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.

Portland’s Moody Avenue Project: Subtraction by Addition

Portland Mayor Sam Adams announced Monday that the reconstruction of Moody Avenue in the South Waterfront neighborhood was finally complete after 19 months of work. This $51 million project rebuilt 3,200 linear feet of the street by raising it 14 feet and widening the right-of-way to 75 feet, enough space to accommodate a six-lane freeway.

 

However, despite the huge expansion, motorists are actually worse off than they were before. Only two lanes are reserved for motor vehicles, and they now have to share space with the slow streetcar, which blocks traffic four times an hour in each direction. Virtually all of the new right-of-way is allocated to bicyclists and pedestrians, who only account for 13% of total passenger throughput on the street.

 

Motor vehicles do the heaving lifting, moving 63% of all passenger trips on Moody. Not only is this a large number, but it’s growing: Auto traffic is up 55% from just two years ago. As the district continues to develop, this road will be unable to handle future traffic loads.

 

The Moody Avenue project was a waste of $52 million, and it now has the South Waterfront district locked into a street pattern that is doomed to fail. Taxpayers should demand better from their elected leaders.

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

Cascade in the Capitol: Testimony Before the Joint Committee on Legislative Oversight on Columbia River Crossing

Testimony of John A. Charles, Jr.

President, Cascade Policy Institute

Before the Joint Committee on Legislative Oversight on Columbia River Crossing

 Regarding the Proposed Light Rail Extension to Vancouver

March 15, 2012

The CRC is fundamentally a light rail project. Therefore the first task for the Oversight Committee should be to rigorously assess the purpose and need for light rail. Specifically, what transportation service will light rail provide, and how does that service compare with express bus service currently offered by CTRAN?

It is important that the comparisons be made on a side-by-side basis, not system-wide.  The reason is that the cost-effectiveness of TriMet’s light rail system varies considerably by line. The Yellow line is the least productive MAX line in the entire system[1], averaging only 127 boarding rides/vehicle-hour. In contrast, the most productive line (Blue) averages 166 rides/vehicle-hour.

A summary of key metrics clearly shows that light rail compares poorly:

 

CRC Light Rail vs. CTRAN Express Bus

 

MAX Yellow Line

CTRAN I-5 Express buses

Peak-hour travel time*

36 minutes

16 minutes

Total capital cost, 2012-2020**

$856-$944 million

$4-$8 million

% of operations cost covered by fares***

47%

67%

 

 

*Derived from the FEIS and CTRAN published schedules.

**Various CRC finance documents; author’s estimates for CTRAN.

***Personal communication with finance staff of the respective agencies, 3/14/12.

Travel Speed: The only reason to add new transit service is to make bi-state travelers better off. Light rail would make them worse off, by lengthening commute times by 125%. The attached paper by transit consultant Thomas Rubin provides a more detailed analysis. This is a fatal flaw that cannot be overcome, because MAX is an all-local system, and it is competing with Express Bus service.

Cost: At roughly $300 million/mile, this would be the most expensive transit project in Oregon history. For comparison, the Milwaukie LR project is estimated to cost $211 million/mile while the Emerald Express BRT project in Eugene-Springfield cost $6 million/mile.

Light rail proponents have long argued that the high capital costs of rail are offset by savings in operations cost, but that is based on systemwide averages.  Actual numbers for CTRAN I-5 Express Buses and the Yellow MAX line suggest that there will be no operating cost savings for light rail.  CTRAN recovers 67% of bus operating costs from passenger fares, while the Yellow MAX line collects only 47%.

Conclusion: Vancouver light rail would serve no public purpose and would have extremely low ridership. The Legislative Oversight Committee should euthanize it as soon as possible.



[1] TriMet FY 2012 Transit Investment Plan, P. 103

John Charles interviewed by KHON-2 News in Honolulu, HI

This week John Charles is in Honolulu, HI where he will be speaking at two conferences related to a proposal there for a new light rail line. John will be explaining why so-called ‘transit-oriented development’ doesn’t work the way planners think it does.

Tuesday morning, John was interviewed by local TV station KHON-2 News where he spoke about the pros and cons of fixed rail transit versus “rubber tire” bus service and the benefits of one over the other for Hawaii and most locations around the world.

Click here to view the full 3-minute interview.

Rubber-Tire Contempt: TriMet’s $1.5 Billion Plan to Deliver Inferior Transit Service

As a young environmental activist growing up in north Jersey in the 1960s, I took transit buses all over – into Newark, Elizabeth, and New York City. Later, as a college student in Pittsburgh, I took Greyhound across the state many times to get home.

For environmentalists, it was a badge of honor to abandon our 9 MPG autos and travel on a bus with 35-45 other passengers. The oil embargo was very real. We had odd/even license plate days for gas fill-up in 1973, so it seemed like a form of patriotism to be frugal.

