The transit agency for Vancouver (C-TRAN) is reconsidering its support for the Columbia River Crossing Project, which includes light rail to Vancouver. In a staff report prepared for this week’s C-TRAN board meeting, the following claims are made:

  • Light rail offers faster service (17 MPH) than bus rapid transit (14.5 MPH);
  • The extended Yellow MAX line will arrive in Vancouver every 7.5 minutes; and
  • Light rail will carry 6,100 people over the Columbia River during the peak period.

All of these answers are wrong.

C-TRAN express buses running from various points in Vancouver to Portland city center currently average 31-45 MPH (depending on the route) in the morning peak period. In the afternoon peak they average 20-30 MPH traveling northbound.

Current Yellow MAX line service is one train every 15 minutes, all day. There will be no peak-hour service to Vancouver at 7.5-minute intervals, because TriMet has reduced service by 14% in the past five years. The agency is broke.

Finally, the maximum one-way capacity of a two-car light rail train is approximately 274. Multiplying this times eight trains per hour in the peak direction is 2,192 riders, not 6,100.

The fact is, C-TRAN’s express bus service is far superior to the slow MAX, so why spend $930 million on a slow train to Vancouver? That’s the question that should be asked.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

4 thoughts on “Why Do Transit Officials Lie About Light Rail?

  1. “Light rail will carry 6,100 people over the peak period…”

    If a light rail train carries 274 riders, and travels 4 times per hour, and the “peak period” is roughly 6-9 AM and 3-6 PM, you get roughly 1,100 riders per hour, or 3,300 riders (in the commuting direction) per peak, or 6,600 riders “over the peak period”.

    Symantecs, yes. And that also assumes that every train is at capacity, which we all know is not true. And that number excludes the fact that the trains must run, largely empty, in the other direction, as well.

    And it also ignores the fact that the Interstate Bridge in 2011 carried 124,000 vehicles throughout an average day (which includes buses)…so assuming (again, using wrong numbers) that each of those 124,000 vehicles carries just ONE person, MAX would only reduce about 5-10% of the traffic. But we know a large number of those cars carries more than one person, and we also know that buses (C-Tran, Greyhound, Bolt Bus, tour buses) and carpools, vanpools, shuttles and taxis also use the bridge. So MAX’s contribution shrinks again.

    Light rail supporters also ignore the fact that freeway usage actually goes UP in the years of and after a light rail project (per ODOT’s own traffic counts), and the Sunset Highway has had to be widened after the Westside MAX line was built; as well as MANY westside streets (Cornelius Pass Road, Baseline Road, Cornell Road) in the years AFTER Westside MAX was built. Even the oft-vaunted Orenco Village, sold as a “Transit-Oriented Development”, is full of streets with cars parked on them, the strip mall and the “downtown community” are full of autos and motorists; while the land closest to the MAX station was devoid of any development or activity for many years (and some of the lots are still vacant and undeveloped to this day). The Orenco Park and Ride lot sees quite a few cars during the week, though, suggesting most people just drive to MAX to take advantage of the free parking versus paying for it downtown.

    Is this the future of downtown Vancouver – parking garages that are empty and vacant over the weekend? Road construction to help these folks get out of downtown Vancouver on surface streets rather than being stuck on congested two-and-four lane streets?

    1. Erik,

      Some of the things you and CPI say about Light Rail are true, in particular about the Yellow Line to Vancouver. If the extension were on dry land or even just had to cross the slough separating Hayden Island from the Oregon mainland, it would be a no-brainer. But three quarters of a billion dollars for the line is a lot of money to invest in order to gentrify downtown Vancouver. It will make the downtown area much nicer and more vibrant, but it won’t get C-Tran out of the express bus business.

      However one claim you made is completely wrong: the Sunset Highway was widened in co-ordination with the building of the Westside Max, not as an after-thought. The actual re-construction of the roadway took place after the line was opened because once the train was built it had capacity to absorb some of the added congestion from the re-construction. But the two activities were planned as a single mega-project.

      Does 26 need further widening (e.g. should it have been made four lanes when the rebuild was undertaken)? It is a mess twice a day, so an argument can be made to that end. But I’d bet that even had a second new lane been added, it would still be at capacity today.

      Here’s what true about urban highway expansion projects: they make trips which were previously intolerable on a daily basis acceptable. But only for a period of time. After the roadway is finished and pre-existing users are cruising down it, new housing is added in the “catchment” area of those trips and the road fills back up. This has been shown to happen over and over and over and over, throughout the country. It’s why LA is having a mayoral election that hangs on the question of adding capacity to I-405 over Sepulveda Pass or tunneling under it with a new rail line.

      The only way to avoid this process of expand to defeat congestion, build houses to create more congestion, and expand to defeat congestion again is by “managing” the peaks: incentivize higher car occupancy and transit, penalize mobility during the peaks (London CBD tolling), or forbid sprawl. The best solution is a mix of all three because it’s true that people with families have a hard time in apartments, so if one wants a new generation of kids, single-family housing has to be part of the mix. But one can’t simply build one’s way out of sprawl unless economic growth in the region stops.

      Detroit’s freeways, for instance, are no longer crowded.

      And just as a technical issue, where the heck would you have put the extra lanes on 26 in the canyon? The roadway as it is stretches from side to side and those canyon walls are steep. Any further widening would require very high retaining walls. That’s one reason why ODOT was happy to use highway funds to build Westside MAX.

      Also, there has been a tremendous level of development at the Westside MAX stations between Beaverton and Quatama, much more than the Eastside line’s. That’s probably because half of the Eastside line was squeezed against the freeway to save money, and no one wants to live right next to a huge highway roaring all night. Transit Oriented Development takes time, just as the building of greenfield suburbs takes time. Baseline is sprouting big new apartment buildings at each of the four stations along it. TOD is happening, and much more effectively than would have had BRT replaced the old OE instead of MAX.

      And finally, what is so bad about drivers “tak[ing] advantage of the free parking versus paying for it downtown?” That’s exactly the market that express buses serve. The market sector that the alternative CPI is explicitly and by posting you’re implicitly supporting here is auto drivers avoiding downtown parking and the congestion to get there.

      Express buses do nothing to serve base period transit usage; first, they often aren’t running or are doing so only at a Potemkin frequency (the mid-day hourly C-Tran 105), and, second, they don’t serve the intermediate locations that surface bus and LRT do. They’re not a substitute for high-capacity transit.

  2. Why do we need a larger bridge on Hi-way 5. It does not seem logical to bottleneck traffic that is going to other communities,Beaverton, Aloha and the other growing communities.
    Why are we focused on using a bridge that will still bottleneck at all the interchanges.Who cares if the bridge can carry more people when they hit Portland it still has to use the existing outdated infrastructure to get to the outlaying communities where the jobs are.
    Lets do a real job and examine where the bulk of the traffic is going and build accordingly. Get the focus off Portland.

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