‘MAX Action Team’ rides the rails to improve light rail’s safety and image

Discover why a whole room full of volunteers recently fanned out to talk with MAX Light Rail riders on all the platforms from Gateway to Gresham – during both the morning and evening commute times – to survey riders, and promote safety …

Minutes before the MAX Action Team takes to the light rail platforms, Alex Tinker, staffer for Rep. Jefferson Smith, demonstrates an on-platform contact for the group.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Even before he was elected to represent outer East Portland, Oregon Representative Jefferson Smith hasn’t minced words, as he’s championed the needs of the part of town he calls home.

One of Smith’s main issues has been safety concerns regarding the MAX Light Rail line.

In rallying volunteers to come out for a “MAX Action Team” day held on August 18, Smith wrote, “There is a growing awareness that we need to focus on the easterly portions of our community. Annexed unconstitutionally by the city twenty years ago, East Portland is now home to more than 25% of Portland’s residents and 40% of our school children. Yet investment east of 82nd [Avenue of Roses] is still far less than one would expect.”

Volunteers gather at Glenfair’s Lifegate Baptist Church before heading out to greet the riding public along outer East Portland’s MAX Light Rail line.

When the wheelchair-bound victim of a near-fatal MAX beating went to testify in Salem in 2009, Smith went on, he was disappointed to find that a MAX safety proposal had been quietly killed and was denied even a vote by the committee.

As a group did earlier that day, another group of 20 volunteers gathered in the late afternoon of August 18 in the foyer of the Lifegate Baptist Church on SE 148th Avenue – a half block south of the MAX Light Rail line. They donned brightly colored safety vests and rehearsed their contact approach with one another.


Oregon State Representative Jefferson Smith shares his passion about the mission of the MAX Action Team with volunteers.

Uncovers issue during run for legislative office
“When I was running for office,” Smith began, “I and my friends knocked on about 5,000 doors in the community. We heard over and over again concerns about MAX. The hope and opportunity for a convenient route between other parts of the City and outer East Portland were stated. But so were concerns that [riding MAX] didn’t feel as comfortable and safe as it could be.”

Smith said heard issues that the MAX line brought to the community from both neighbors and business people. “Too many people said they didn’t feel comfortable about their spouse, children – or even themselves – riding light rail, especially at night.  Some may be [inaccurate] perceptions, but we still have to deal with those perceptions, as well as the reality.”

Encouraged and enthusiastic, this MAX Action Team gathers for a group photo just before they go to their chosen stations.

Starts with a survey
“We’re doing an action survey,” Smith said. “We’re asking MAX riders for information by way of a survey, also asking them for their help to improve the situation on MAX, and telling them about neighborhood concerts being held in the Gateway area.”

The idea of conducting a survey among MAX riders was chosen, Smith said, because “It’s relatively low impact, a relatively easy thing. We’re simply asking people to communicate with us.”

The brief survey asked:

  • What riders like about MAX;
  • How the experience of riding MAX Light Rail could be improved;
  • In what way is the individual willing to help make it get better; and,
  • If they wish to be contacted with results of the survey.

“One of the biggest things we need to do in our community is to engage people and gather positive energy,” Smith told us. “Then, hopefully, apply that energy into doing something positive to solve the problems.”

While engaging MAX riders in the survey, volunteer Penny Fillhouer helps a rider with directions on the Gateway Station platform. “I came out because people need to be heard. Much about what’s been in the news about MAX is negative. But, I’m learning that things aren’t as bad as the media makes it sound.”

Police chief approves
Earlier that day, Smith said he met with Portland Police Bureau Chief Mike Reese. “He shared the concern that MAX presents real challenges for both the community and the policing agencies. It is challenging for police – and I mean that as a verb – challenging to manage, because it’s very near very large apartment complexes; it operates at all hours of the day and night; and, it allows for easy movement – including for people who cause problems.”

Reese shared the concern that we need to get more people riding MAX who are not ne’er-do-wells, Smith added. “And also send signals that there are a lot of the people who are riding, as well.”

At the 102nd Avenue MAX Station, volunteer Brittany Keeling interviews a rider.

One of the negative issues of riding MAX stations includes this 102nd Avenue MAX Station passenger shelter, reeking with the stench of urine.

Agree on positive actions
Reese shares the desire for innovative ideas, Smith said. “He really likes the idea of East Precinct Sgt. John Scruggs – to pipe classical school music to MAX stations.  They do that in various places around the world – in England, at every platform where they did it, it reduced crime by 34 to 37%.”

Another improvement would be “visible ticketing” of all passengers on the platforms and riding the trains. “Because of this, officials don’t have to profile people racially, by age, or by noise [they’re making] to see someone’s paid their fare.”

At the East 122nd Avenue MAX Station we find Ric Vrana of TriMet, and Lore Wintergreen, the Advocate with the East Portland Action Plan, interviewing MAX Riders.

Jacki Gethner, member of the Nichiren Buddhist Temple of Portland and Rev. Renee Ward, Associate Pastor Vancouver Avenue Baptist Church, who says she lives in outer East Portland, are MAX Action Team volunteers working the East 142nd Avenue MAX Station.

“The third action can be like what we’re doing here today,” Smith commented. “That is, volunteers wearing brightly colored vests, armed with cell phones or radios, just to provide another set of eyeballs at the stations – to send a message that there are watchful people and they expect positive behavior on the platforms.”

Riders approve of MAX Action Team outreach
To report this story, we purchased a MAX fare, and rode the rails, stopping at each of the stations to see how the MAX Action Team volunteers were doing.

We interviewed several MAX riders, after being contacted by volunteers. Most of them were both surprised and encouraged by the effort.

“At first I thought they were ‘signature gatherers’,” rider Jessica Conley told us. “But the lady was real nice. I think gathering information is a good idea. “What they learn from this can help make things better.”

Conley, who says she has ridden MAX “every day of my life for the last six years” said “I’m pretty much okay with it. But, at some MAX stops there is an awful lot of drama. And, I hate cigarette smoking on the platform – they’re not supposed to do it, but they still do, and I hate it.”

The Office of Neighborhood Involvement Crime Prevention Coordinator for the area, Teri Poppino, interviews neighbors near the East 162nd Station.

Says the day beat his expectations
Smith said he was feeling enthusiastic about the effort, because of the high level of volunteer participation. “During both the morning and afternoon shifts, we’ve had teams of people on every platform, from Gateway on out to Gresham.”

And, checking in with Smith a couple of days afterward, we learned that volunteers completed nearly 700 interviews. “About 500 of those people gave us their contact information, so we can keep in touch with them. There is much to be done, but together, the sky is the limit.”

MAX Action is an official subcommittee of the East Portland Action Plan. To learn more, see their official website: CLICK HERE.

Neighbors, from Powellhurst-Gilbert in the south, to northern outer East Portland’s Valerie Curry from Argay, volunteer to help improve the MAX line.

© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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