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.

Saving Transit by Shrinking TriMet

In the past eight years, the all-funds budget for TriMet has gone up by 125%, but transit service has dropped by 14%. This trend will only get worse. In what future historians likely will refer to as a suicide note, TriMet recently predicted that within seven years, much of its bus service will have to be cancelled due to the high costs of operation.

Several bills have been introduced in the legislature to address this problem. Rep. Chris Gorsek (D-Troutdale) is sponsoring HB 3316 to expand the TriMet board and change the board composition. This bill is tentatively scheduled for a hearing on April 15.

Sen. Alan Olsen (R-Canby) has sponsored SB 826, which would allow local jurisdictions to leave TriMet at any time, for any reason.

Both bills actually could be combined. A more diverse board could bring better oversight, and allowing cities or counties to leave the district (as Wilsonville, Sandy, and Canby already have) would encourage innovation and reduce TriMet’s unsustainable operating costs.

After 44 years, it’s time to admit that TriMet has failed. Its cost structure is too high and cannot be reformed. The policy objective from now on should be to serve transit riders, not the TriMet bureaucracy. Transit advocates should speak forcefully to these points at the April 15th hearing in Salem.

How Many Feet Should Sellwood’s Sidewalk Be?

If we build a new bridge over the Willamette River, how much space should we allocate for walking and bicycling?

 

This shouldn’t be a very controversial subject, but Oregonian writers Janie Har and Steve Duin have made it one. They both attacked Cascade Policy Institute recently for our efforts to save taxpayers money on the new Sellwood Bridge. Some clarification is in order.

 

Last summer we decided to count all the person-trips going over the Portland Willamette River bridges at the morning peak (7:00 a.m. – 9:00 a.m.) to see what we could learn about space allocation and user demand. One conclusion  is that space per se does not appear to be critical to bridge use by cyclists and pedestrians.

 

For example, the Hawthorne, Broadway, and Burnside bridges all have modest facilities for those modes, yet they have large contingents of cyclists and pedestrians. In contrast, the Morrison Bridge has a new 15-foot, barrier-separated bikeway, yet it is virtually unused. Non-auto travel accounts for only 1.8% of passenger throughput on that bridge

 

Clearly, there are other factors besides dedicated right-of-way that determine the intensity of bridge use by non-motorists.

 

Unfortunately, local politicians haven’t learned from this experience. The new Sellwood Bridge will allocate 24 feet for two motor vehicle travel lanes, 13 feet for cyclists with dedicated bike lanes, and 24 feet for sidewalks. There is no reason to reserve  this much space for walkers. If cyclists are traveling in their own exclusive road lane, a 6-foot sidewalk on each side will be adequate. Such a space reduction would have saved taxpayers some $15-17 million.

 

Also, heavy trucks will be prohibited from using the new bridge, due to a legislative funding dispute. This doesn’t make non-motorists on the bridge better off, but it will increase total regional driving and worsen congestion elsewhere.

 

In an essay published last summer, we criticized the bridge design, noting that trucks should be allowed and that the sidewalks should be narrower. The latter point seemed especially relevant, given that only 2% of all passenger-trips on the current bridge are by walking or cycling, and the potential for drastic increases seems slim given the distance from downtown.

 

Ms. Har, a professional fact-checker, agreed with our 2% claim, but ruled it to be only “half-true” because local planners predict that non-motorized traffic will skyrocket to 19% of all trips by 2035.

 

This is, of course, a computer-generated fantasy. It is not an actual “fact.” We stand by our assessment.

 

Mr. Duin thinks banning trucks is a great idea, while also lamenting the continued use of fossil fuels by motorists. Unfortunately, those two concepts are in conflict. Banning trucks from the Sellwood Bridge will result in greater fuel use, not less.

 

Mr. Duin also supports the 12-foot sidewalks and the extra spending of $17 million for those sidewalks. Apparently, this is more important to him than the basic road maintenance that Portland has abandoned in recent years due to budget cuts at the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

 

Increasing walking and cycling is more complicated than simply providing mega-sidewalks and barrier-protected bike lanes. Planning for future bridges and roads should be based on a realistic assessment of non-motorized use and the cost of providing space.

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

Is Driving Less a Good Thing?

Recently, the Metro Council received the results of a four-county household travel survey – the first such survey conducted by its staff since 1994. Among other things, the results showed that 81% of all regional commuters use a car to get to work, compared with 90% in 1994.

 

Metro Councilors were very excited by this apparent drop. They immediately took it as proof that the agency’s anti-car, pro-density policies are “working.” Council President Tom Hughes directed staff to quickly come up with a favorable “storyline” for the survey.

 

However, that may be a difficult task, because the evidence about regional travel patterns is more nuanced than it appears. For example, automobile commuting has dropped, but that has generally not translated into higher transit use. In fact, market share for transit in Portland has flat-lined for the past 12 years, as shown below. Travel is shifting to biking, walking, and telecommuting.

