Searched : light rail

The Chronic Failure of Rail Transit

The local transit agency, TriMet, likes to claim that continued expansion of the regional rail system is critical because rail has operational cost savings over buses.

Unfortunately, this assertion overlooks a glaring problem: The rail system breaks down approximately 30% of the time.

I subscribe to a TriMet email system that notifies me every time there are service outages on light rail or the streetcar. During the past 12 months, I received 117 such notices.

The Steel Bridge rail crossing is the source of most problems, and when it goes out, four MAX lines are affected. Thousands of riders are inconvenienced, often for hours. But there are many other reasons for rail malfunctions: cold weather, hot weather, collisions with automobiles, and security problems, to name a few.

In addition, Portland streetcar service was completely shut down in the South Waterfront for three weeks in September, due to construction of the Milwaukie light rail line.

In every case of a rail outage, passengers have to be rescued by buses. The road system is ubiquitous, so buses have many options for traveling from one location to another. When a rail car goes down, everything behind it backs up.

TriMet’s management is obsessed with building more rail, but the backbone of daily service is the ordinary bus.

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

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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.

(more…)

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Paving the rails with gold

John A. Charles, Jr.QuickPoint!

Since the voter defeat of Measure 28, public officials in the Portland region have proposed numerous emergency tax plans to stave off service cuts such as shortened school years. Oddly, these same elected officials are warmly embracing the joint proposal of Metro and TriMet to spend $850 million building two new light rail lines.

According to Metro’s Environmental Impact Statement, each new trip on light rail will cost (more…)

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Tolling People on to Portland’s Highways

Tolling People on to Portland’s Highways

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Earlier this year the state legislature passed a bill requiring the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) to apply for federal authorization to implement “value pricing” on two regional highways: I-205, and I-5 from the Washington border to the intersection with I-205. The OTC must apply by December 31, 2018.

Although value pricing may sound vague or somewhat ominous, motorists should be happy with this new policy. It has the potential to eliminate traffic congestion and create a revenue stream that will allow us to build the new highways and bridges that we need.

First, some background. “Value pricing” is a bureaucratic term for electronic tolling of highways where the toll rates vary based on the density of traffic. Usually, the rates change based on time of day, direction of travel, and day of the week. The rates are set to ensure 45 MPH driving conditions at all times of the day, hence the “value” offered to motorists.

There are many possible variations on this theme. In most cases, value pricing is used on new highway lanes, allowing drivers the option of staying in the unpriced, general purpose lanes. That probably will not be feasible in the Portland region because there is no room for an entire new network of priced lanes on I-5.

In some ways this is a blessing, because variable tolling will make our current lanes more productive. If priced properly, it’s possible that new lanes will not even be needed, saving us the expense of construction.

Value pricing is necessary because our current system cannot address congestion. Our highway network is an open access system, where each trip appears to be “free.” Of course, it’s not free—it’s being paid for by various back-door mechanisms such as motor fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees, and random federal grants. But we think it’s free, so during peak hours we see a “stampede” effect.

When too many people try to get on at the same time, per-lane throughput drops substantially. The carrying capacity for most highways is roughly 1,800 vehicles per-hour in each lane. At times of hyper-congestion, this can drop to 900 vehicles or fewer.

By using variable pricing, we can clear up the stampede and get per-lane travel back to 1,600 or 1,800 vehicles per-hour. In essence, value pricing allows us to “toll on” more people than we “toll off.”

The effect of this was seen recently when tolls on the Port Mann Bridge in Canada were removed on September 1. The Port Mann is a 10-lane bridge over the Fraser River near Vancouver. After tolls were removed, the result was a huge increase in congestion. One driver saw her daily commute increase by 25 minutes each way. She told a news reporter, “Absolutely, it’s terrible. It’s selfish but I want those tolls back on.”

