TriMet’s 7-Year-Old WES Line: Still a Project in Search of a Purpose

February marks the seven-year anniversary of the Westside Express Service (WES), the 14.7-mile commuter rail line that runs from Wilsonville to Beaverton. While the train’s owner, TriMet, has emphasized the steady growth in ridership over time, the truth is that WES has been a failure. Daily boardings are still far below the opening-year forecast, and taxpayers subsidize each rider by nearly $35 per round trip.

Although WES was 15 years in the making, it was always a project in search of a purpose. At various times the train was promoted as: (1) a congestion relief tool for HWY 217; (2) a catalyst for so-called “Transit-Oriented Development;” or (3) a way of providing “another option” for travelers. None of these arguments holds up to scrutiny.

During legislative hearings in Salem, representatives from Washington County claimed that WES would take 5,000 motor vehicles per day off of nearby highways. But WES is not even capable of doing that because it only runs 8 times (each direction) in the morning, and 8 more times in the afternoon. And unlike traditional commuter trains pulling eight or nine passenger cars, WES travels only in one-car or two-car configurations.

During its best hours of performance, the total number of passengers traveling on WES is less than 0.5% the number of motorists traveling on HWY 217/I-5 at those same hours. WES crosses more than 18 east-west arterials four times each hour. On busy commuter routes, such as HW 10 or Scholls Ferry Road, each train crossing delays dozens of vehicles for 40 seconds or more.

Since the train itself typically only carries 50-70 passengers per run, this means that WES actually has made Washington County congestion worse than it was before the train opened.

WES also will not be a catalyst for “transit-oriented development,” because the train stations are a nuisance, not an amenity. The noise associated with train arrivals was always underestimated and has proven to be a significant problem for nearby businesses and residents.

As for the hope that WES would provide “another transit option,” there were already two TriMet bus lines providing over 4,000 boardings per day in parallel routes prior to the opening of WES. Commuter rail simply replaced inexpensive bus service with a massively subsidized train.

Several key statistics summarize the problems with the train:

  • WES was originally projected to cost $65 million and open in 2000. It actually cost $161.2 million and opened in 2009.
  • TriMet projected an average daily ridership of 2,400 weekday boardings in the first year; actual weekday ridership was 1,156. It grew over time to 1,964 in 2014, but dropped to 1,771 last year. Since each rider typically boards twice daily, only about 900 people actually use WES regularly.
  • The WES operating cost/ride in January 2016 was $15.95, roughly five times the cost of bus service.

Ridership and Cost Trends for WES

2009-2015

(in 2015 $)

 

2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 % change
 
Avg. daily boardings 1,156 1,313 1,571 1,700 1,876 1,964 1,771 +53%
Operating cost per ride $27.41 $24.46 $20.43 $18.39 $18.98 $15.85 $18.60 -32%
Cost/train-mile    $54.70 $54.12 $53.30 $53.79 $56.82 $51.12 $55.01 +1%
Cost/train hour $1,180 $1,166 $1,171 $1,180 $1,501 $1,109 $1,203 +2%
Average subsidy/ride $26.18 $23.00 $19.01 $17.64 $17.19 $14.36 $17.10 -35%

 

 


Ridership has certainly improved since 2009, but still remains far below the rosy projections made by TriMet for the opening year of operation. There is little reason to think that ridership will grow significantly, given that the train runs exclusively through four suburban communities with no major job centers within walking distance of train stations.

WES is destined to be a one-hit wonder―an expensive monument to the egos of TriMet leaders and Westside politicians. Taxpayers would be better served if we simply canceled WES, repaid grant funds to the federal government, and moved the few WES customers back to buses.


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

 

WES at 7: Still a Financial Train Wreck

February marks the seven-year anniversary of the Westside Express Service (WES), the 15-mile commuter rail line that runs from Wilsonville to Beaverton. While the train’s owner, TriMet, promotes WES as a transit success story, the truth is that commuter rail has been a failure.

WES was originally projected to cost $65 million and open in 2000. It actually cost $161 million and opened in 2009.

TriMet projected an average daily ridership of 2,400 weekday boardings in the first year. Actual daily ridership in 2009 was 1,156, less than half the forecast.

Ridership grew over time and peaked at 1,964 in 2014, but then dropped. For January 2016, daily boardings averaged only 1,735. Since each rider typically boards twice daily, that means fewer than 900 people actually use WES regularly.

The operating cost per ride is $16, most of which is subsidized by taxpayers. This is five times the cost of bus service.

