John A. Charles, Jr.QuickPoint!

The most recent downtown employer survey by the Portland Business Alliance contains important news for taxpayers. It shows that light rail’s market share for downtown commuters dropped by 30% over the past five years. Considering that TriMet actually opened two new rail lines during that period, this is a stunning decline in ridership.

In 2001, 20% of downtown employees traveled to work by light rail. By 2005 that had dropped to 14%. Meanwhile, the number of commuters who drove alone in private vehicles increased from 44% of all workers to 48%. Walking and cycling also increased, while the streetcar was irrelevant in all 5 years of the survey, never gaining more than 1% of commuters.

Portland needs a good transit system, but the biggest bang for the buck will always be bus service. Buses carry 23% of downtown workers, a number that is only slightly less than it was 5 years ago. This has been achieved despite the fact that almost all of TriMet’s capital budget in the past two decades has been devoted to rail.

Downtown is the one area where light rail should do well. Losing 30% of market share in such a short period of time is a signal to local politicians that it’s time to seriously re-think the local transit strategy.

John A. Charles, Jr. is president and CEO at Cascade Policy Institute, a Portland, Oregon-based think tank.

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