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.

Time to Stop Throwing Money down the WES Sinkhole

In its proposed fiscal year 2015 budget, TriMet forecasts the purchase of two additional vehicles for the Wilsonville-to-Beaverton commuter rail line known as WES. The total cost will be $8.5 million in borrowed funds. None of those costs will be paid by WES riders; $600,000 annually in debt service will be paid by taxpayers for the next 20 years, for a total of $12 million.

This is a critical decision point for the TriMet board. Approving the proposed budget will expand the WES vehicle fleet from four to six and irrevocably commit the agency to commuter rail. But the five-year track record of WES suggests that another decision would be more defensible: shutting the train down completely.

There are at least three reasons to consider this option. First, WES is an energy hog. According to a new report by the Federal Railroad Administration, the average energy consumed by all commuter rail systems in America during 2010 was 2,923 British Thermal Units (BTU) per passenger-mile. WES was close to the bottom: It consumed 5,961 BTU per passenger-mile, more than twice the national average (by comparison the top performer was Stockton, CA: 1,907 BTU/passenger-mile).

Not only is WES inefficient compared with its peer group, it is wasteful compared with other modes of travel. The national average for all transit buses was 4,240 BTU per passenger-mile; for all light-duty cars, the average was 3,364.

In a state where most politicians are obsessed with energy conservation, it is difficult to justify expansion of a publicly subsidized line that is so wasteful.

Second, WES is TriMet’s most expensive fixed-route service, with an average per-ride cost of $12. Thus, even if ridership grows, it will not help TriMet, since the agency loses about $10 on every trip.

To see just how expensive WES is, we can compare it to an express bus route in the same corridor opened last year by the transit operator in Wilsonville, South Metro Area Rapid Transit (SMART). The costs of the bus are only 3% of WES: $1.30 per mile versus $43.74 for WES.

Transit Service from Wilsonville Station to Beaverton Transit Center

Operating cost/mile

Operating cost/hour

TriMet Express Rail

$43.74

$949.84

SMART Express Bus

$   1.30

$   83.17

Finally, WES ridership is tiny. WES now has about 940 daily riders who account for 1,880 average weekday “boardings.” This is still far below the forecast of 2,500 that was made for opening-year service (2009).

I’ve ridden WES at least 100 times in order to catch the express bus to Salem that picks up WES transfers in Wilsonville. For the privileged few on the train, it’s a nice trip. There are usually plenty of empty seats, free internet service, and lots of legroom. Plus, I feel like royalty as we shut down traffic temporarily on more than 20 east-west cross streets along the way. While this results in a net increase in regional congestion, it’s fun for the train riders.

But just because I personally enjoy WES, that doesn’t make it a good public investment. The bus alternative would move just as many riders at less cost and with lower fuel consumption.

Back in the 1990s, Westside politicians and rail boosters fell in love with the concept of a commuter train to Wilsonville. As with all such pork-barrel campaigns, the promises vastly exceeded eventual performance. But current TriMet board members can claim plausible deniability; none of them were on the Board back then, so it wasn’t their fault.

Now they have a chance to clean up the mess. It won’t be fun having to admit that mistakes were made; but if the Board is serious about re-setting TriMet on a path of financial sustainability, there will be many such decisions to be made. A long journey begins with the first step.

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

Energy-Efficiency Myths of Commuter Rail

Advocates of rail transit tend to argue that we need trains because they are more energy-efficient than buses or cars. Unfortunately, that’s only true in some cases.

According to a new report by the Federal Railroad Administration, the average energy consumed by all commuter rail systems in America during 2011 was 2,923 British Thermal Units (BTUs) per passenger-mile. But the commuter line operated by TriMet (WES) was close to the bottom: WES consumed 5,961 BTU per passenger-mile, more than twice the national average.

Not only is WES inefficient compared with its peer group, but it is wasteful compared with other modes of travel. The national average for all transit buses was 4,240 BTU per passenger-mile; for all light-duty cars, the average was 3,364.

Based on these numbers, the environment would be better off if WES were terminated and riders simply got in their cars.

Nonetheless, TriMet management is “all-in” on more commuter rail. In its proposed FY 15 budget, the agency plans to purchase two additional rail vehicles at a total cost of $8.5 million. None of those costs will be paid by the privileged few who ride WES; debt service will be paid by taxpayers for the next 20 years.

It’s a cliché but still true: In government, nothing succeeds like failure.

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

WES at 4: Still a Financial Train Wreck

February marked the four-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-day forecast, and taxpayers subsidize each rider by nearly $40 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) over a four-hour period in the morning, and 8 more times in the afternoon, with seating capacity limited to 154 or less on each trip. The train does not run at all on weekends.

In contrast, both HWY 217 and I-5 are heavily used throughout the day, every day of the week, by passenger cars, trucks, buses and emergency service vehicles. WES only caters to passengers.

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. Moreover, every time WES crosses Scholls Ferry Road or any of the other busy East-West thoroughfares, it ties up dozens of vehicles for 40 seconds or more. Since the train itself typically only carries 20-50 passengers per trip, 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 in 2009 and has grown to 1,639 in 2013. Since each rider typically boards twice daily, only about 820 people actually use WES regularly.

To truly appreciate the high cost of commuter rail, we need to compare it with other types of service offered by TriMet: light rail and bus. The following are averages for the month of January 2013.

Operating cost per

Vehicle-hour

Operating cost per

Originating ride

Operating cost per

Vehicle-mile

Bus

    102.14

    3.97

    7.94

MAX

     282.13

    2.52

   18.84

WES

$ 1,251.94

$ 20.31

$ 57.30

The operating costs for WES are 12 times higher per hour than bus service, but the public benefits are not 12 times higher. In fact, WES is not even equal to bus service; it is far less flexible, and the equipment is unused most of the time.

TriMet recently predicted that within the next decade, more than half of all bus routes will be eliminated due to operating losses if something doesn’t change. The Board places the blame for this on a labor union contract that saddles the agency with the costliest employee benefits package in the nation. But the union did not force management to build an absurd commuter rail line; that was a choice made by the Board alone, without any consideration of the legacy costs it would impose on future riders.

There will be no happy ending to this story. WES is destined to be a one-hit wonder―an expensive monument to the egos of Westside politicians and TriMet managers. Taxpayers would be better served over the long term if we simply cancelled 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.

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.

 

Westside Commuter Rail: A Financial Train Wreck

John A. Charles, Jr.Cascade Commentary

Westside Commuter Rail: A Financial Train Wreck

By John A. Charles, Jr.             

Download the pdf here

February marked the one-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 gone to great lengths to put a positive spin on this, the truth is that WES has been a failure. The daily ridership is only half of what was projected, and taxpayers subsidize each rider by at least $45 per round trip.

At a time when TriMet faces a $27 million budget shortfall for the next fiscal year, we have to consider whether we can afford the luxury of a commuter train that runs almost empty.

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