The Death of the Mt. Hood Freeway and the Birth of MAX Light Rail

Dec 10, 2021

Making History book cover

The Mt. Hood Freeway was a turning point for our region.

A freeway was to be built running from the Willamette River towards Gresham between Division and Powell in SE Portland.

But the local revolt against that project ultimately resulted in it being abandoned in 1974. Thanks to local and congressional maneuvering, the federal dollars earmarked for the project were made available to be spent on transit. Twelve years later, the 15-mile long MAX line to Gresham opened.

To learn how it all happened, we turn to Making History: 50 Years of TriMet and Transit in the Portland Region.


The Plan

The Portland/Vancouver Transportation Plan for 1990 was approved in 1969 with a recommendation for 54 major new highway, road and bridge-building projects, many of them freeways and expressways on roughly a two-mile grid.

Citizen activists and political leaders recognized that full buildout of the Portland/Vancouver transportation plan would worsen the region’s already substandard air quality. At around the same time, a new mood among state and local leaders was casting doubt on the merits of the eight-lane Mount Hood Freeway proposed to run through southeast Portland. This massive project would run through traditional neighborhoods, destroying 1,500 homes and 200 businesses. Similar concerns were raised regarding the planned St. Helens Freeway (Interstate 505) through the Northwest Industrial District, which would have been an elevated structure between the Fremont and St. Johns bridges. 

The Opposition

Community and business opposition was led by a group called Sensible Transportation Options for People, STOP. Portland’s City Club also took up the debate. Neil Goldschmidt had run for mayor on a platform of reconsidering the road-building program. He reasoned that the citizens of Portland would pay for new roads in the form of neighborhood destruction and a loss of tax base, while suburbanites passing from one side of town to the other would benefit.

The Mount Hood Freeway project’s environmental impact statement, prepared in 1973 by the firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said the freeway would not relieve congestion, would overwhelm downtown Portland streets and would be obsolete by the time of its completion.

On February 24, 1974, U.S. District Judge James M. Burns ruled that the state highway division failed to follow its own rules when deciding where to locate the Mount Hood Freeway. The ruling was the death knell for the project and left little room for state officials and freeway boosters trying to save the freeway. In July of that year, the Portland City Council voted 4 to 1 to cancel the Mount Hood Freeway.

Other components of the Portland/Vancouver transportation plan were put on hold. The oversized ramps from the Fremont Bridge pointed at Northeast Fremont Street and Northwest St. Helens Road are reminders of that ambitious plan. A two-lane stub that would have connected to the Mount Hood Freeway from the Marquam Bridge was removed only recently. A stub from I-5 near the Hawthorne Bridge remains. 


A rendering of the proposed Mt. Hood Freeway looking east towards Mt. Hood

The Birth of Light Rail

At the same time, the contentious passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1973 allowed states for the first time to transfer funds from unneeded segments of the interstate system to other transportation options with 90 percent federal participation. Shortly thereafter, in response to citizen outcry, the region’s jurisdictions formally rejected the $500 million Mount Hood Freeway and the St. Helens Freeway projects.

With the demise of freeway plans, there was a push to transfer some of the funds to smaller-scale road and transit projects. The Oregon Public Utility Commission proposed a regional light rail system based largely on existing railroad rights-of-way. Discussion was heated. Skepticism remained over the abandonment of the freeway. A 1974 Oregonian editorial said, “Americans would sooner abandon their spouses than their cars.” 

A task force appointed by the governor turned its attention to TriMet to develop a viable transportation alternative and in May 1975 recommended a system of “transitways.” Multnomah County, led by Commissioner Mel Gordon, began to make reference to “light rail,” inspired by Toronto’s extensive and well-regarded system that had been going through a revitalization program since the mid-1950s. He was impressed also with what Boston was doing. The mayor’s agenda would include the region’s first new rail transit line since 1958, when the Oregon City interurban line was discontinued.

Five alternatives to the Mount Hood Freeway using the Banfield freeway corridor initially were considered by TriMet and the Oregon State Highway Department: 1) a full-scale eight-lane freeway with two lanes for exclusive bus use, 2) a depressed two-lane freeway for mass transit use only, 3) an exclusive transitway with boulevard improvements, 4) a four-lane freeway with two lanes for buses and 5) express bus operation on surface streets.

1976 the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), in concert with TriMet, convened the 120-member Banfield Citizens Advisory Committee, which looked at 30 alternative modes and alignments for directing Mount Hood Freeway transfer funds. The process was inclusive of both participants and ideas.

This and other forums helped the region convert the Mount Hood Freeway’s $500 million into a package of regional transportation priorities that included key road projects and the region’s first light rail project. In 1981 TriMet and Metro secured a funding agreement with the Reagan administration for the Banfield light rail project. 

Read more on the history of transit in Portland in Making History, available for free here [PDF].

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