Times have certainly changed. Cars have become more efficient, and chronic urban smog has permanently disappeared due to improved auto technology. That’s the good news. But the bad news is that many transit agencies are no longer content to merely provide a service to those unable or unwilling to drive in a private vehicle.

Portland is the poster child for this problem. In fact, TriMet doesn’t really care about transit service per se; the agency is obsessed with expensive trains that are supposed to recreate the way entire neighborhoods function, through “transit-oriented development.”

TriMet is so contemptuous of bus service that the agency is building massively expensive trains that simply replace cheap buses. And the replacement service is actually worse. The Milwaukie light rail line, now being built by TriMet (even though they have very little of the required funding in hand), is breathtaking in its sheer wastefulness. It will cost $205 million per mile for a train that will average 17 MPH. It will make the daily commute for current Milwaukie bus riders worse by forcing them to transfer to rail at Milwaukie. Rail will never offer express service; but there are already at least four bus routes on McLoughlin that offer a menu of local, limited-stop, and express bus routes.

Worse yet, the train will take 68 businesses and 20 residences. More than 60 mature shade trees on SW Lincoln Street near PSU are being cut down this week.

How can one government agency spend $1.5 billion for a mere 7.3 miles of train service, to provide a level of transit that is demonstrably inferior to bus service being replaced?

The answer is that TriMet is institutionally designed to fail. The agency has a monopoly on service and a monopoly on subsidies. Actual customers only account for about 25% of the agency’s operating revenue and none of the capital funds used for construction. So customers don’t really matter. TriMet does what its management wants, simply because it can.

I was down at Lincoln Street for an hour watching the trees getting cut. It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen a governmental agency do. The street is already served by the #17 bus. The train is simply unnecessary. Yet, for the 906-foot segment of Lincoln Street that is being wrecked, we will spend $35.2 million.

If you had $35 million to spend to improve three blocks of an urban street, how would you spend it? Not on light rail. Not if it was your own money. Not if you actually cared about the urban environment.

The Obama presidential bus only cost $1.1 million and rides on regular roads. Couldn’t we have just bought a few of those, run them up and down Lincoln Street, and saved the trees? I’m sure they would offer a much nicer ride than generic light rail cars.

The day the Portland City Council put private bus companies out of business in 1968 was a sad day in local history. Private companies could never get away with destroying a street like this or spending $1.5 billion on a pointless boondoggle.

TriMet is hopelessly corrupt. It’s time to admit that the agency is out of control and has utterly lost sight of its mission. Maybe in 2012 the legislature should consider abolishing this rogue agency, and starting fresh with a market-driven transit concept that focuses on actually serving customers with the best transit at the lowest public cost.

John Charles to TriMet Board: Understand Obligations Before Signing FTA Grant Agreement

Testimony before the TriMet Board of Directors

Regarding Resolution 11-06-38

Application for a Full Funding Grant Agreement with FTA for the Milwaukie Light Rail Line

June 8, 2011

In your consideration of this Resolution, please focus your attention on the second “Whereas” clause: “Federal assistance will impose certain OBLIGATIONS upon the applicant.”

I suggest you review and UNDERSTAND those obligations BEFORE you approve the resolution. Your predecessors approved a similar resolution for the Green MAX Line, yet TriMet is now operating that line at service levels 33% those originally planned do to financial problems.

How, specifically, will TriMet operate this line successfully when there is not even a plan to fully restore transit service over the next decade? I’ve sent you all a copy of my letter to FTA about the Green Line. No one from TriMet has responded or even acknowledged receipt of the letter.  I’ll take that as an admission that you don’t HAVE a response.

You have a fiduciary obligation to conduct proper due diligence. Have you accounted for the following factors?

  • The $25 million promised from Clackamas County is unlikely to be available when you need it, due to an initiative petition being circulated that would require a public vote on new urban renewal districts. The only option Clackamas County has to generate the $25 million is through Urban Renewal. We know from the recent county defeat of the small, $5 motor vehicle fee for the Sellwood Bridge replacement that Clackamas County voters would likely vote against Urban Renewal by a wide margin.  
  • The legislature may begin requiring all units of government to begin making annual required payments into OPEP trust funds, which would be a $60 million hit to TriMet’s general fund.
  • What is TriMet’s “Plan B” if you lose the arbitration dispute with the ATU? The boad’s only public statements have indicated that loss of arbitration would result in more service cuts.  How will you operate the Milwaukie line successfully if you are reducing service for the 5th time in less than 3 years?
  • What happens if someone on the relevant Congressional oversight Committee decides that your Milwaukie FFGA application should be held up until such time that you restore service to the Green Line? You’re going to be building this line for an entire year on SPECULATION that the FFGA will be approved. What if it isn’t? What is your back-up plan?

