The longest service interruption in TriMet's history is set to start Sunday, June 18. The public transit agency will halt MAX Red Line service between the Gateway Transit Center and Portland International Airport (PDX) for 126 days.
The closure will leave PDX and three other Red Line stops—Mt. Hood, Cascades, and the Parkrose/Sumner Transit Center—without light rail service as TriMet works to complete renovations for its "A Better Red" project.
While travelers can typically hop on the Red Line train right outside the airport's baggage claim area to avoid airport parking fees, ride share apps or bugging a friend, the next four months will look a lot different for airport commutes.
The transit project is set to extend the western end of the Red Line to Hillsboro and add a second track to sections of the Red Line between the Gateway Transit Center and PDX, which TriMet says will improve system-wide reliability. The project is set to be complete in early 2024.
In the meantime, the closure will impact the thousands of people who rely on light rail to get to and from the airport daily—not just travelers, but airport employees, too—during peak travel season.
A 2016 TriMet report noted an average of 3,200 people use the MAX airport stop each weekday. The number has most likely dropped since then due to a pandemic-related decline in ridership, but since MAX ridership is picking up system-wide, it's likely to still have a major impact.
In order to mitigate the closure, TriMet will implement shuttle service between the Gateway Transit Center and PDX, scheduled to match regular Red Line timetables. But unlike a light rail train, the shuttle won't be able to avoid getting stuck in traffic, so replacing a train with a shuttle isn't a one-to-one match. The transit agency says shuttle users should plan "at least an extra 30 minutes" for trips to and from the airport.
The closure comes in the aftermath of a recent TriMet Board of Directors vote to increase bus and MAX fares by 30 cents starting in January 2024. The decision to raise fares was controversial and drew criticism from transportation justice advocates and even Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, but the TriMet board members who supported the fare hike said it was a necessary step to fix the transit agency's budget shortfalls. Though the fare increase won't take effect until after Red Line service has reopened, some critics called out the agency for simultaneously hiking prices while closing a vital link to the airport.
Portland transportation advocate Tony Jordan wrote on Twitter that "in a place that gave a damn about transit, TriMet, the Portland Bureau of Transportation and the Oregon Department of Transportation would have the replacement shuttles driving in priority transit lanes during peak hours during this disruption."
TriMet wasn't immediately available to answer questions from the Mercury about the possibility of a priority transit lane for the shuttle. Check back for updates.
June 13 update: TriMet Public Information Officer Tyler Graf said the agency doesn't own the roadway to implement a bus-priority lane for the shuttle to use.
"Installing a temporary bus-only lane for the entire length of the shuttle bus route would require a multi-agency effort, at a considerable cost, as well as extensive planning, training and installation. And even with a transit-only lane in place, buses would still have to follow the same traffic controls as autos (unlike our FX2-Division buses, which have transit signal priority)," Graf wrote in an email to the Mercury. "The route, as it exists, has proven to be effective. We have used it during previous disruptions because it’s the fastest way of reaching every station along the route, which is necessary for riders traveling to or from Parkrose/Sumner Transit Center, Cascades and Mt. Hood."
Graf said TriMet will do what they can to make sure the four-month pause in Red Line service is as seamless as possible.
"We always appreciate our riders’ patience and understanding as we work to invest in the future and make improvements to the transit system," Graf wrote. "We know this is a long disruption and want to help them get around it with ease. TriMet has spent months planning for this phase of the Better Red project, and our riders’ comfort and time are always at the forefront of our planning."