The city of Portland is blessed with one of the finest transit systems in the country.  The crown jewel of the Tri-Met system is it’s MAX light rail system.  It’s three lines plus a fourth under construction carry a great number of commuters and other transit users every day.  Twenty-eight percent of all transit trips in the Portland metro area involve MAX in some part of the trip.

Currently, the “Green Line” is under construction, and as part of the project, the Steel Bridge is closed to allow for a month of upgrading the tracks that cross the bridge.  From August 2nd through the 24th, the bridge will be closed to all traffic including the MAX trains.  A series of shuttle buses will transport passengers from one side of the bridge to the other.

In the long run, this inconvenience will be well worth the effort.  The tracks will serve us well into the future, with trains on one of the four routes crossing the bridge every two to three minutes all throughout the day.  It is the system that Seattle should have had in place twenty years ago.

I have a concern, though, that has not been given a lot of press.  That is that the entire light rail system, a system that transports 34 million riders per year, 95 light rail vehicles, and the backbone of the total transit system, all travels over the Steel Bridge to cross the Willamette River.  That is to say that the whole system depends on a drawbridge built in 1912, the second oldest vertical lift bridge in North America, to even work.  If some disaster did cause damage to the Steel Bridge, Tri-Met would be hard-pressed to keep it’s system operating in an efficient manner.  The inconvenience we are now experiencing could potentially become a permanent problem if something unexpected happened.

Yes, this bridge was extensively refurbished in 1986 and could be expected to last many years into the future.  The chances of a disaster befalling the Steel Bridge are slight.  But it is somewhat unsettling to me that all it would take is one ship accident, one fire in a train car passing on the lower level of the bridge, or perhaps a well-placed earthquake to bring the whole system to its knees, without a backup bridge available for use.

If the long proposed MAX bridge near the Ross Island Bridge were ever built, this would provide a needed backup.  Lately, however, I don’t know if I would trust the current local governments to actually get htis long-proposed project on the road.  Oregon government leaders were once considered to be an enlightened bunch, being on the forefront of transit and environmental legislation.  Now, nearly 40 years after making the decision to build transit rather than trying to futilely pave the city in highways, it seems that every transit decision has to start from scratch justifying that transit is a superior choice to more highways.

I certainly don’t expect disaster to strike the Steel Bridge anytime soon.  I expect the current situation with out light rail system to be back to normal soon after the third week of August.  But I’m not sure I like the idea of “all our eggs being in one basket”.  I believe we need a plan in place to deal with a potential transit disaster.