Why Do City Leaders Keep Portland in the “Transportation Dark Ages?”

In November, Beaverton, Gresham, Hillsboro, and Tigard joined Vancouver, Washington in welcoming ridesharing juggernaut Uber to operate legally in their cities. Last weekend, Uber began operating in Portland without permission, in effect daring the authorities to stop it. While the City has issued a cease-and-desist order against Uber, more than 10,000 people have signed an online petition asking Mayor Hales to let the company operate in Portland.

Until now, most major cities have granted virtual monopolies to a few taxicab companies on the assumption that government must protect both the livelihoods of drivers and the safety and convenience of passengers within their jurisdictions. But in a truly free economy, we should celebrate the technological innovation that allows people with cars to make money by giving rides to people who want them.

The “sharing economy” stems from the realization that all of us own assets that we may not use all the time, whether it’s a spare bedroom in your home (think Airbnb), or an automobile that sits in your driveway for hours a day. It’s time for Portland to live up to its hype and let young (and not so young) creatives do what they do best—create services that the rest of us want and need. It’s time to legalize transit freedom and bring Portland out of the Transportation Dark Ages.

With Low WES Ridership, the “Next Big Thing” May Be Raising Fares

Three years ago, TriMet began operating its first heavy rail line, the Westside Express Service (WES). This line runs from Beaverton to Wilsonville during commuting hours on weekdays.


WES was trumpeted as the “next big thing,” but opening year ridership averaged only 1,156 boardings per day, less than half the 2,500 predicted by TriMet. The agency lost nearly $24 on each trip.


TriMet just finished its third full year of operation for WES. Average daily ridership is up to 1,571 boardings, but each trip still requires a subsidy of $18. This is eight times higher than the subsidy needed for the average TriMet trip and costs taxpayers $7.4 million each year.


WES turned out to be a disaster, but no one at TriMet is accepting responsibility. Agency management simply plans to raise passenger fares again, and they also will be raising taxes on businesses.


TriMet board members are not elected, so we cannot demand a management change at the ballot box. But the board is appointed by the Governor, who is elected. It’s time for the Governor to demand better performance from his political appointees.


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.

Testimony on ODOT’s Budget for Rail and Transit

John’s testimony before the Ways/Means subcommittee on Transportation on 4/20/2011 at 9:30am.

Listen to the audio here. John begins at 30:21.

Members of the committee, I am a lifelong transit user and take transit to Salem on most days (TriMet’s commuter rail from Beaverton to Wilsonville, connecting with an express bus to Salem operated by SMART or Cherriots).  However, notwithstanding my personal preferences, there is no compelling state interest that would justify subsidies for rail programs through the ODOT budget.


Passenger rail is simply irrelevant in a low-density state like Oregon. The Portland rail program has failed because it is too slow, too expensive, and too inflexible. My daily ride on WES costs TriMet $18 per one-way trip, but I only pay $2.35. None of the capital costs are paid for by users. That is not a “sustainable” business model.


Rubber-tired transit continues to carry two-thirds of daily transit trips in the Portland region, despite being virtually ignored by TriMet. With low capital cost, this is the only mode that makes sense for transit in Portland.


For inter-city transit, we already have unsubsidized private bus companies operating, and further subsidies to Amtrak will be counter-productive.


For freight movement, rail is a for-profit business that should be supported by its customers. If that is not possible, then the business is not viable.


In looking at the specifics of HB 5046, I have the following brief comments:


  • The Connect Oregon programs have relied so much on spending future lottery funds that the lottery is now tapped out. I’m sure you have all seen the February 11 memo from the state Treasury regarding the need to re-finance debt. Continuing to fund transit projects that are inherently uneconomic with lottery funds simply forecloses future uses of that money.


  • Expansion of the Portland Streetcar to the south end of the South Waterfront district was financed in part with a $2.1 million Connect Oregon grant. The grant application promised a 30% market share of all district trips for the streetcar and 40% market share for commute trips. Having just completed field research in the district, I can assure you that actual transit use is far lower; on a typical weekday, the streetcar accounts for only 9% of all passenger-trips to and from the district during the hours of 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. (summary results attached).


  • Oregon should stop chasing federal dollars for the Obama “medium-speed” rail program. Passenger rail will never be competitive or cost-effective in Oregon, and there is no willingness on the part of customers to pay for true “high-speed” rail.


  • The ODOT “Oregon Rail Funding Research Task Force” should be disbanded. There is already an obvious source of funding: customers. If they are not willing to pay the cost of capital expansion and maintenance, the business is not viable.


  • There should be no more funding for the OTC “flex funds” program; this has already been abused by TriMet to promote Milwaukie LR at the expense of more effective bus service.


  • The $250 million previously appropriated for lottery-backed bonds to pay for Milwaukie LR was an egregious waste of money and should never be repeated. In its Fall 2010 Financial Forecast TriMet predicts 13,000 average weekday boardings for the opening year of this project, 2015. Of those, 4,500 are estimated to be former bus passengers switching due to the loss of bus service. Since one customer usually creates two “boardings” per day, the total number of new daily passengers is estimated to be only 4,250. At a total capital cost of roughly $1.5 billion, that works out to be $333,333 per new rider. I suspect that if we could locate these speculative new riders and ask them how they would like us to spend $333,333 to improve their mobility, few would actually vote for a slow train from Milwaukie.


  • TriMet successfully manipulated the legislature into approving substantial payroll tax rate hikes in both 2003 and 2009 for the stated purpose of paying for the operating cost of new rail service such as the I-205 MAX line, but that line is operating at 33% below the service level promised to FTA. Therefore TriMet is defrauding the federal government, which paid for more than 70% of capital expenses (New Starts grants + flex funds used for the local match), and breaking promises made to the state legislature when the payroll tax rate was approved.


This pattern is about to repeat itself with the Milwaukie project, where planned levels of operating service have already been lowered due to TriMet’s financial problems.


  • Contrary to claims made by TriMet, passenger rail is not “high-capacity” transit; it is “low-capacity, high-cost” transit, which is the exact opposite of what we need.


  • Local transit districts should be raising operating and capital funds locally through customer fares; there is no role for ODOT to play in local matters unless it is simply passing through federal funds.