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Low income Oregonians need wheels not another light rail line-cm

Low-Income Oregonians Need Wheels, Not Another Light Rail Line

By Rachel Dawson

Want to help a low-income individual prosper economically? Give them a car.

Multiple studies have shown that having access to private wheels is positively correlated with income levels and hours worked. Thus, giving someone a personal vehicle is a sure way to help them gain access to more job opportunities, and thus a greater potential for increases in personal wealth.

Metro is not ignorant of this data. In a recently released Regional Mobility Policy Report, Metro admitted that “[vehicle miles traveled] has been shown to increase directly with the growth of personal income.” However, Metro appears to have learned the wrong lesson from this information based on its conclusion that this signifies “that private vehicle ownership and the coinciding motor vehicle infrastructure benefits high-income populations most” and that “reducing VMT by supporting other modes of transportation is a more equitable approach to mobility.”

Metro would rather push residents onto transit, like the proposed $2.8 billion SW Corridor light rail line running from downtown Portland to a swanky outdoor mall in Tigard. However, doing so would do little to help the vast majority of low-income Portlanders efficiently get to work, school, day care, and medical appointments. Coronavirus social distancing rules, and recommendations from the CDC to avoid transit, also make dependence on a crowded train unappealing for many people.

Many scholars would disagree with Metro’s conclusion, instead finding that the most equitable approach would be to providelow-income residents access to personal vehicles and the associated infrastructure.

For example, Margy Waller, a former Brookings Institution fellow, found that car ownership is positively correlated with both hours of work and income. Transit-dependent low-income residents have a limited number of job opportunities available to them compared to someone with a private car, due to having a commute that is nearly twice as long. In addition, the rate of homeownership among low-income car owners was twice as high as low-income households without cars, as those with cars have more options for where they could live.

Further, researchers found in an evaluation of a subsidized car ownership program in Vermont that participants’ earned income increased by around $220 per month, 2.5 times higher than their earnings prior to receiving a car. Owning a car is valuable because it opens up opportunities for increased hours worked and income for low-income residents. Instead of funding a train to a mall, Metro should reverse its war on cars and promote access to a personal vehicle for all low-income and minority Portlanders. Public transit can sometimes be a good option, but it certainly should not be the only one. Metro should demonstrate its dedication to advancing equity by promoting a low-income car program, which would cost a fraction of SW Corridor project’s price tag. Doing so would be the best way to help Portlanders get where they need to go, when they need to be there.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She can be reached at rachel@cascadepolicy.org

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Portland_trimet-cm

Cascade Policy Institute Asks the Federal Transit Administration to Enforce Light Rail Contracts with TriMet

March 9, 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
John A. Charles, Jr.
(503) 242-0900
john@cascadepolicy.org

Portland, OR – Cascade Policy Institute has submitted a letter to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) requesting that the agency enforce contracts with TriMet for three light rail projects: the Yellow Line, the Green Line, and the Orange Line. Each project received substantial federal funding, which came with contractual obligations to provide minimum levels of service. TriMet has not met those obligations.

For both the Yellow and Green Lines, TriMet is supposed to be providing 8 trains per hour during peak periods. Current service on those lines is 4 trains per hour.

For the Orange Line, TriMet is supposed to be providing 6 trains per peak-hour. Current service provides only 4.6 trains per hour.

All three lines are also traveling at slower speeds than promised, and ridership projections have been missed by large margins.

Under FTA policy, the agency is empowered to demand repayment of federal funding if grant recipients fail to meet the terms of funding contracts. In its letter, Cascade Policy Institute is asking that FTA require TriMet to begin operating light rail lines in accordance with grant agreements within six months or begin paying back the federal funding.

Cascade is also requesting that FTA embargo any future funding for the Southwest Corridor Project, until such time as previous light rail projects are in compliance with contracts.

According to John A. Charles, Jr., President of Cascade Policy Institute, “TriMet’s under-performance is not an aberration, it’s a pattern. Since FTA has funded more than half the cost of the total MAX system, FTA should hold TriMet accountable by requiring the district to provide the service that was promised.”

The letter can be read here.

About Cascade Policy Institute:

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research and educational organization that focuses on state and local issues in Oregon. Cascade’s mission is to develop and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.

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Click here for PDF version of Cascade’s letter to the FTA:

2020-3-5-Cascade_Policy_Institute_Letter_to_Federal_Transit_Administration

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An-orange-Portland-streetcar-for-the-S.-Waterfront-route-cm

TriMet Drops Ridership Estimate by 13% for Tigard Light Rail

By John A. Charles, Jr.

After eight years of bragging that the proposed light rail line to Tigard would result in average daily ridership of 43,000, TriMet has quietly dropped the estimate to 37,500.

This “bait-and-switch” was totally predictable. At the start of every rail planning process, TriMet creates a high ridership estimate to get local politicians excited. Once the politicians agree to help fund the project, ridership forecasts are revised downwards. Eventually construction begins, and just before opening day, ridership estimates are lowered again.