In addition to the benefits of free-flow driving conditions, variable tolling will also create the dedicated revenue stream we need for future highway expansion. There is no doubt that we need several new bridges over the Columbia River, plus additional highway lanes elsewhere. Value pricing will tell us where to build, when to build, and who is willing to pay.

Fortunately, the Oregon Constitution does not allow toll revenues to be siphoned off for non-highway uses such as light rail construction. Therefore, money paid by motorists will benefit them directly.

The new law mandates value pricing on two specific highways but also authorizes the OTC to implement pricing anywhere else. Since the Portland highway network is an integrated system including I-84, I-5, I-405, HW 26, HW 217, and I-205, it would be better to implement value pricing region-wide to ensure that motorists get what they want: free-flow driving conditions, at all times of the day.

Most new highways being built around the world are using electronic tolling with variable rates. The new Oregon law is an opportunity for us to learn from that experience and to implement a Portland highway pricing system that truly delivers “value” for motorists.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in the Wilsonville Spokesman on November 1, 2017.

Click here for the PDF version:

17-20-Tolling_People_on_to_Portland’s_Highways

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The Case of the Missing Transit Money

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Last week the TriMet Board adopted a budget for fiscal year 2018, which begins on July 1.

As usual, the budget shows no correlation between the levels of subsidies given to TriMet and the amount of service provided to customers.

For example, in 2008, TriMet had a total of $397 million to pay for operations of bus and rail service. In 2018, the agency predicts it will have $600 million, a 51% increase. Yet bus service—which carries two-thirds of all passengers—has barely improved.

In 2008 the “revenue-miles” of bus service (those miles where buses were in operation) totaled 22,574,030. If service increases in 2018 as planned, the total is likely to be 22,597,927—only a 0.1% increase.

Where did all the money go?

TriMet claims that increased light rail service made up the difference, but between 2008 and 2016 the revenue-miles of MAX only went up 14%. No service increase in 2018 will make up the difference between 14% and 51%.

Moreover, ridership is not growing along with the increased funding. In fact it is shrinking. During 2008 the total number of “originating rides” (which excludes transfers) was 77.6 million. Ridership peaked in 2012 at 80 million, and then dropped to 77.2 million in 2016.

TriMet is also losing market share, especially at peak hours. According to the Portland city auditor, in 2008 an estimated 15% of all Portland commuters used TriMet. By 2016, that had dropped to just 10%.

The steady rise in TriMet’s revenue is almost entirely due to tax subsidies, not passenger fares. In fact, next year passenger fares will only account for 10% of TriMet’s all-funds budget—likely the lowest level of passenger support in TriMet history.

Nonetheless, the Oregon legislature is considering a bill that would authorize a new, statewide employer tax that would generate even more subsidies for transit. The Portland experience shows that this is a bad idea. The more we subsidize monopoly transit, the more the employees divert funds for their own use.

Last year TriMet spent $1.23 on employee benefits for every $1.00 expended in wages. That largely explains why service levels have been stagnant.

In 1969 the Portland City Council put Rose City Transit out of business because Councilors believed that a government-run monopoly would be much more efficient than a private-for-profit company. The TriMet experience has shown that the City Council was wrong.


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

 

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Oregon Politicians Support Better Roads, Just Not Here

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Recently the Oregon Legislature held a hearing on HB 3231, a bill promoted by Rep. Rich Vial (R-Scholls) that would authorize the formation of special districts for the purpose of constructing and operating limited-access highways.

Opponents made many of the same arguments they’ve been using for decades: new highways threaten farmland; increased driving will undermine Oregon’s “climate change” goals; and we can’t “build our way out of congestion.”

Perhaps the most comical opposition argument was made by Marion County, which sent all three of its Commissioners in a show of force. The Commission Chair concluded his remarks by saying, “We understand progress; we just want that progress to go somewhere else.”

