Issue of Air Pollution in Portland

Categories: Air Pollution

Politics of Air

Tri-Met, Influence in Portland

Air pollution is t something that the residents of Portland think about; everyone seems to think that air pollution is something that only affects cities such as Los Angeles and New York something that won t affect Portland. But the truth is that if Portland does t continue to improve its transit systems and monitor the air quality, Portland could turn into another LA.

The figure below indicates the huge changes which have been made over the past 25 years and indicate just how far we have come in such a relatively short time.

As a little history, one must keep in mind; that these emission regulations for diesel engines are relatively in their infancy compared to the industry in general. Engine emission regulations started for automobiles in 1970, diesel only started being regulated in 1974, and then really only for a smoke until 1978. Real emission testing did t take effect until the advent of steady state transient testing that was instituted in 1979, since then we have come a long way.

Using unregulated engines of the 70 s as a base would blow black soot out the tail pipe all over your car if you were following a transit bus back then. Now we have the clean diesel engines of today, which have reduced NOx by over 75% and particulate by over 95%.

Controlling these pollutants is important to all that live in this environment that is why there are standards and regulations set to control these pollutants. A company called Cummins has had an inguinal part in building engines that meet and exceed the standards set for all these elements of regulated and non-regulated pollutants.

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This company works on the engines that run the Tri-Met busses. They have been able to improve the engines by improving the cylinder & piston, increased turbocharging technology, better electronic fuel injection and variable timing, along with improvements in engine fuels and oil technologies all leading to a cleaner running engine.

Along with the improvements in the busses, the Max light rail has also had a beneficial impact on the local air quality. For many years light rail and streetcar systems have served the community as a form of transportation as well as limiting air pollution.

Back in the early 1900 s streetcars were the main source of transportation, for the general public, these cars were a very efficient and useful way of getting around town. Big cities such as Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and even Los Angeles had all adopted streetcars as means of travel.

It wasn’t until mid-1920 that General Motors began to take over the street by producing buses. GM began buying out streetcar companies, ripping up old car tracks then implementing their new bus systems. It was these buses that began the air pollution problem that we have today. Any company that was involved and could benefit financially from the growth of the transportation industry pitched in on many of the new freeway expansion proposals. As GM became more powerful, it continued to buy out city streetcar companies; by the 1950 s, GM began to get more support from more companies and city commissioners to begin building freeways. By now just about all of the cities that used streetcars have vanished. More and more people began riding buses and driving cars, cars that General Motors was manufacturing, also adding to the local air pollution. With so many more people riding buses and driving cars, problems with the air began to arise. Air quality was becoming such an important issue in 1965 the government implemented a clean air act.

Funny enough in the 1980 s streetcars and subways began to make a comeback. The underground streetcar system took off in larger East Coast cities such as New York, and Baltimore. Today they are several cities like Portland that have begun introducing more efficient and cleaner forms of transportation like Portland s Tri-Met light rail systems. Many of these cities are trying to make an effort in improving their way of public transportation along with improving their air quality.

The city of Portland has created one of the top transit systems in the United States. With two major forms of transportation, Tri-Met which is the bus system, and Max which is the light rail system, Portland has been relatively successful in creating a transit system that is effective for the consumer, and effective in maintaining the city’s air quality.

Today the bus systems have become much more efficient than back in 1940, for example, Portland s Tri-Met buses are emitting 90% fewer particulate and nitric oxides than they did 10 years ago. Many of these buses are running much cleaner than many cars that are driven on the road daily.

In September 1986, Tri-Met introduced the Max light rail system, which runs 100 percent on electricity. This light rail system is currently a 33-mile stretch of track that runs east to west connecting the communities of Gresham, Beaverton, and Hillsboro with other expansions soon to follow (See figure 2). Max is also part of an integrated regional transit system that also includes over 100 bus routes in the urbanized Portland metro area. It is estimated that when completed, the light rail system will reduce air pollution by 1,700 tons each year in Portland. Using Max will help defer the need for new highway investments making the city of Portland a more vibrant and livable place.

