Portland killed the Mount Hood Freeway in 1974. Then the city had a problem: If it didn't come up with a new plan, $500 million in federal funds would disappear.

The solution was light rail, an exotic beast in '70s America and a tough political sell. "It's easy to forget how much resistance there was to light rail," recalls Alan Webber, an aide to then-Mayor Neil Goldschmidt. But Portland forged ahead, and in 1986, TriMet unveiled the first line, the 15-mile Gresham-to-Portland Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) opened.

Anxiety ran high. Aides to Goldschmidt-then running for governor against a Republican who derided MAX as a boondoggle-worried about putting him on the first train. But the debut was a smash. More than 200,000 riders packed opening weekend. The Oregon Symphony played on Pioneer Courthouse Square. The Gateway neighborhood even staged a circus.

Two decades later, an estimated 97,000 trips are taken on MAX every weekday. Construction costs from various MAX projects add up to $1.65 billion (without accounting for inflation). And the system still faces detractors. In the '90s, voters rejected plans to expand MAX to Vancouver and the south metro area. Some critics believe all mass transit is a faintly socialistic waste of money; others simply feel rail is too pricey and inflexible.

The trouble with those criticisms is that they largely haven't changed over the years. The MAX system-and the philosophy that guides its development-has. In fact, Portland's metropolitan railway is different now than it was just five years ago.

New lines radiate from downtown to the airport and North Portland. In a decade, despite ballot setbacks, tracks are likely to run through the downtown transit mall and south to Milwaukie and Clackamas Town Center. Portland leaders firmly believe the northern line will someday jump the Columbia to reach Vancouver.

From one line between Gresham and Portland, MAX is steadily becoming a true network, with links to the central city's growing streetcar line and, soon, a first-of-its-kind suburban railway between Wilsonville and Beaverton.

"This was initially going to be a way for the suburbs to come downtown for work," says Neil McFarlane, executive director of TriMet's capital-projects division. "It's become a solution for people for all sorts of things. People go from Gresham all the way to Hillsboro for work. We have weekend ridership that blows away cities twice our size."

But the true significance of the MAX goes beyond ridership: It is now the lattice that guides Portland's plan for its future. In the mid-'90s, Metro, the three-county regional government that tackles planning, adopted a master scheme for the city. The key element: fleshing out development around a skeleton of MAX-track iron.

"That's almost the opposite of what MAX was when it started," says Metro President David Bragdon. "When the eastside line went in, they promised that MAX wouldn't create any development. That was the political reality of the time.

"Now, it's the linchpin of development."

Critics think such faith is just that-faith. But in Gresham, a city that demanded initial light-rail lines skirt its downtown core has reoriented itself to focus on the train. City Hall moved. An 85-acre neighborhood grew up around the line. The city government estimates that $93 million has been invested along the tracks.

"The unintended consequence is that downtown has thrived and grown toward light rail," says Ron Papsdorf, Gresham's chief transportation planner. "Rowhouses, mixed-use developments, multistory commercial buildings, public buildings-all have been developed around MAX."

MAX is far from perfect. The grind of stops in downtown Portland transforms a regional railway into a glorified streetcar. According to Bragdon, trains' slow march across downtown damages the whole system. So far-though everything from yanking out stops to a pricey future subway has been discussed-a solution is elusive.

But any final verdict is premature. The measure of MAX, decades hence, will be a judgment on the considerable political will now pushing the system's growth. Will rail make a metropolis more livable, fluid and compact? Or is auto-addicted sprawl so alluring even Portland can't resist?

"Thirty years from now, what Clackamas Town Center looks like will be the best measure of MAX's success," says Bragdon of a place that's now a prototypical suburban mall but is slated for a stop on MAX's future Green Line. "If you see it still functioning just like it does today, we'll have to say, 'Well, we failed.'"


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