Oregon stopped building new highways in 1983 after I-205 was completed. Elected officials came to believe that our needs for mobility could be met through increased urban densities, massive subsidies for public transit, and various forms of “demand management” to entice or even force people out of their cars.

The new approach didn’t work.

It turns out that manipulating urban form through land-use controls has very little influence on driving. Sure, you can regulate suburbia out of existence through density mandates, as Metro is doing. You can also reduce the parking supply and bring light rail right to someone’s front door.

But no matter how much some people fantasize about using alternatives to cars, it’s not very practical. Midday meetings, post-work errands, childcare obligations, and countless other demands lead people to rationally opt for driving for most trips.

That’s why, after a 20-year spending binge of $3.67 billion for new rail lines, TriMet’s share of daily commuting in Portland actually dropped from 12% in 1997 to 10% in 2016.

Auto-mobility is a wonderful thing, and there is no reason to feel guilty about new roads. For one thing, driving is strongly associated with economic growth. According to ODOT, for every job created in Oregon, we can expect an additional 15,500 miles of auto travel each year. If you’re in favor of new job creation, you have to accept increased driving as a logical consequence.

Moreover, the emissions associated with driving are now so minor that the real concern should be reducing air pollution from congestion. Vehicles sitting in gridlock have per-mile emissions of infinity; getting those vehicles into free-flowing conditions will improve local air quality.

Autos generally have the lowest emission rates when traveling at steady speeds of around 50 MPH. This is also a driving speed that makes most drivers happy, especially at rush hour. The way to accomplish both goals is through the construction of new highways when needed, coupled with the use of variable toll rates (also known as “dynamic pricing”). This could happen under HB 3231.

Across the country, dozens of impressive new highways are being built, many with private financing. Dynamic pricing is being be used to pay off bonds and eliminate congestion. This is the progress that most commuters dream about.

Unfortunately, it probably won’t happen here. Oregon politicians only support progress somewhere else.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article originally appeared in the Portland Tribune on April 25, 2017.

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Let’s Build Some Highways

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Oregon stopped building new highways in 1983 when I-205 was completed. Top planning officials began espousing a philosophy of spending money on rail transit rather than roads. The government also used the power of zoning to crowd more people into urban centers, in the belief that high density would lead to less reliance on cars.

The new strategy failed.

The Portland regional transit agency, TriMet, was given more than $3.6 billion to build a light rail system; yet between 1997 and 2016, TriMet’s market share of all commute trips in Portland fell from 12% to 10%. As a result, traffic congestion has become a major barrier to regional mobility.

Now a bipartisan group of legislators, led by Republican Rich Vial of Wilsonville and Democrat Brian Clem of Salem, has introduced a bill that would jump-start the highway-building process. HB 3231 would authorize cities and counties to jointly form special districts for the purpose of building and operating limited-access public highways.

If built, such highways would likely be financed through loans, with debt service paid off by tolls.

So far HB 3231 has not received a public hearing. It should. Motorists deserve all the highways they are willing to pay for. Let’s give them a chance to vote with their dollars for a better road system.


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

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Portland’s Regional Transit Strategy Is Not Working

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The Portland Auditor released the 2016 Annual Community Survey on November 30. The responses show that the share of all commute trips taken by public transit fell 17% during the past year.

This was part of a longer-term decline in transit use. The transit share of all Portland commute trips peaked in 2008 at 15%. Since then it has hovered near 12%, and now rests at 10%.

Taxpayers should be especially concerned about the negative correlation between passenger rail construction and market share. In 1997, when the region had only one light rail line—the Blue line to Gresham—transit market share was 12%.

After extending the Blue line to Hillsboro and adding four new lines plus the WES commuter rail and the Portland Streetcar, transit market share is only 10%.