 Conclusion

You promised the legislature in 2003 that you would increase service if they gave you a payroll tax rate increase. They approved the tax rate increase, you took in $60 million in new revenue, and you cut service. You BROKE the promise.

You promised the FTA you would operate the Green Line properly if they gave you federal grant money. You BROKE the promise.

You promised the public last year that you would begin funding OPEB obligations in FY 12 at the rate of $1 million per year. You will BREAK that promise when you adopt the budget later this month, by only putting in $435,000.

This will be a dark day in the financial history of TriMet when you approve this resolution. TriMet’s “business model” is broken, and now you plan to make things much worse. I just want the record to show that you knew all of these risks when you voted YES.

Press Release: Light Rail and Streetcar Fail to Provide “High-Capacity” Service, Study Shows

study released today by Cascade Policy Institute shows that TriMet’s so-called “High-Capacity Transit” system – comprised of light rail, the Portland Streetcar and commuter rail – is incapable of actually moving large numbers of people when needed. Moreover, most of the time there is no demand for high-capacity transit because the region’s population is too dispersed, and people prefer to travel by modes other than passenger rail.

The study, Light Rail, Streetcars & the Myth of “High Capacity Transit,  measured actual trip choices made during 2010 at five big events when presumably “high-capacity” transit would be in demand: the Portland Green Building home show held in March at the Multnomah County Expo Center; the opening night show of the Cirque du Soleil in April; the final playoff game of the year for the Portland Trail Blazers in May; “Black Friday” at the Cascade Station shopping center in November; and December 21st at the Gresham Civic Station shopping center in December. The results were:

  • Light rail use at the Green Home Show averaged 20% of all passenger-trips;
  • Streetcar use at the Cirque du Soleil opening show was 8%;
  • Light rail use at the Blazer game was 21%;
  • Rail use at Cascade Station averaged 2% over a two-day period in November; and
  • Light rail at Gresham Civic Station carried 2% of all passenger-trips for the morning commute period and 2% of all passenger-trips for the mid-day shopping period.

In total, 47,666 passenger-trips were observed or estimated, and rail only garnered 11% of the market share, as summarized below.

Summary Totals
All passenger-trips to all events, by mode choice

 

Green
home
show
Circus Blazers Cascade
Station
Gresham
Station
Totals Market
share
(%)
Rail 516 110 4,238 333 120 5,317 11%
Auto 2,106 1,245 14,636 (est) 17,570 5,101 40,658 85%
Other 0 0 1,626(est) 5 55 1,686 4%
Total 2,622 1,355 20,500 17,908 5,276 47,666 100%

Note: For the Blazer game, only light-rail trips were observed; other mode totals were estimated.

In all cases except for the Blazer game, actual seating capacity of the trains was never an issue because so few customers chose to ride, even when on-site parking was quite expensive. In the one case where high-capacity transit would have been very helpful – the Blazer playoff game – the light rail system was overwhelmed by crowds and could only muster 21% of market share despite the use of four different MAX lines – the Yellow, Green, Blue and Red lines.

The reason for the modest transit totals is that light rail is inherently a low-capacity system, because there are only two rail cars per train. The system cannot use more than two cars because trains travel on surface streets in downtown Portland. If trains had 8-9 cars, as is common with the New York City subway or other heavy rail systems, the trains would be blocking downtown intersections for minutes at a time.

Also, trains generally cannot run at greater frequencies than every three minutes due to operational and safety requirements. In most cases, trains only run every 12-15 minutes, or less often. These constraints limit passenger-throughput compared to a bus transit system where vehicles can travel with minimal spacing requirements.

Cascade President John A. Charles, Jr. conducted the research with the help of several assistants. He stated, “The field research shows that continued use of the phrase ‘high-capacity transit’ by local planners to describe the regional rail program is Orwellian. Light rail is actually a low-capacity system, and the streetcar is simply irrelevant. TriMet’s buses carries two-thirds of all regional transit trips on a daily basis, and that’s the service that should be recognized as high-capacity transit. Unfortunately, bus service is being sacrificed by TriMet in order to build costly new rail lines that carry relatively few people.”

 

Lake Oswego Streetcar Proposal: John Charles Testifies in Favor of a Less Expensive Solution

John A. Charles, Jr.Cascade Commentary

Lake Oswego politicians want to spend more than $400 million in tax dollars to build a five-mile trolley line to service 1,900 transit riders. CPI President John A. Charles, Jr. testified before the Lake Oswego-Portland Transit Project Steering Committee on January 24th. In his testimony, he explained why a simple express-bus option would provide better commuting times at far lower cost. Read the whole testimony below.

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