Rail proponents have long dreamed of extending WES to Salem, but taxpayers would be better served if we simply shut the train down. When you’re losing $14 per boarding, you can’t make it up in volume.


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

The Futility of Public Hearings

Over the past four years, TriMet and Metro have been planning something called the SW Corridor Project. Metro describes it as a multi-modal project featuring new transit capacity, local street improvements, and enhancements to trails, sidewalks, and bike lanes. The project will begin at Portland State, travel along Barbur Boulevard, and terminate somewhere near Tualatin.

The exact nature of the transit element has never been disclosed; ostensibly, the choice is between light rail and bus-rapid transit. The Project Steering Committee insists that final decisions on the technology, route, terminus, and financial plan are still open for discussion, with some preliminary decisions scheduled for 2016.

Curiously, however, at the November 11 TriMet Board of Directors planning retreat, the Board was informed (at 3:17:05) by project staff that opening day for the project has already been set: September 12, 2025.

How is it that TriMet already knows the exact day that operations will commence, if it doesn’t even know any of the particulars – including a proposed, $250 million tunnel to PCC-Sylvania that would only be built if light rail is chosen?

Apparently, all decisions have actually been made, and future public hearings will be just as fake as the past ones.

All aboard for light rail to Bridgeport Village. Only 3,581 days till the opening ceremony!

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

 

Is TriMet Better Off Than Greece?

Syndicated financial writer Malcolm Berko recently advised a small investor to stay away from Greek bonds or securities. He wrote, “Greece has morphed into a bureaucratic five-star welfare state; but in reality, Greece is a one-star economy. The pensions and entitlements consume 52 percent of government income.”

Well, TriMet’s most recent audited financial statement was released in September, and last year TriMet’s “income” – money earned from customers buying rides, advertising, or services – totaled $153.4 million. The cost of fringe benefits such as pensions and health insurance equaled $166.8 million, or 109% of income.

But the actual problem at TriMet is far worse, because most of the obligations for pensions and other benefits don’t show up as current-year expenses. They appear in financial statements as accrued liabilities that have to be paid off sometime in the future.

Taking into account all liabilities for fringe benefits, TriMet has $711 million in health care obligations, $18 million in pension liabilities for management, and $159 million in pension costs for the union. This sums to $888 million in actuarial accrued unfunded liabilities, or 579% of operating income.

Greece is an international financial disaster; but compared with TriMet, it’s a model of fiscal restraint.

Transit Policy: Kryptonite for Business Leaders

By John A. Charles, Jr.

During September, the Portland regional transit monopoly, TriMet, voted to raise the payroll tax rate by 1/10th of a percent, beginning January 2016. The rate increase will be phased in over a ten-year period, as required by the state legislature.

Politically, the only reason TriMet was able to do this was that none of the major business associations objected. The question is, “why?”

A number of issues should have raised red flags for business representatives. First, the payroll tax pays for more than half the cost of all transit operations. That ratio seems far out of balance. The primary beneficiaries of transit are transit riders, yet they only pay about 24% of operations cost. It would seem far more equitable to insist that passenger fares pay for at least 50% of the operational cost.

Second, there is no reason for businesses to pay more if TriMet is unwilling to impose discipline on the expenditure side. The transit district has failed miserably to do this for decades. TriMet has approved so many lucrative labor contracts that the total cost of benefits now routinely exceeds the cost of wages. In FY 2014, the ratio was $1.49 in benefits for every $1.00 in wages; in FY 2015, it was $1.19. It’s hard to imagine any private sector company paying that much in total benefits.

And third, TriMet has repeatedly broken promises about how it would spend new payroll tax money. In 2003, when the Legislature approved an earlier tax rate increase, TriMet promised that every penny of new tax revenue would be used for “new service.” Yet over the subsequent decade of tax rate increases – 2004-2014 – TriMet’s total annual operational revenue increased by 80%, while miles of actual transit service declined by nearly 14%, as shown below: 

TriMet Financial Resource Trends

 (000s) 

  2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 % change
Passenger fares $ 55,665 $ 68,464 $ 80,818 $ 93,729 $ 102,240 $ 114,618 +106%
Tax revenue $ 155,705 $ 192,450 $ 215,133 $ 208,933 $ 248,384 $ 275,357 +77%
Total op. resources $ 290,513 $ 342,274 $ 404,481 $ 433,609 $ 488,360 $ 522,155 +80%

  

Annual Fixed Route Revenue Service Trends 

  2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 % chng.
Hours of service 1,698,492 1,653,180 1,712,724 1,682,180 1,561,242 1,608,090 -5.3%
Miles of  service 27,548,927 26,830,124 26,448,873 25,781,480 23,625,960 23,763,420 -13.7%

TriMet claims that service actually increased during this period because several new rail lines were built, and rail cars are bigger than buses. But that is a fallacy. Most transit vehicles are under-utilized most of the time, so seating “capacity” is rarely important.

