Nov. 13 – PORTLAND – As Joseph Fowler boarded the MAX light rail on his way to work one October morning, he found a seat near an exit door. There were about 30 people on board, mostly commuters and weary travelers heading to downtown Portland from the airport. You might notice the early morning calm.
The doors closed and the train staggered along, drowning out the conversations. The occasional screeching of steel wheels soon became background noise.
Fowler goes to work on Mondays and Fridays, choosing to work from home the rest of the week, despite taking MAX every day before the pandemic. He is one of approximately 65,000 Clark County workers heading to Portland. But unlike most of them, he takes public transport.
His journey is easy, he says. He walks from his house at Fisher’s Landing Transit Center and boards C-Tran’s Route 65 bus for a 10-minute ride to Tri-Met’s Parkrose/Sumner Transit Center. There he transfers to the MAX Red Line for a 15-minute trip to the Lloyd Center area, taking him virtually from his doorstep to his office.
The Red Line, which runs from Portland International Airport to Beaverton, Oregon, is TriMet’s second most popular route, averaging 12,080 weekday passengers in September – the Blue Line from Gresham, Oregon to Hillsboro, Oregon is the most popular. , with an average of 28,420 passengers on weekdays.
But light rail remains unfamiliar — and threatening — to many Clark County residents who rely on cars to get around. It’s a polarizing issue in Clark County, where the Interstate 5 Bridge Replacement Plan calls for extending MAX into downtown Vancouver.
Republican candidate for the 3rd congressional district, Joe Kent, called MAX the “Antifa highway in our district” and the “highway of crime” in an Oct. 21 interview on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast.
But for people like Fowler, light rail is the cheapest and most efficient option. His family owns a car, which his wife – who is C-Tran’s deputy general manager – usually drives to work.
If Fowler felt less secure, he said, his family would consider buying a second vehicle. But for him, the advantages of public transit far outweigh the disadvantages.
The train heading for the Lloyd Center was warm, clean and bright in the 7:30 am light. Fowler, who is an accounting supervisor for Kaiser Permanente, wore pants and a blue shirt with no tie.
“It’s really very nice (today). I feel completely safe,” he said. “…There are no strange smells, and that’s the most important thing.”
Unpleasant odors are the biggest annoyance for Fowler, who sometimes wears a mask to block them out. He rarely feels physically in danger, although homeless people or transients are often on board. Sometimes he sees people in mental health crisis. People can talk to each other or shout.
But Fowler has developed tricks and habits over his time on the light rail. Of Asian descent, he has become more cautious as anti-Asian hate crimes have increased since the start of the pandemic.
When he waits for the train at Parkrose/Sumner station, he stands with his back against a wall to prevent anyone from sneaking up behind him or stealing his backpack.
On the train, he gravitates forwards or backwards, as he has noticed more ruckus and commotion coming from the middle of the car. He also hatches an exit plan, just in case he needs to leave.
“Pretty much every day there is something to watch out for,” he explained. “Most of the time it’s nothing, but sometimes you start thinking ‘How do I get off this train?’ to plan.”
Fowler rarely sees security guards or fare controllers. He said his rate has only been checked twice in four years of driving — issues that TriMet is working to address. Over the past two years, TriMet has increased its security staff from 125 to 229, and plans to hire 90 more, as reported by Willamette Week.
While the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office does not track crime statistics by mode of transportation, 18 deputies are assigned to the Transportation Police Division.
There are security cameras on all platforms, elevators, trains and buses to “help deter criminal activity, and video can be used as evidence to prosecute crimes”, according to the website. TriMet.
The MAX system is linked in many minds to a 2017 incident on a train near the Lloyd Center, when two men were fatally stabbed and a third seriously injured after confronting a man shouting racist and anti-Muslim slurs at two black teenagers. The attacker was convicted and sentenced to two life terms in 2020.
But even before the stabbings, critics often associated the light rail with crime, with anti-Columbia River Crossing supporters calling the light rail a “crime train,” similar to Kent’s rhetoric.
Although Fowler is cautious, he said, his four years of experience on the train have not been negative.
“There were a few times where I was worried, but I guess it’s all relative,” he said. “Because I have an exit strategy and there are people on the train and there were no threats directed at me, per se, so I didn’t feel personally threatened at that moment, just hyper-vigilant.”
beat the traffic
To understand the appeal of light rail, look out the window on the red or blue line during rush hour as the train runs parallel to Interstate 84.
The railcar passed many cars mired in stop-and-go traffic, making Fowler’s rides more relaxing, he said. He listens to music and even works sometimes, which he could never do if he was driving.
It’s also cheap. An adult ticket costs $2.50 for 2 1/2 hours or $5 for the day. Stretched over a month, taking the train costs less than many pay for car insurance.
The light rail is part of the Modified Preferred Local Alternative Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, which was unanimously approved by all eight partner agencies, including the cities of Vancouver and Portland, C-Tran and TriMet. According to the plan, the yellow line will extend to downtown Vancouver. Currently, his last stop is at the Expo Center.
Light rail offers more competitive travel times compared to other transit options that require a transfer, said IBR program administrator Greg Johnson.
“All transit options improve access to jobs, including for (Black, Indigenous, and Colored) and low-income populations, with (light rail) improving access to a greater extent than ( bus rapid transit),” Johnson said in a statement. at The Colombian.
The inclusion of light rail makes the program more competitive for Federal Transit Administration funding, Johnson added.
Light rail is also a requirement for some on the Oregon side.
“If I have anything to say about it, (the Columbia River Bridge) will never be built unless it (contains light rail),” said Congressman Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore ., at Willamette Week in early 2021.
Not all of Clark County shares Portland’s enthusiasm.
Clark County voters have rejected aspects of light rail three times since the 1990s. But project proponents point out that none of the votes directly asked residents to vote yes/no on expanding the rail service to Clark County. Additionally, a poll by the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project showed that 61% of Clark County community members support light rail.
The return of the light rail
Although MAX service to Clark County remains controversial, light rail is part of Clark County history. From 1917, when the I-5 bridge opened, to 1940, a streetcar operated between Portland and Vancouver. The tracks remain, buried under a layer of concrete on the north span of the I-5 bridge. Its unprofitability and the rise of the automobile ultimately led to the disappearance of the tramway.
But in his time, the tram was popular. In the first two weeks after the bridge opened, there were 33,679 tram crossings, compared to 18,831 pedestrian and automobile crossings. The population of Clark County was then approximately 60,000.
If the light rail reaches Vancouver again, Fowler is unlikely to use it; it’s too far out of his way. But he will continue to use public transport to get to work.
“I think if it was more of a mixed bag, it would force me to buy a second car,” Fowler said, “…and I didn’t think about that at all.”
This story was made possible through Community Funded Journalism, a project of The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Major donors are the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Colombian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.
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