First contemplated in the 1970s, when construction of I-205 included land for a bus or rail corridor, the $575.7 million Green Line will send tens of thousands of people a day whooshing to and from downtown Portland. It will bring MAX service to Portland State University and could entice thousands in Clackamas County onto mass transit.
Equally significant, the line opening Saturday adds more rail service on the downtown Portland transit mall, doubling the capacity in the region's core. Future lines can tie into the north-south transit mall or the older east-west Yamhill-Morrison corridor.
Together the new line and the added downtown service expand light-rail system mileage by 18 percent, but the impact could be even greater. Beyond serving Clackamas County riders, the added destinations mean riders across the region find a more comprehensive system to serve their needs and a thicker downtown trunk makes way for new branches in all directions.
The MAX era started with the 1986 opening of the 15-mile line to Gresham. Three line additions in the past 11 years have expanded it to 44 miles with 64 stations -- carrying a third of the region's weekday mass transit trips.
In the next decade, funding is firm for a 7.3-mile line to Milwaukie. A line to Vancouver is part of a contentious Interstate 5 bridge replacement project. For the future, planners envision a route to Sherwood and Tigard, and another along Southeast Powell Boulevard.
With each new destination, the light-rail corridors reach farther, linking more parts of the region. It starts to resemble an integrated network, rather than a smattering of a few select routes.
"It becomes more of a system," says TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen. "Each time we add, it makes the whole of the system -- not just the rail side, but the bus side of it -- work better and better."
Adding the Green Line on Saturday will boost service for much of downtown and Northeast Portland.
MAX provides about 100,000 rides each weekday. In about a year, the Green Line is forecast to add more than 25,000. Trains will start to arrive so frequently in some close-in corridors that riders may soon stop relying on schedules altogether. Riders transferring from train to train, as they commonly do in cities with large rail networks such as New York and Paris, could become common.
• In downtown Portland, each light-rail stop on the transit mall will have an arrival every six minutes on weekdays. That includes a PSU-Union Station loop that will run only on weekdays, but it's more frequent service than the current 7 1/2-minute interval for the Red and Blue lines on Morrison and Yamhill.
• Along Interstate 84, trains headed to and from downtown will arrive every five minutes. Riders will have a choice among Green, Red and Blue line trains west of Gateway.
• The 6.5-mile I-205 segment of the Green Line connects to 19 bus lines, five park-and-ride lots with a combined 2,300 spaces, and one of the largest regional malls, the Clackamas Town Center. It also connects to the Red Line for easy access to the airport.
Past service additions have been more popular than TriMet had expected.
For example, the Red Line, opened in 2001, initially connected downtown Portland to the airport. So when TriMet extended Red Line service west to the Beaverton Transit Center two years later, planners thought it would add convenience for a sliver of the population. The Blue Line had served the area since 1998, so presumably anyone who wanted to commute on the MAX had already adopted it.
Instead, weekday ridership jumped 49 percent in the corridor.
"We thought we'd already got as many as we could get," Hansen says. "That kind of a thing almost defies logic. I think we're going to see more of that throughout the system."
In the year the Red Line was extended, MAX ridership systemwide grew 6 percent.
That sort of systemwide effect is common, says Robert Cervero, a University of California expert on mass transit planning. Thriving transit systems add up to more than the sum of their parts, he says.
"Every new link provides a spillover benefit," Cervero says. "It (the Green Line) enhances not only that corridor, but other corridors, because those corridors now have access to the Southeast area."
Americans often wonder why their early-stage rail systems don't get the high ridership that Paris and London have, Cervero says. But those cities have mature systems offering destinations across the region -- much like the highway and road network.
And unlike in Portland, they connect outlying areas, instead of a simple hub-and-spoke system from downtown to the suburbs.
"Until they start mimicking that level of connectivity, branching off into all quadrants of the region, we can't really expect transit to compete effectively with the car," Cervero says. "Anything that grows the network and enhances the connectivity and allows many more possibilities to get around the region is a huge step forward."
Not all believers
Even as the region's rail network grows, skepticism remains in some corners. In a region with some of the nation's highest rates of mass transit use, most commuters still drive.
"My legislative focus has always been on roads first," says state Sen. Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro. "Having said that, there is a role for mass transit for the percentage of the population that transit works for."
Yet, light rail is intensely popular in the Portland area, and that translates into undeniable political muscle at the state and local level for more lines, says Starr, the leading Republican on the Senate transportation committee.
He voted for a bill in 2007 that included $250 million from the Oregon Lottery for a $1.4 billion light-rail extension to Milwaukie, now scheduled to open in 2015. Though he thought that project was too expensive at $200 million a mile, Starr says he voted for the bill because it included other things he liked.
The transportation spending package that passed this year involved compromises that allowed a boost for road spending, Starr says.
"As you put a package together in the Legislature," he says, "to get the road piece in there, you have to put the transit piece in there as well."
The Green Line's big step comes at painful time for the region and TriMet. The gloomy economy has already crimped the line's first year.
Portland-area unemployment has doubled in the past year, breaking from the 20-year estimates produced when the line was approved for federal funding three years ago.
Job losses have shrunk the payroll tax money TriMet depends on for more than half its operating revenue. That led the agency to cut service on the Green Line from what was originally planned, reducing frequency slightly during off-peak hours.
Less employment also means less travel overall, on roads and on mass transit. So the first-year Green Line ridership forecast of 25,250 average weekday rides may not be realized until months later when the economy recovers, says Alan Lehto, TriMet director for project planning.
Nevertheless, new rail lines are built to last for generations, far beyond a single up or down economic cycle. So TriMet considers the need for mass transit to follow the region's upward population growth.
"We're making investments that should be good for 50 to 100 years," Lehto says. "You simply don't respond to a two-year or three-year downturn. It may hamper our ability ... in the short term. But it shouldn't change our long-term vision."-- Dylan Rivera; firstname.lastname@example.org