When bus service was cut throughout the 525-square mile district by 14% over the past decade, the thousands of riders who were inconvenienced were not made better off just because a few new trains were operating in narrow corridors somewhere else. They were made worse off, and may have stopped riding transit altogether as a result.

In fact, transit has lost market share over the past 17 years despite (or because of) the rail building boom. According to the Annual Community Surveys conducted by the Portland Auditor, the transit share of commute travel was 12% in 1997, when TriMet had only one light rail line. By 2014, it had dropped to 11%.

 

Travel Mode Share for Weekday Commuting

Portland citywide, 1997-2014 

Mode 1997 2000 2004 2008 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
               

 

 
SOV 71% 69% 72% 65% 62% 63% 61% 64% 63%
Carpool 9% 9% 8% 8% 7% 6% 6% 6% 6%
Transit 12% 14% 13% 15% 12% 12% 12% 10% 11%
Bike 3% 3% 4% 8% 7% 7% 7% 7% 8%
Walk 5% 5% 3% 4% 6% 6% 7% 7% 8%
Other n/a n/a n/a n/a 7% 6% 6% 6% 6%

             Source: Portland Auditor

Transit policy tends to make otherwise rational business leaders do silly things. Instead of defending themselves and demanding that public transit districts operate more efficiently, they feel obliged to “take one (more) for the team.” But this simply enables the dysfunctional behavior by transit districts to continue.

The fact is, public sector monopolies and their unionized employees will take every dollar available for themselves as long as someone keeps putting new dollars on the table.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in the September 2015 edition of the newsletter, “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change.”

Mysteries of Tilikum Crossing

Portland’s newest bridge over the Willamette River, Tilikum Crossing, has a few puzzling design features. Apparently, a barrier down the middle of the bridge means that a stalled light rail train or bus would shut down transportation until it was removed, because no vehicle could go around it.

If the bridge is only open to trains, buses, cyclists, and pedestrians, what useful purpose does the barrier serve? (Other than potential MAX and TriMet bus line rush hour chaos, that is.)

And that’s not all….

Syndicated radio host Lars Larson interviewed Cascade’s John Charles on Monday. Click on the Listen link to hear John reveal his observations from Portland’s South Waterfront during Tilikum Crossing’s opening week.

You might be surprised by what he saw bicyclists doing on SW Moody Avenue.

Policy Picnic – October 28, 2015


Please join us for our monthly Policy Picnic led by Cascade President and CEO John A. Charles, Jr.


Topic: Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail: Comparing Promises with Reality 

Description: TriMet’s newest MAX line opened on September 12. At $210 million per mile, this was the most expensive light rail line in Portland history. Now that it’s open, is it making the traveling public better off?

In this seminar, we revisit the Utopian predictions made by transit planners in 2008, and measure those against the early performance of the line.

There is no charge for this event, but reservations are required as space is limited.  To reserve your free tickets, click here.

Admission is free. Please feel free to bring your own lunch.
Coffee and cookies will be served. 
 
Sponsored by:
Dumas Law Group

Tilikum Crossing: More Punishment for Motorists

The new bridge over the Willamette River, TriMet’s Tilikum Crossing, opened for business on Saturday. With beautiful weather and parties at every stop of the Orange MAX line, a good time was had by the thousands of sightseers.

Unfortunately, now that we’ve returned to gray skies and normal weekday travel, it’s clear that the bridge created both winners and losers. The big winners are light rail passengers and bicyclists. The scenic bikeway has already proven immensely popular with local cyclists, who are crossing at a rate 10 times higher than the rate previously observed on the nearby Ross Island Bridge.

The big losers are motorists. The Tilikum Crossing is closed to autos and trucks. In addition, the new traffic signal at the west end of the bridge creates a major bottleneck on SW Moody Avenue, the busiest road within the district.

At both morning and afternoon peak-periods, Moody Avenue traffic is shut down 60% of the time in order to accommodate light rail, the streetcar, and buses leaving or entering the bridge. This gums up all north-south travel, including most of the same bike riders cruising over from east Portland, who must cross Moody Avenue as they exit the bridge.

