Moving Forward from the Columbia River Crossing

By Kevin Sharp

With the recent suspension of the Columbia River Crossing project, people are already asking, “What should replace it?” The answer, at least for right now, is, “Nothing.” While it is frustrating that the government spent $170 million to not build a bridge, the cost of a poorly conceived bridge would be much greater.

Before Portland and Vancouver do anything else, they need to look seriously into the root of the transportation problems facing each city and plan accordingly. They also need to understand that just replacing the I-5 Bridge with a different bridge is not a lasting solution to the traffic problems. A new bridge needs to be a supplement to the existing Columbia River bridges.

To make the project viable, Portland also needs to abandon its inherently political goal of spreading light rail anywhere and everywhere. A simple bridge to ease traffic congestion is all that is necessary; but Portland transportation planners continually insist on expanding the MAX line to Washington―while Washington residents obviously do not want that. Any attempt to send light rail to Vancouver will only waste more time, taxpayer dollars, and resources that could go to more productive and valuable projects. A bridge should connect the cities; it doesn’t need to drive them apart.

Kevin Sharp is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market think tank.

Cascade in the Capitol: Light Rail to Vancouver vs. CTRAN Express Buses – Testimony on HB 2800

Cascade President John Charles testified today before the Joint Committee on Interstate-5 Bridge Replacement Project regarding HB 2800. His testimony follows.

The CRC Plan for Light Rail:

A Step Backwards for Transit Customers

 John A. Charles, Jr.

Cascade Policy Institute

February 2013

Metric

TriMet Yellow MAX Line to North Portland

CTRAN Express Buses Serving Downtown Portland

Capital cost of expanding  light rail to Vancouver

$932 million

$0

2011 annual operating cost

$10.2 million

$5.04 million

Operating cost/hour

$270

$110

Annual hours of service

40,492

45,996

Farebox recovery ratio for operations cost

47%

67%

Cost/new vehicle

$4,200,000

$458,333

Peak-hour frequency

Every 15 minutes

Every 10.3-15.5 minutes

Peak-hour travel speed

15 MPH

31-45 MPH

Travel time, Vancouver to Portland

36-38 minutes

16 -18 minutes

% of passenger seating capacity actually used at the peak period

34%

38%

Promises of Frequent Transit Services: Hope Over Experience

According to the most recent finance plan for this project, “Light rail in the new guideway and in the existing Yellow line alignment would be planned to operate with 7.5 minute headways during the “peak of the peak” and with 15-minute headways at all other times. This compares to 12-minute headways in “peak of the peak” and 15-minute headways at all other times for the existing Yellow line.”[1]

In fact, the Yellow Line runs at 15 minute headways all day, with even less service at night.  Yet according to the FTA Full Funding Grant Agreement for the Yellow Line, service is supposed to be operating at 10-minute headways at the peak, improving to 7.5 minute headways by 2020. TriMet is violating its FFGA contract, which could lead to a denial of funding for the $850 million grant request that the CRC project plans to make.

The Green MAX line is also operating at service levels of at least 33% below those promised in the FFGA. 

The legislature should not be expanding TriMet’s territory at this time – especially into another state that already has a transit district – because TriMet cannot afford to operate the system it already has. Despite a steady influx of general fund dollars, TriMet has been cutting service ever since the legislature approved a payroll tax rate increase in 2003, as shown below.

TriMet Financial Resources, 2004-2013 (000s)

 

FY 04/05

FY 08/09

FY 10/11

FY 11/12 (est)

FY 12/13 (budget)

% Change 04/05-12/13

Passenger fares

$   59,487

$   90,016

$   96,889

$   104,032

$117,166

+97%

Payroll tax revenue

$171,227

$209,089

$224,858

$232,832

244,457

+43%

Total operating resources

$308,766

397,240

$399,641

$476,364

$465,056

+51%

Total Resources

$493,722

$888,346

$920,044

$971,613

$1,111,384

+125%

Note: Pursuant to legislation adopted in 2003, the TriMet payroll tax rate was increased on January 1, 2005, will rise by .0001% annually until it reaches a rate of .007218% on January 1, 2014.

 

  Annual Fixed Route Service Trends, 2004-2012

FY 04

FY 06

FY 08

FY 10

FY 12

% Change

Veh. revenue hours

1,698,492

1,653,180

1,712,724

1,682,180

1,561,242

-8.1%

Vehicle revenue miles

27,548,927

26,830,124

26,448,873

25,781,480

23,625,960

-14.2

Average veh. speed – bus

15.8

15.8

14.9

14.7

14.6

-7.6%

Average veh. speed – L. Rail

20.1

19.4

19.3

19.4

18.4

-11.5%

Source: TriMet annual service and ridership report; TriMet budget documents and audited financial statements, various years.



[1] C-TRAN, High Capacity Transit System and Finance Plan, July 20, 2012, p. 4.

On the CRC Mega-Project: Differing Visions, Shared Sense

The two of us may be strange bedfellows. Over the past twenty years, we’ve disagreed about many issues, including transit investments, land use laws and the underlying role of government. But recently we were both in Salem criticizing HJM 22, a bill asking the federal government to spend over a billion dollars on the ill-conceived “Columbia River Crossing” mega-project.

We each bring decades of experience in transportation policy to the table. Among the hundreds of projects we’ve seen, the current CRC proposal stands out as a doozy, throwing staggering amounts of money at a wasteful, ineffective plan.

Others, including the project’s own Independent Review Panel, have written about the huge costs to the taxpayers and the state, about the risks of cost overruns in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and about the project not fixing congestion but merely moving it from Vancouver to the I-405/Rose Quarter area. Those are serious problems.

As transportation experts from very different perspectives, we diverge on other flaws of the project. However, we agree on several actions Oregon should take instead of building the highway departments’ current bloated plan:

– Build an additional bridge. Having only two road crossings of the Columbia in the greater Portland area doesn’t make long-term sense. Clark County is an integral part of the region. We should be increasing the number of crossings of the river, whether the new bridge be a local or highway bridge, and whether it includes light rail or not.

– Retain the existing bridges. The current pair of I-5 spans have decades of life left in them. Spending $74 million to demolish them and build something in their place is wasteful.

Use tolling. A well-designed tolling system could fully finance the cost of a properly designed and scaled new bridge.

– Increase the legislative oversight of mega-projects. ODOT and the Oregon Transportation Commission, rather than the Legislature, have historically guided and decided on projects. But the CRC mega-project’s bill of $450 million or more to Oregon taxpayers demands enhanced accountability measures.

– Strategically focus taxpayer investments in seismic upgrades. Oregon’s Bridge Inventory doesn’t list the I-5 bridges among those most threatened by earthquakes. We should be concerned about the impact of earthquakes. But we should examine all of Oregon’s infrastructure, from schools and bridges to water and sewer lines, and figure out which are the highest priority to reinforce or rebuild.

– Fix what we have before creating more money sinkholes. Our backlog of maintenance for existing roads and bridges is large and includes hundreds of structurally deficient bridges. We should make sure we can afford to maintain the infrastructure we have before building more.

Every independent review of the CRC mega-project has found major flaws. While some flaws can be fixed, the current plan to build five huge highway interchanges, tear down existing bridges, and build a new bridge is simply too costly and too risky. It won’t get us what we want, but it will stick us with a huge bill. The legislature should demand we do better.

The piece was co-authored by Bob Stacey. Bob Stacey is the former Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Oregon.