 

Mode Share for Weekday Commuting in Portland

1997-2012

 

Mode

1997

2000

2004

2008

2010

2012

Auto

80%

77%

80%

73%

69%

67%

Transit

10%

12%

11%

11%

12%

12%

Drive/transit

2%

2%

2%

4%

Bike

3%

3%

4%

8%

7%

7%

Walk

5%

5%

4%

4%

6%

7%

Other

7%

6%

                  Source: Portland Auditor’s Annual Community Surveys

 

This has caused a large mismatch between mode-shifting trends and public expenditures. Since 2000, we’ve opened a commuter rail line, created the Portland Streetcar, added four new light rail lines, approved construction of a new transit bridge over the Willamette River, and watched TriMet’s annual budget grow by 142%. Yet, the transit market share for commuting is stuck at 12%.

 

Even worse, transit share is actually declining in TriMet’s most natural market, downtown Portland. According to the Portland Business Alliance, between 2001 and 2010 the transit share of commuting travel for downtown workers dropped from 45% to 38%.

 

Other travel behavior metrics are equally puzzling. For instance, Metro regularly keeps track of daily vehicle miles traveled per-person (VMTPP) in the region. Since 2000 the VMTPP for Portland residents has declined by 4 percent, from 20 miles per day to 19.2. Yet the daily VMTPP for Vancouver travelers dropped by a much bigger margin, from 21.8 miles to 17.23 – a 21 percent change.

 

So if Metro Councilors hope that their staff will create a favorable “storyline” showing how regional land-use policies have led to reduced driving, they will also have to explain why the drop has been much greater north of the Columbia River.

 

But putting these conflicting trends aside, the biggest problem with Metro’s response to the survey is the agency’s worldview that driving is socially undesirable, so if we have less auto commuting, the region is automatically more “livable.” Not only is there nothing intrinsically wrong with driving, one easily could make a case that high levels of personal automobile use are indicators of an economically vibrant and socially dynamic region.

 

Increased driving is strongly correlated with higher incomes. In the Metro travel survey, transit mode share for households with less than $25,000 of family income was 9 percent, but only 2 percent for households with income greater than $75,000. How many people in the region would be unhappy if all households had incomes greater than $75,000 but transit use dropped as a result?

 

ODOT data shows that for every new job created, we should expect to see another 15,500 vehicle miles travelled each year. If total auto use went up because vast numbers of new jobs were created, would that make the region less livable?

 

And numerous studies have shown that access to a private automobile is critical to improving the economic wellbeing of low-income households, especially for those seeking employment. In fact, a growing number of progressive social service agencies (including at least one in Portland) are now running low-income car loan programs to help get poor people into private wheels. Should we discourage such programs because they cause transit use to drop?

 

Every trip has a purpose. If that purpose can be met best through a privately owned motor vehicle, then it does not make us better off to have politicians artificially discourage auto use by using parking meter revenues to pay for the streetcar, disallowing needed highway expansion, raising the TriMet payroll tax rate, subsidizing high-density projects with tax abatements, and cannibalizing scarce roadway capacity for light rail.

 

Instead of scheming to put a political spin on its new travel survey, Metro should use it to start a new conversation about how to define “livability.”

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

Doubling the Sellwood Bridge for the Use of the Two Percent

By Michael Nielsen

For more than six years, Multnomah County has been considering how best to replace the Sellwood Bridge. The adopted plan calls for removing the current bridge and replacing it with a new one that is twice as wide.

However, none of the new space will be available for cars, even though cars carry nearly 98% of all passenger-trips during the peak hours. Only about 40% of the new bridge will be allocated to vehicular travel, with the other 60% dedicated to non-motorized transportation in the form of bikeways and mega-sidewalks.

The new bridge does need more space for cyclists and pedestrians because the current bridge was never designed for them. There are only about four feet for cyclists and pedestrians to maneuver around each other. However, there is no reason to allocate 60% of bridge space to satisfy two percent of all travelers.

County Commissioners were recently shocked to discover that the price tag for the bridge has increased by $70 million since last year. If planners want to save money, they should reduce the width of the bridge. Planning for two 12-foot sidewalks to accommodate a few hundred pedestrians is simply a waste of resources. Thirteen feet in all will be added to please the bikers. It is important to be honest about how people actually use this bridge. During rush hour, every time 1,200 people cross the bridge via motor vehicle, only about 21 cross the bridge on bikes. Furthermore, only three cross the bridge by foot.

