Ore. transit has mass appeal

A Baltimore delegation travels to Portland to study light rail -- and members enjoy the ride


PORTLAND, ORE. -- From what she'd seen in Maryland, Wanda Wallace didn't have a high opinion of light rail. But the community leader from West Baltimore loved the transit line she found here.

"They're leaps and bound ahead of us in terms of technology, in terms of signage, in terms of having a system that's user-friendly," she said.

Wallace, representing the Allendale Community Association, was part of a delegation of Baltimore leaders who traveled to Oregon's largest city to learn how it developed its highly regarded MAX Light Rail service.

It was an eye-opening experience. The Marylanders saw a system they found to be far superior to Baltimore's -- with modern, well-lit cars stopping in handsome stations that are a showcase for public art. And the system is heavily used -- by the affluent and the poor.

"You have a clean system. Did you all just clean it for us?" Arlene Fisher of Lafayette Square asked officials of Portland's TriMet transit authority.

The delegation was one of four that fanned out around the country last weekend to observe transit alternatives as Maryland prepares to decide how and along what route to build an east-west Red Line across Baltimore. The trips were sponsored by the Citizens Planning and Housing Association.

Besides Portland, delegations visited Boston, Denver and Los Angeles to learn about those cities' experiences with light rail and advanced bus systems. The objective: to give leaders of communities along the Red Line's possible path the opportunity to see various technologies in action.

Developing a Red Line from the Woodlawn area to Canton or Fells Point has long been an objective of city leaders. But the plans have met resistance from some communities in the transit line's path.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan has not ruled out a light rail line for the east-west corridor, but he has shown far more enthusiasm for "bus rapid transit" -- an enhanced bus system with dedicated lanes in some stretches.

In recent months, Flanagan has visited Seattle, Boston and Los Angeles to inspect transit systems. The Portland visitors didn't get to view a rapid bus system, but many returned with a positive impression of light rail and admiration for how TriMet deals with the communities affected by its projects.

They heard from TriMet a message many had doubted when they heard it from Flanagan: that developing new "heavy" rail such as the Metro system is not a practical option because of a lack of federal funds.

Nineteen years after opening the first MAX light rail line between Portland and the eastern suburb of Gresham, TriMet operates 44 miles along three lines, including a spur that takes riders to the front door of Portland's international airport.

The MAX system carries about 100,000 riders a day -- an estimated 77 percent of whom are "choice" riders who have options besides mass transit.

Baltimore's 33-mile light rail service averaged just 24,000 riders a day, 42 percent of whom rode by choice, when it was in full operation, according to the MTA. The system has been partly shut since early last year for double-tracking construction work.

Jan Shearer, who worked in community relations for TriMet for 20 years before retiring recently, said the agency learned from its own mistakes how important it is to bring citizens into the planning process early in the game. "We involve the community way before we have a project," she said.

During their tour of TriMet's new Yellow Line, which opened last year, the Marylanders expressed appreciation for the individualized art displays at each of the stations.

The Vanport stop has bronzed artifacts of a disastrous flood that destroyed the community in 1948. In Kenton, a former slaughterhouse town, art on the fencing celebrated the cows that were once herded through the streets.

The lone elected official on the tour was state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, who paid her own way, according to trip organizers. The Baltimore Democrat came to Portland with a dislike of light rail based on her experience with Baltimore's system -- she says it was built on the cheap -- but the trip had her rethinking her position. "This system is not just for the captive users. Everybody rides this," she said.

But Gladden still had doubts about Maryland's ability to deliver a system that would be as well-received as Portland's. "It requires a tremendous amount of political will and vision, and I don't know that we have that in the city of Baltimore," she said.

Tour leader Henry Kay, a transit advocate for the Greater Baltimore Committee, a co-sponsor of the trip, said an important lesson of the trip is Portland's insistence on a high-quality system.

"This region doesn't let you be distracted by politics or money or turf. People work together to get a transportation system that serves everybody," said Kay. "We've got to find a way to bring that positive and innovative approach back to Baltimore."

Some participants said the community-outreach efforts they saw here reinforced their concerns about the Maryland Transit Administration, which declined an invitation to send a representative.

"Over the years, there's been a lot of distrust [of the MTA]. I don't think they really listen to the community," Wallace said. "The question then becomes why they didn't come if they were invited. It would have gone a long way to fostering better relations with the community."

Jack Cahalan, Flanagan's spokesman, said the MTA declined to participate because senior officials had already visited most of the cities on the list, including Portland, and because the trips were scheduled for the same weekend the agency was making major bus route changes.


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