Tri-Met’s MAX Light Rail System

The National Association of Homebuilders named Portlands light rail system the Best master-planned community in the United States, Tri-Met has also received recognition from Vice President Al Gore saying, “America has a lot to learn from Portland and the entire region surrounding Portland a lot of new ideas start here. They’re tested here and they’re proven here and then the rest of the country hears about them and comes here to see how they work.” Other larger cities such as Los Angeles have begun adding light rail systems similar to Portland s; a project like this is very beneficial to LA considering that they are one of the county’s most polluted cities.

The Los Angeles metro area also has two forms of public transportation, the Metro Buses, and the Metro Rail. The bus system unlike Portland s is very inefficient, many of the buses are old and outdated, some barely pass environmental emission regulations, add all the automotive traffic that LA gets you going to have and air quality issues.

Los Angeles s light rail system has been open since 1990 with recent expansion in the last 5 years. There are three lines, the blue line, green line, and red line with an expansion project on the blue line leading out to the Pasadena area set for the near future. The expansion in LA is good, but more is needed, the city of Los Angeles is almost four times the size of Portland but its transportation system is only about twice the size of Portland s. It s almost too late to fix the air quality issue in LA, but because Portland does t yet have as much traffic as LA, they still have a chance. Over the last 4 years, Portland s light rail systems have been expanding, there has been a lot of political debate in regards to whether there will be enough ridership to keep the new lines running.

The cost of new Airport and Interstate Max expansions has been estimated to be around 475 million dollars, and even know these projects have already begun, debate continues. The Airport and Interstate expansion projects are well supported by the Portland voters, public/private ventures involving the Port of Portland, Tri-Met, the City of Portland, Portland Developmental Commission, and Bechtel Enterprise who have covered most of the costs of the project. One of the big reasons for Airport Max is that Max stimulates transit-oriented development. Expanding Max takes more people out of their cars, thus helping to relieve urban sprawl and regional air pollution, and traffic congestion. This new line of Max is scheduled to open in September of 2001 and is planned to serve about 13 million passengers annually. Additionally, the Interstate Max, a 5.8-mile segment now under construction, will connect the Expo Center in North Portland with downtown and the rest of the transit system. The reasoning for the Interstate Max proposal is to provide faster and more reliable transit service along 1-5 while providing a connection to many major destinations along Interstate 5.

From 1987 when Max first began running to 1998 ridership had almost doubled from about 15 thousand riders per week to almost 30 thousand riders per week. When the Westside light rail opened in 1998 ridership went from 30 thousand riders per week to nearly 65 thousand riders per week in 2000. A statement given at the first of the year by Fred Hansen of the Beaverton Chamber of Commerce, says that Max ridership is way ahead of the schedule we have ridership today which wasn’t projected to occur until 2007 or 2008 the overall numbers are remarkable. Several studies done by Tri-Met have shown that 83% of riders prefer to ride Tri-Met over their car, and with the other two expansion projects on their way ridership is again expected to double leaving little to worry about.

By creating job opportunities, reducing car trips helping keep our air clean there are many benefits to the Max expansions project. The direction that the city of Portland is heading should leave little doubt that the area’s local air quality should be clean for many years to come. Portland is t going to turn into another polluted Los Angeles.


  1. Hansen, Fred. Speech, Beaverton Chamber of Commerce 5 Jan. 2001.
  2. Online posting.
  4. Tri-Met Home
  5. Kinsey Hill, Gail. Prosperity shapes Oregon: Portland International
  6. Airport People and products have more places to go, and Portland’s airport races to keep pace. The Oregonian 14 Feb. 2000.
  7. Manning, Jeff. Prosperity shapes Oregon: Traffic High-tech workers reap prosperity’s downside as they commute along Cornelius Pass Road. The Oregonian 30 Jan. 2000.
  8. Taken for a Ride: In-class movie.

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Issue of Air Pollution in Portland. (2022, Jul 24). Retrieved from

Issue of Air Pollution in Portland
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