Today I was driving home on I-5 after a work assignment took me into the western suburbs. On the way back, while trying to exit from the Marquam bridge onto the Central Eastside, I got stuck in the right-hand lane, ground to a halt for 20 minutes dangerously just a few feet into the exit ramp. Cars were whizzing by at 60 just a few feet away. The problem was a freight train that had traffic backed up throughout the Central Eastside. The train was having some kind of problem and was completely stopped, leaving all of us stuck. Normally I know when there's a train I can just avoid it by heading south past OMSI and then under the viaduct. But this time every path was clogged because of this motionless string of rusty boxcars.
I consider myself usually pro train transit and anti-car. I try to use my car as little as possible; I fill the tank only once a month. And hey, I read enough Kerouac in my younger days to have an appreciation for the ambiance of rail yards and train tracks and the people working there. But as that Central Eastside train kept us all at a complete stop for 20 minutes, and some of us in dangerous positions, the only thing to keep my road rage down was the thought of proposing that we bury the railroad under ground in the Central Eastside. At that moment, I also in my impatient frustration cursed there even being an industrial sanctuary in the heart of the city. I'm not going to hold my ground on that second point. I love the CE as is, except for the interruptions of the train.
If you were to take all the normal freight and Amtrak train trips through the Central Eastside, and could calculate all the time lost for the hundreds of people waiting during each passage, isn't that a lot of valuable time and efficiency lost? How much is it costing Portland every time some rust-covered B&O train 500 cars long lurches down the track at half a mile an hour? I wonder if the efficiency gains we'd make from burying the railroad underground would potentially be worth the cost.
We need to make major, major investments in rail infrastructure in the future anyway. With the cost of oil rising, America desperately needs to increase the capacity of both freight and passenger rail. In the future it'll be increasingly absurd to think of passenger and rail trains having to share the same tracks. Is it really so terribly cost prohibitive to add on an underground passage through the Cental Eastside if you think about the long-term gains? Think of the developable land it would by. (Imagine all the real estate in Manhattan gained by the railyards being buried underground. Portland isn't New York, but the same principle works here, especially given that we're expected to add a million more people in the coming decades.) And how the Hawthorne and Morrison bridge overpasses could be removed (along with the east bank freeway overpass). Obviously we need freight trains to keep the economy moving. But do we need them bisecting some of the most oft-traveled and potentially valuable real estate in the city to the degree that said real estate is terribly and dangerously compromised several times a day?
I know people will probably say I should (a) not have driven in the first place; (b) really ought to calm down and be more patient; and (c) stick to the architecture, stupid. And honestly, there's truth in all of the above. But don't judge the idea of burying the train only by my train-rage attitude. Wouldn't it be an investment in Portland and what this stretch of land right across from downtown could one day be?