May 11, 2004
by John A. Charles
On May 1, Portland's North Interstate light rail line opened for business. The cost to taxpayers was $60 million per mile, or $350 million total. The train, which runs from downtown to the Expo Center, replaces TriMet's bus line 5, which used to go all the way to Vancouver. Now Vancouver customers must leave the train at Kenton and transfer to a bus to cross the river—their daily commute takes longer.
Oddly enough, superior transit service could have been provided for as little as $60,000 per mile in the form of shuttle vans, or jitneys. In New York City, thousands of such vans are profitably run by unsubsidized, private entrepreneurs, despite the fact that they're illegal. They flourish because they have very flexible routes and often take people door to door.
So North Interstate light rail is at least 1,000 times more expensive than jitney service, but is it 1,000 times better? No. In fact, it's less flexible, slower (15 MPH) and it actually makes congestion worse; the train took two lanes of road capacity for right-of-way. Shuttle vans simply use the existing road system.
Why did Portland politicians waste so many tax dollars on a gold-plated, slow train? Because it's not their money. An ironclad rule of politics is that elected officials never spend other people's money as carefully as they spend their own. That's why we need to limit taxes. If you send it, they'll spend it.