In addition, the new Sellwood Bridge will have a weight capacity of only 13 tons, excluding many commercial and private trucks from crossing the bridge. Before 2004, the old bridge was thought to hold a maximum of 32 tons. Since then, however, it has been deemed unsafe for anything over ten tons. According to Multnomah County’s website, “weight limits prevent many companies from using the bridge, forcing out-of-direction travel that adds to congestion on other routes and increases costs to businesses and consumers.” While the weight capacity is being increased slightly, it will be impossible for heavier trucks to use the bridge.

Given the above criticisms, the new Sellwood Bridge could be built more effectively in a number of ways. Reducing the width and increasing the weight capacity would serve the needs of the community better. The savings from the width modification could be more efficiently used to increase the structural integrity of the bridge. This would not force large trucks to go out of their way downtown in order to cross the river.

With the total cost of the bridge at approximately $299 million, planners should look for opportunities to cut expenses. When considering the odd and, at times, useless characteristics of the bridge (along with the half million dollars being spent on decorative columns), it is hard to justify the current plans from a cost efficiency perspective.

Much of the thought process going into this plan has been political in nature. This is an effective strategy only when the purpose of building a bridge is to make Portland appear more bike-friendly. Ultimately, the cost of the new Sellwood Bridge will be paid by taxpayers. It is only just that the real transportation needs of the community be addressed by the bridge’s capacity and design.

Michael Nielsen is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center. Nielsen is a student at California State University, Chico.

 

The New Sellwood Bridge: Subsidizing the Two Percenters

By Michael Nielsen

For more than six years, Multnomah County has been considering how best to replace the Sellwood Bridge. The plan that has been adopted calls for removing the current bridge and replacing it with a new one that is twice as wide.

However, none of the new space will be available for cars, even though cars carry nearly 98% of all passenger trips during the peak hours. Only about 40% of the new bridge will be allocated to vehicular travel, with the other 60% dedicated to non-motorized transportation in the form of bikeways and mega-sidewalks. Heavy trucks will be banned entirely from the bridge, increasing congestion on nearby streets and raising transportation costs for businesses.

The new bridge does need more space for cyclists and pedestrians because the current bridge was never designed for them. However, there is no reason to allocate 60% of bridge space to satisfy two percent of all travelers.

County Commissioners were recently shocked to discover that the price tag for the bridge has gone up by $70 million since last year. If city planners want to save money, they should reduce the width of the bridge. Planning for two 12-foot sidewalks to accommodate a few hundred pedestrians is simply a waste of resources.

Michael Nielsen is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy think tank.

Insolvency, One Step at a Time

The Oregonian on Sunday examined TriMet’s deteriorating finances and called attention to high-cost union contracts, first approved in 1994, as the starting point of the decline. Due to the compounding effect of these contracts, TriMet now spends $1.63 in benefits for every $1.00 spent on wages, and the agency has more than $1.2 billion in unfunded actuarially accrued liabilities for promised retirement benefits.

 

As a result, transit service has been cut by 14% in the past four years, and more cuts are due beginning September.

 

What was revealing in the Oregonian feature was how no one was willing to accept responsibility. At any point during an 18-year period, dozens of people served on the TriMet Board or in top management positions, and they could have demanded change. But they didn’t.

 

Of course, leadership starts at the top, and it’s the governor who appoints the TriMet Board. In August 1994, then-Governor Barbara Roberts met with the TriMet board chair, Loren Wyss, who strongly objected to the draft contract. Instead of supporting him, she forced him off the board.

 

The legacy of that decision is a terminally dysfunctional business model at TriMet. Someone on the TriMet board needs to have the courage to say that. But who will do so when it’s so much easier to remain silent?

Subsidized Car Sharing: The Next Frontier in Wasteful Spending

Nine months ago I happily testified (twice) on behalf of a legislative bill that would allow the creation of a privately operated car sharing program in Oregon. I liked the idea of using cars more efficiently, and I loved the fact that the price of rentals would be determined entirely by the market.

A model for this program exists in San Francisco; and as one of the legislative proponents described it, private vehicles there rent for about $9 per hour. But a Tesla electric vehicle frequently rents for $50 an hour, just because some people think it’s fun to drive.

I wouldn’t pay that much, but I’m glad the law allows someone else to.

Unfortunately, a good idea has been ruined by subsidies. Recently, the federal government awarded a $1.7 million grant (requiring $431,250 in local match money) to the City of Portland to promote car sharing and to measure the results. The regional government, Metro, will vote on Thursday to accept the grant.

Car sharing is a great idea, but tax sharing is not. Metro Councilors should reject the federal money and allow the “invisible hand” of the market to work exactly as the legislature intended.

Mandates to Reduce Driving Will Kill Oregon’s Economy

Cascade Commentary

By Todd Wynn and John A. Charles, Jr.

Summary: Numerous federal, state and local policies aim to reduce vehicle miles travelled as a carbon-emissions reduction plan, yet rarely considered are the possible economic effects of these policies. New evidence shows that those effects are likely to damage both the environment and the economy.

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