Moody Avenue motorists have no choice but to wait through red lights that sometime exceed three minutes; but pedestrians and cyclists are rebelling by the hundreds. After losing patience, they simply cross the rail tracks illegally.

In most normal cities, a new bridge makes everyone better off. But in Portland, a bridge simply becomes one more weapon in the political war on mobility.

Oregon Leads the Nation in Passenger Rail Subsidies

By John A. Charles, Jr.

In the waning days of the 2015 legislative session, a much publicized group of eight legislators conducted extensive negotiations with the Governor’s office over a “transportation package” that would have raised fuel taxes, created a new transit tax, repealed most of the “low-carbon fuels standard” enacted earlier in the session, and paid for various highway improvement projects. That package failed, leaving many observers with the impression that Oregon is “underinvesting” in transportation.

But not every mode suffered. For the few riders of ODOT’s Portland-Eugene passenger rail line, the bank vault was open. The legislature approved $18 million in subsidies for the 2015-17 biennium, including $10.4 million in scarce General Fund dollars.

While this may not sound like a lot in the big picture, it’s quite generous given the minimal use of this line. For the most recent year, the line generated a mere $180,000 in passenger fares, but racked up operating expenses of $7,875,409. This worked out to an operating subsidy of $65.70/ride.

However, the reality is actually much worse. Upon vigorous questioning by Ways and Means Subcommittee Co-Chair Betsy Johnson, ODOT admitted that the “all-in” subsidy was closer to $120/ride.

Was this embarrassing to rail advocates? Hardly. When the multi-billion ODOT budget was up for its single public hearing, there were 21 witnesses who testified—and 20 of them spoke for the sole purpose of defending the rail subsidy. This author was the only witness to suggest euthanizing passenger rail.

The problem is that two decades ago, Amtrak began off-loading most short-line runs to states. ODOT and its legislative overseers foolishly agreed to accept this responsibility, and taxpayers have spent more than $300 million since 1994 propping up the line. Bureaucrats and single-issue advocates know that once you let the “camel’s nose under the tent,” the rest of the camel will soon follow—and then it will be too late to cut the program.

So even though the ODOT rail administrator was the subject of withering criticism by various members of the Ways and Means subcommittee during budget hearing, in the end he was still standing—and walking away with the full appropriation.

Coincidentally, as the ODOT budget was being considered, the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution released a new paper showing the extent of passenger rail operating subsidies across the nation. In every case, transit districts lost money last year, but the losses were relatively modest on a per-boarding basis. The biggest loser, the Hampton Roads Transit system of Virginia, had subsidies of $6.63 per ride.

For whatever reason, Brookings ignored the Portland-Eugene line, as well as the TriMet commuter rail line running from Beaverton to Wilsonville, which has operating subsidies of roughly $12/ride. Cascade Policy Institute took the Brookings data and created a new chart showing that Oregon was at the top of the leaderboard in the category of “most wasteful transit lines,” and shared this with various legislators. Predictably, it had no effect.

Oregon surface transportation infrastructure continues to deteriorate; but for the privileged few who take the rail line from Eugene to Portland, life is good.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in the August 2015 edition of the newsletter, “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change.”

The Extinction of Public Transit

By Emma Newman

Uber and Lyft have recently gained over 50 percent of the taxi market in Portland. This is especially notable as Portland was initially hostile to ridesharing companies, to the point of filing a lawsuit against Uber late last year. This industry takeover is just one example of how private market innovation has upended government-regulated transit.

At a recent Metro hearing on the SW Corridor project, one of the main arguments for pursuing a costly light rail tunnel requiring the destruction of several homes was that ten years of disruption is worth 100 years of use. But considering the speed at which the transportation industry is changing, is long-term use of public transit infrastructure likely?

Public transit is rarely anyone’s first choice due to inconvenience, time cost, and lack of reliability—problems that personal vehicles rarely face. Overcoming these factors has made ridesharing companies more popular than traditional taxicabs.

The fact that private market solutions will increasingly outcompete public transit is evident not only with companies like Uber and Lyft, but with future technologies as well. Google’s driverless car being used on a wide scale may seem to be far into the future; but if costly transit projects are being justified by decades of potential future use, transit planners need to consider what the future of transit may actually look like.

Emma Newman is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market think tank. She is a student at George Fox University, where she is studying Economics and Computer Science.

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