But build people's confidence in how to use travel options, and make a difference that goes even further.
Point the way: Grant will help downtown wayfinding
As MAX riders disembark at the downtown station, it's not immediately clear how to get to, say, the waterfront or the Sunday farmers market or one of numerous other events in a revitalizing downtown.
"Downtown isn't huge, but there isn't anything that greets you and lets you find out all the places to go downtown," said associate planner Vera Kolias.
More than a decade ago, Milwaukie recognized a need for better signs and other information to help residents and visitors get to attractions and businesses downtown.
On Nov. 23, Metro's Regional Travel Options program announced a $15,000 grant that will help the city fulfill that goal.
The grant, part of $2.5 million in travel options grants regionwide, will help Milwaukie build the first phase of a wayfinding systems plan adopted by the City Council in September. The plan includes detailed designs for a variety of signs and kiosks, as well as locations to install them.
"It's great to have all these parts – the light rail, trails, businesses, events – but the real goal of this project is to pull it all together so we can connect people to all of these things," Kolias said.
The wayfinding plan was created through a lot of public participation, Kolias said, helping answer many questions, including: What information would be helpful? What kind of sign designs would be appropriate? What are the most important things to point out?
The first phase of the wayfinding project includes an information kiosk near the MAX station and several signs poining the way for people walking, biking and driving.
Taking action: Local advocacy flourishes
Milwaukie is a relatively small city – just two miles across, north-south and east-west. It takes the average person less than 15 minutes to cover that distance on a bike.
But within those city limits and in surrounding neighborhoods, there is a lot to discover – and doing it with others can be that much more fun.
That's what got Bike Milwaukie started: A desire to build community by getting together to explore Milwaukie by bike.
"The idea is just to show people in Milwaukie how to get on their bikes, get around, explore their town, that it’s not that big of town and easy to get around," said Bike Milwaukie co-founder Matt Menely. "What’s fun is when we take someone for a bike ride who has lived in Milwaukie for a long time and in the middle of the ride they say, 'I don’t even know where I am.'"
Bike Milwaukie still hosts monthly rides from March to December, with schedules posted on the group's Facebook page. Those rides helped inspire the city and its larger neighbor to the north to bring Milwaukie's first Sunday Parkways event to town Oct. 2 – an 8-mile loop in Milwaukie and Sellwood that attracted thousands of people biking and walking despite stormy weather. Milwaukie and Portland will partner on another Sunday Parkways event again next year.
The desire to explore and connect is blossoming into something more for the all-volunteer Bike Milwaukie: an expanded advocacy, awareness and access mission that seeks to make biking and walking better in Milwaukie.
To that end, Bike Milwaukie has successfully rallied residents to push for several major projects in city transportation plans, including two east-west bike routes, which many see as crucial gaps in the city's network.
Partial funding for these proposals, a Monroe Street Greenway and a Railroad Street Path, has been earmarked for resources from the city's new street fee – though matching funding will need to be found.
The Milwaukie City Council has advanced the Monroe Greenway project for consideration in Metro's regional flexible funding allocation this year – and though the competition for funding is tight, Menely points to the local-level support as evidence of Bike Milwaukie's growing success.
"We encouraged people to contact city council and they did, and as a result they put the Monroe Avenue Neighborhood Greenway onto their list of priorities," Menely said.
Bike Milwaukie also successfully crowd funded and installed two public bike repair stations – one right in front of Milwaukie City Hall – a clear signal of the community's hopes to make biking easier and safer for everyone.
Marne Duke contributed reporting to this story.