Travel Mode Share for Weekday Commuting

Portland citywide, 1997-2016

Mode 1997 2000 2004 2008 2010 2012 2014 2015 2016
                   
SOV 71% 69% 72% 65% 62% 61% 63% 60% 61%
Carpool 9% 9% 8% 8% 7% 6% 6% 5% 6%
Transit 12% 14% 13% 15% 12% 12% 11% 12% 10%
Bike 3% 3% 4% 8% 7% 7% 8% 7% 8%
Walk 5% 5% 3% 4% 6% 7% 8% 9% 9%
Other n/a n/a n/a n/a 7% 6% 6% 7% 7%

      Source: Portland Auditor, Annual Community Survey

The numbers cited above are for citywide travel patterns. When broken out by sector, the Auditor found that just 5% of all commuters in Southwest Portland took transit to work in 2016. Despite this lack of interest by commuters, TriMet and Metro are working to gain approval for another light rail line extension from Portland State University through SW Portland to Bridgeport Village. The likely construction cost will be around $2.4 billion.

Unfortunately, there is no empirical basis for thinking that cannibalizing current bus service with costly new trains would have any measurable effect on transit use.

Transit advocates like to claim that we simply need to spend more money to boost ridership, but we’ve already tried that. TriMet’s annual operating budget went up from $212.2 million in 1998 to $542.2 million in 2016. After adjusting for inflation, that’s an increase of 72%. Those increases were on top of construction costs for rail, which cumulatively exceeded $3.6 billion during that era.

It’s time to stop the myth-making and start holding public officials accountable for a plan that isn’t working.


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

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Policy Picnic – October 26, 2016

Please join us for our monthly Policy Picnic led by

Cascade’s President and CEO, John A. Charles, Jr.


Watch Your Wallet November 8! Why You Should Vote No on Tigard Light Rail and Metro’s Open Space Levy

Metro is asking for a new tax levy despite the fact that it already has sufficient funds to operate all its parks. Since 1995, Metro has spent hundreds of millions of tax dollars buying up large tracts of lands far from where most people live. The Metro Council doesn’t want you (or your dog) to use most of these lands, but they do want you to pay for them. Metro’s Five-Year Operating Levy (Measure 26-178) is one more wallet-grab.

The proposed Tigard-Tualatin light rail project (Measure 34-255 in Tigard) would cost at least $240 million per mile to construct — the most expensive transit project in state history. Tigard will be required to fund part of that price tag, and increased taxes will be the result. This is what happened to the City of Milwaukie and Clackamas County when Metro forced through the Orange line.

John Charles will give you the inside story on these two ballot initiatives and tell you what their proponents don’t want you to know. He’ll explain what these measures really do and what they mean for you, your family, or your business. Bring your friends and coworkers!

Admission is free, but reservations are required due to space limitations. You are welcome to bring your own lunch; light refreshments will be served.

 

Cascade’s Policy Picnics are generously sponsored

by Dumas Law Group, LLC. 

Dumas Law Group
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MAX at 30: Portland Transit Needs a New Plan

September 5 marked the official 30th anniversary of the opening of TriMet’s light rail system. Like many Portland residents, I took a free ride that day and felt that this was a big step forward for transit service.

Unfortunately, actual performance never lived up to the hype. My hopes for “high-speed” transit were dashed when I discovered how many stops there were. The average train speed today is only 18 MPH.

My expectation that MAX would include five or six train cars was also incorrect. There are only two cars per train on MAX, and there will never be more than two cars because Portland has 200-foot blocks in downtown. Longer trains would block busy intersections.

The cost of construction also spiraled out of control. The Orange line to Milwaukie cost $210 million per mile, making it hundreds of times more costly than simple bus improvements.

In short, MAX is a low-speed, low-capacity, high-cost system, when what we really need is just the opposite—a higher-speed, higher-capacity, low-cost system.

Regional leaders should pull the plug on any more rail and start focusing on the future of transit, which will feature driverless vehicles, door-to-door delivery, and private car-sharing services such as Uber Technologies.

The passenger rail era died a hundred years ago. It’s time for Portland to get into the 21st century.

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