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 aboard, mostly commuters and tired travelers headed to downtown Portland from the airport. You could notice the quiet of the early morning.
The doors closed and the train lurched forward, drowning out conversations. The occasional screech of the steel wheels quickly became background noise.
Fowler commutes to work Mondays and Fridays, opting to work from home the rest of the week, although he took MAX every day before the pandemic. He is one of roughly 65,000 Clark County workers who commute to Portland. But unlike most of them, he rides public transportation.
His trip is easy, he said. He walks from his house to the 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, practically taking him from his doorstep to his office.
The Red Line, stretching from Portland International Airport to Beaverton, Ore., is TriMet’s second-most popular route, with 12,080 average weekday riders in September — the Blue Line from Gresham, Ore., to Hillsboro, Ore., is the most popular, with 28,420 average weekday riders.
But light rail remains unfamiliar — and threatening — to many Clark County residents who rely on cars to travel. It’s a polarizing issue in Clark County, where the Interstate 5 Bridge Replacement plan calls for extending MAX to downtown Vancouver.
Republican 3rd Congressional District candidate Joe Kent called MAX an “Antifa superhighway into our district” and a “superhighway for crime” in an Oct. 21 interview on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast.
But for people like Fowler, taking light rail is the cheapest, most efficient option. His family owns one car, which his wife — who is the deputy CEO at C-Tran — usually drives to work.
If Fowler felt less safe, he said, his family would consider purchasing a second vehicle. But to him, the pros of transit far outweigh the cons.
The train that barreled toward the Lloyd Center was warm, clean and bright in the 7:30 a.m. light. Fowler, who is an accounting supervisor for Kaiser Permanente, wore slacks and a blue dress shirt with no necktie.
“It’s really quite pleasant (today). I feel entirely safe,” he said. “… There are no strange odors, and that’s the biggest thing.”
The unpleasant scents are the biggest nuisance to Fowler, who sometimes wears a mask to block them. He rarely feels physically unsafe although houseless or transient people are often on board. Sometimes he sees individuals having mental health crises. People might be talking to themselves or screaming.
But Fowler has developed tricks and habits over his time riding light rail. Being of Asian descent, he has grown more cautious, because anti-Asian hate crimes have risen since the start of the pandemic.
When he is waiting for the train at the Parkrose/Sumner station, he stands with his back against a wall to prevent anyone from sneaking up behind him or stealing from his backpack.
On the train, he gravitates toward the front or back, as he’s noticed that more ruckus and commotion originate from the middle of the car. He also maps out an exit plan, just in case he needs to leave.
“Just about every day, there’s something to look out for,” he explained. “Most of the time it’s nothing, but sometimes you start running through your ‘How do I get off this train?’ plan.”
Fowler rarely sees security officers or fare checkers. He said his fare has been checked only twice in four years of riding — issues that TriMet is working to solve. Over the past two years, TriMet has increased its security staff from 125 to 229, and it plans to hire 90 more, as reported by Willamette Week.
While the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office does not track crime statistics based on mode of transportation, there are 18 deputies assigned to the Transit Police Division.
There are security cameras on all platforms, elevators, trains and buses to “help deter criminal activity, and the video can be used as evidence for prosecuting crimes,” according to the TriMet website.
The MAX system is linked in many minds with a 2017 incident on a train near Lloyd Center, when two men were fatally stabbed and a third critically injured after they confronted a man shouting racist and anti-Muslim slurs at two Black teenagers. The assailant was convicted and sentenced to two life terms in prison in 2020.
But even before the stabbings, critics often associated light rail with crime, with anti-Columbia River Crossing advocates dubbing light rail a “crime train,” similar to Kent’s rhetoric.
Although Fowler is careful, he said, his four years of experience riding the train hasn’t been negative.
“There’s been a couple of times that I have been worried, but I guess that’s all relative,” he said. “Because I have an exit strategy and there are people in 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 light rail’s appeal, look out the window on the Red or Blue Line during rush hour as the train runs parallel to Interstate 84.
The railcar raced past many autos mired in stop-and-go traffic, making Fowler’s rides more relaxing, he said. He listens to music and even does work sometimes, something he would never be able to do if he were driving.
It’s also cheap. An adult ticket costs $2.50 for 2½ hours or $5 for the day. Stretched out across a month, riding the train costs less than many pay for auto insurance.
Light rail is a part of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program’s modified locally preferred alternative, which was unanimously endorsed by the 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, its last stop is at the Expo Center.
Light rail provides more competitive travel times compared with other transit options requiring a transfer, said IBR Program Administrator Greg Johnson.
“All transit options improve access to jobs, including for (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and low-income populations, with (light rail) improving access to a greater degree than (bus rapid transit),” Johnson said in a statement to The Columbian.
Including light rail makes the program more competitive for funding from the Federal Transit Administration, 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),” Congressman Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., told Willamette Week in early 2021.
Not all of Clark County shares Portland’s enthusiasm.
Clark County voters have voted down aspects of light rail three times since the 1990s. But project proponents point out that none of the votes directly asked residents for a yes/no vote on extending rail service to Clark County. Additionally, polling done by the Interstate Bridge Replacement project showed 61 percent of Clark County community members support light rail.
Light rail’s return
Although MAX service to Clark County remains contentious, light rail is part of Clark County’s 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 I-5 Bridge’s north span. Its unprofitability, and the rise of the automobile, ultimately led to the streetcar’s demise.
But in its day, the streetcar was popular. In the first two weeks after the bridge opened, there were 33,679 crossings via streetcar, compared with 18,831 pedestrian and automobile crossings. Clark County’s population was around 60,000 then.
If light rail reaches Vancouver again, it’s unlikely Fowler will ride it; it’s too far out of his way. But he’ll keep riding transit to work.
“I think if it was more of a mixed bag, it would force me to get a second car,” Fowler said, “… and I haven’t thought about that at all.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.