Early freeway proposals
In 1955, the Oregon State Highway Department laid out the freeway development plan for the Portland metropolitan area, proposing the construction of the Mount Hood Freeway and I-505, among others. Citizen protests and two other factors led to the eventual cancellation of both projects. First, an environmental impact study (EIS) conducted in 1973 by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill determined that the Mount Hood Freeway would have reached obsolescence by the time it was completed and would have only added more traffic to downtown Portland than the surface streets could handle. Then, on February 4, 1974, U.S. district judge James M. Burns formally rejected the plan after finding that the corridor selection process failed to follow the correct procedures. Amid mounting anti-freeway sentiment and further delays,:18 the Portland City Council voted 4-to-1 to abandon the project in July 1974.:20 Meanwhile, Northwest Portland residents fought in opposition to the I-505 spur route, which the city council approved in 1971. Following a suspect EIS, organizers from the Willamette Heights Neighborhood Association filed a class action in U.S. district court to halt the new freeway's construction; they were later joined by the Northwest District Association. Several years of drawn-out litigation ensued, keeping the project on hiatus. In December 1978, the city council also withdrew its support for this proposal.
Transitway planning and construction
Redecking work on the Glisan Street ramp of the Steel Bridge
The passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1973 allowed state governments for the first time to transfer federal funds from canceled freeway projects to other transportation options, including mass transit.:20 In May 1973, Governor Tom McCall assembled a task force to determine potential alternative uses for the freeway funds. In April 1974, the task force released a preliminary draft listing light rail and buses as modes under consideration. Around $185 million of federal assistance became available from the Mount Hood Freeway plan, and another $15 million came from the I-505 project. In 1976, the funds were allocated to other projects across the region, including a proposed transitway along the Banfield Corridor.:29 Among five alternatives developed by the Highway Division, including the removal or extension of an existing high-occupancy vehicle lane, a busway, as first suggested by the Columbia Region Association of Governments (CRAG) in 1975, had been favored for the Banfield Transitway. Support for light rail on the corridor grew following the mode's inclusion as a sixth alternative in a 1977 EIS. In September 1978, TriMet became the first jurisdiction to adopt a resolution supporting a combined light rail and highway expansion plan. Remaining local jurisdictions each announced their support by November,:30 and the State Transportation Commission approved the project a month later.
The Banfield light rail project received federal approval for construction in September 1980.:36 Plans for a 27-station, 15.1-mile (24.3 km) line,[a] running from Southwest 11th Avenue in downtown Portland to just east of Cleveland Avenue in Gresham, were produced by Wilbur Smith Associates.:31 The project estimated a budget of $225.5 million, of which $146.9 million went to light rail.:8 The alignment crossed the Willamette River on the Steel Bridge, selected because it had been designed for and used by the city's former streetcars.:26 In the east side, planners routed the line through a former Mount Hood Company interurban right-of-way, which occupied the median of East Burnside Street between 99th Avenue in Portland and Ruby Junction/197th Avenue, along which interurban service had ended in 1927.:13 From Ruby Junction to Cleveland Avenue, planners assumed acquisition of a two-mile (3.2 km) section owned by the Portland Traction Company (PTC). In August 1983, PTC agreed to surrender this segment as part of a longer abandonment up to Linnemann Junction, a total of 4.3 miles (6.9 km) of right-of-way, which TriMet bought for $2.9 million in December of that year. Anticipating 42,500 riders by 1990,:11 TriMet purchased 26 light rail vehicles from Bombardier, with each car costing $750,000. Bombardier started their production in 1982 and began delivering them in 1984. Zimmer Gunsul Frasca designed the line's stations and overpasses, earning the firm a Progressive Architecture Award in 1984.
The groundbreaking ceremony took place at Ruby Junction Yard in March 1982. In July 1983, the yard opened as the system's first maintenance complex, housing a 98,000-square-foot (9,100 m2) maintenance and operations building, which as of 2016, has been expanded to 149,000 square feet (13,800 m2). Construction of the light rail line, which progressed largely east to west, commenced in April 1983 on the two-mile (3.2 km) section between Ruby Junction and downtown Gresham. By January 1984, work had reached East Burnside Street. To minimize costs along the Banfield Freeway segment, track right-of-way excavation and freeway widening took place simultaneously. The line's use of the Steel Bridge was one factor that necessitated the bridge's $10 million rehabilitation from 1984 to 1986. Track work in downtown Portland, the final section to be built, began in April 1984. It involved cobblestone paving and tree planting across 36 downtown blocks, as well as utility relocation. System testing followed the completion of electrification work and the Steel Bridge's reopening, which encountered a nine-month delay.
Inauguration and later improvements
Gresham Central station in 1989, when the line section on which it is located was still single-track
On September 5, 1986, the $214 million (equivalent to $660 million in 2018 dollars) light rail line—now called Metropolitan Area Express (MAX)—opened for service. Its new name was selected through a public contest held by The Oregonian and TriMet in June 1986. TriMet designer Jeff Frane, who attributed inspiration to his son Alex, made the winning suggestion. As the planning of an extension to the west side progressed, this line came to be referred to as the Eastside MAX. Freeway transfer funds provided $178.3 million, or 83 percent of the total cost. The project was completed $10 million under budget. An estimated 250,000 people attended the opening celebrations which spanned three days. Downtown retailers, many of whom had opposed light rail, reported substantial increases in sales following the line's opening. Nine new bus lines were created and six existing bus routes were modified to feed the light rail stations. MAX trains operated initially between approximately 5:00 am and 1:00 am, with headways as short as seven minutes. Rides were free within Fareless Square from opening day until 2012.
An eastbound train seen running along Southwest Yamhill Street in downtown Portland in 1991
From 1986 to 1996, most of the line's easternmost two miles (3.2 km), beyond the Ruby Junction maintenance facility, operated as bidirectional single-track.:319–320 Trains traveling in opposite directions were unable to pass in these sections, resulting in delays when service ran behind schedule. In early 1996, a second track was laid and a second platform was constructed at Gresham Central Transit Center, making the section double-track and eliminating the only remaining single-track on the Eastside MAX. The new track was brought into use in May after a three-month suspension of MAX service east of Rockwood/East 188th Avenue station; it had been replaced by shuttle buses to allow the work to be carried out.
Since the inauguration of MAX, TriMet has added four infill stations to the original alignment. In March 1990, the system opened the Mall stations to coincide with the opening of Pioneer Place in downtown Portland. After operating for 30 years, these stations are scheduled to close permanently in March 2020, owing to low ridership and to speed up train travel times across the city center. In September 1990, the Oregon Convention Center opened to the public with MAX service from Convention Center station. Work on the line's newest station, Civic Drive, started in 1997 as part of the Civic neighborhood development, but was delayed for approximately twelve years due to a lack of funding. Construction resumed in May 2010 and the station opened on December 1, 2010.
In 2015, TriMet began renovating fourteen of the system's oldest stations, between Hollywood/Northeast 42nd Avenue Transit Center and Cleveland Avenue. The project includes the installation of new windscreens, shelter roofs, digital information displays, lighting, and security cameras. Three stations—Gresham City Hall, East 122nd Avenue, and East 162nd Avenue—have been renovated as of February 2019.