Policy Perspective No. 1004
August 1998

Top Ten Light Rail Myths:

What We’ve Learned From 12 Years of MAX in Portland

By John A. Charles

1. Light Rail will reduce traffic congestion.

Eastside MAX went on-line in 1986. Yet between 1986 and 1992 Portland area traffic congestion grew faster than other Western cities, including Seattle, which has no light rail.

Between 1986 and 1995, traffic counts on the Banfield freeway increased from 117,928 to 162,254 (measured near Lloyd Center), despite the adjacent light rail line and free parking for MAX riders at the Gateway Transit Center.

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the proposed South/North light-rail extension predicts that traffic congestion on I-5 will actually worsen with light rail. The most likely explanation for this prediction is that the alignment will destroy two lanes of road capacity on Interstate Avenue, shifting traffic to the already congested I-5.

2. Light Rail will improve air quality.

The DEIS predicts that N/S light rail would reduce regional nitrogen oxide emissions by about one-tenth of one percent (1/1,000th). We will see greater improvement than that in the near future just from older cars being retired from the fleet.

Moreover, there is no reason to spend $1.6 billion on any single air pollution strategy, because Portland does not have an air pollution problem. Last year, EPA re-designated the Portland region as an ”attainment“ region under the Clean Air Act — meaning that every Oregon city now complies with federal standards.

3. Building light rail is cheaper than building highways.

At more than $100 million per mile, the south/north light rail will cost more than any highway ever built in Oregon. For less than 25% of the cost, we could build extra lanes on the roads paralleling the proposed light-rail route, dedicate those lanes to buses and carpools, and expand bus service along the proposed light-rail route. These improvements would do far more to speed traffic, relieve congestion, and reduce air pollution than building another rail line would.

4. Travel on light rail will be fast.

East-side MAX averages 19 MPH, and the speed will drop even lower when the Gresham Civic Center station is opened. Under no circumstances does Tri-Met ever predict running any of the region’s trains at speeds faster than 21 MPH. The reason is that despite its name — Metropolitan Area Express — there is no ”express“ in the MAX system. All trains are local, even though a by-pass track for express trains is fully operational at the Gateway Transit Center.

By comparison, the nation’s first interurban electric streetcar system was opened in Portland in 1893, and ran to Oregon City at 14 MPH. Increasing the speed of regional trains by 5 MPH in 105 years is hardly a track record worthy of an additional subsidy of $1.6 billion in tax dollars.

5. Light Rail creates the necessary ”spine“ for the regional transit system.

Light rail is not corrective surgery; in fact, it is transit cannibalism. When East-side MAX opened, Tri-Met deliberately cancelled the two previously-operating express bus routes on the Banfield Freeway, and re-routed other east-side buses to become feeder routes for light rail. This forced bus customers to either endure a longer commute with a transfer, or abandon transit altogether.

Because the North/South expansion is planned as a surface route through the downtown bus mall, the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates (AORTA) has calculated that the overall transit carrying capacity of the mall will actually decrease. This is because light rail requires large amounts of real estate for tracks, but carries relatively few passengers.

6. Light Rail is superior to bus service because buses get stuck in traffic.

This would only be true if MAX included express service; but since Tri-Met chooses not do do so, MAX is actually slower than most buses. As recently as May, 1998, C-Trans of Washington was operating express bus service from Gateway Transit Center to downtown Portland, with scheduled running times of 15 minutes. The same distance by MAX, regardless of the time of day, was about 21 minutes. If strategic modications were made to the Banfield system — such as converting the valuable MAX right-of-way to an Exclusive Busway/HOV lane, express transit vehicles could make the trip in 10 minutes. MAX will never achieve such speeds.

7. Light Rail is ”high-capacity“ transit.

The truth is light rail is ”high-cost“ transit, not high-capacity transit. There are only 72 seats per car, and only 2 cars per trip. Furthermore, because of safety and operational limits, Tri-Met is required to leave 6-minute spacings between each trip. Tri-Met’s own traffic counts reveal these features to be fatal flaws from a capacity standpoint.

During the 3-hour morning rush hour, the Banfield Freeway carries 7.7 times more riders than MAX in the peak (downtown) direction, 11.6 times more riders than light rail in both directions, and 90.8 times more riders than light rail away from the central city in the morning. If Tri-Met stopped destroying highway-based bus service every time it opened more light rail, freeway capacity would be even greater, because buses help maximize the use of each freeway lane.

8. Light Rail is necessary to develop a ”compact“ city and to prevent expansion of the urban growth boundary.

The historic role of trains since the 1890’s has been to move people away from dense central cities. This is reflected in the phrase, ”Streetcar Suburbs“. There is no evidence that Tri-Met’s attempt to reverse this trend has or will be successful. On the contrary, because Tri-Met insists on building large park-n-ride lots with ample free parking along all MAX lines (the Zoo lot being the notable exception), it is likely that MAX has been a sprawl-inducer, not a tool for compact development.

9. The south/north MAX line will save energy.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, light rail is more than 3 times as energy intensive as a comprehensive transit system using shuttle vans. Because the contruction of light rail tracks requires so much energy, and the tracks are not shared with any other users, light-rail has the highest energy consumption per passenger/mile of any transit option.

10. The south/north MAX line will be cost-effective.

The Congressional Budget Office has concluded that light rail is 9 times more costly than bus service, and 27 times more costly than van service, on a per-passenger/mile basis. Every new transit rider on the south/north MAX line(someone who didn’t previously ride a bus)will cost taxpayers at least $15 per ride. The 1,300 cars taken off the road during rush hour will cost taxpayers more than $225 per car per day. We could save money and get more cars off the road by paying people not to drive!


Cascade Policy Institute is a tax-exempt educational organization as defined under IRS code 501(c)(3). Cascade neither solicits nor accepts government funding, and is supported by individual, foundation, and corporate contributions. Nothing appearing in this document is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of Cascade, or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before any legislative body.
Copyright 2001, Cascade Policy Institute