At that point, it’s too late for politicians to back out.

TriMet promised Milwaukie officials that there would be 19,450 average daily rides on the Orange line in 2020. The actual ridership today is 12,160—63% of the forecast.

For the Blue line, ridership today is only 50% of the 2020 forecast.

The worst performer is the Yellow line, where ridership is a paltry 38% of the 2020 forecast.

While ridership is always low, construction costs are always high. For the Tigard line, cost estimates have gone up by 58% just since 2016. The current estimate is $2.85 billion.

Tigard light rail will be the most wasteful project in state history, if it ever gets built. The time to pull the plug is now.

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

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2-19-2020-TriMet_Drops_Ridership_Estimate_by_13-_for_Tigard_Light_RailPDF

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Light Rail to Bridgeport Village: The Dumbest Train Project Yet

By John A. Charles, Jr.

TriMet and Metro are promoting the idea of a new light rail line from Portland State University to the Bridgeport Village shopping mall in Tualatin.

The question is, who would ride it?

We already know from experience that mall shoppers prefer private cars to trains. The Red Line to the airport was opened in 2001 specifically to service the Cascade Station shopping center, which is anchored by IKEA, Target, and Best Buy. Field observations conducted by Cascade Policy Institute in 2010 and again in 2016 showed that more than 98% of all passenger-trips to and from Cascade Station are made in private automobiles. Light rail is simply irrelevant.

The same is true for Gresham Station, another shopping center specifically built around a light rail stop. Regardless of the time-of-day or day-of-week, virtually all trips to and from Gresham Station are made in private vehicles.

The Green MAX line, which terminates at Clackamas Town Center, has also had no effect on travel patterns at the mall.

In order for the Bridgeport Village line to be built, Tigard residents will need to approve the city’s participation in the project by voting for Measure 34-255 in the November election. Local voters should learn from experience and turn down this measure. Light rail through Tigard would be a total waste of money.

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Does PCC-Sylvania Need a Light Rail Tunnel?

By Emma Newman

Metro and TriMet are jointly considering an expansion of the light rail system to PCC-Sylvania in SW Portland, by building a tunnel to the campus from Barbur Boulevard. The tunneling would have a significant impact on the surrounding neighborhood, forcing many homeowners to move away while still requiring PCC students to make a long walk to their classes.

Currently, 84 percent of PCC students drive to school, even with the campus being served by both shuttles and busses. If this tunnel plan is chosen, Oregon taxpayers will be saddled with paying half of the two billion dollar cost.

When asked at what point the costs of building new transit outweigh the benefits, a Metro spokesperson responded that “transportation planning is more an art than a science.”

An alternative plan under consideration is a rapid bus line which would also service PCC-Sylvania. While this would be about half the cost and much less inconvenient than digging a rail tunnel, it still would be a response to a need that doesn’t exist.

Despite the low ridership of current transit options, transportation officials continue to follow the mantra of “if you build it they will come,” rather than follow the laws of supply and demand.

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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John Charles Debates Tigard’s Light Rail Ballot Measure

During January’s Tigard Initiative Public Forum, John Charles debated a Tigard City Counselor on the merits of the Tigard ballot measure that would place restraints on the Tigard City Council regarding the Southwest Corridor Plan.

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Why Do Transit Officials Lie About Light Rail?

The transit agency for Vancouver (C-TRAN) is reconsidering its support for the Columbia River Crossing Project, which includes light rail to Vancouver. In a staff report prepared for this week’s C-TRAN board meeting, the following claims are made:

  • Light rail offers faster service (17 MPH) than bus rapid transit (14.5 MPH);
  • The extended Yellow MAX line will arrive in Vancouver every 7.5 minutes; and
  • Light rail will carry 6,100 people over the Columbia River during the peak period.

All of these answers are wrong.

C-TRAN express buses running from various points in Vancouver to Portland city center currently average 31-45 MPH (depending on the route) in the morning peak period. In the afternoon peak they average 20-30 MPH traveling northbound.

Current Yellow MAX line service is one train every 15 minutes, all day. There will be no peak-hour service to Vancouver at 7.5-minute intervals, because TriMet has reduced service by 14% in the past five years. The agency is broke.

Finally, the maximum one-way capacity of a two-car light rail train is approximately 274. Multiplying this times eight trains per hour in the peak direction is 2,192 riders, not 6,100.

The fact is, C-TRAN’s express bus service is far superior to the slow MAX, so why spend $930 million on a slow train to Vancouver? That’s the question that should be asked.

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

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Cascade in the Capitol: Light Rail to Vancouver vs. CTRAN Express Buses – Testimony on HB 2800

Cascade President John Charles testified today before the Joint Committee on Interstate-5 Bridge Replacement Project regarding HB 2800. His testimony follows.

The CRC Plan for Light Rail:

A Step Backwards for Transit Customers

 John A. Charles, Jr.

Cascade Policy Institute

February 2013

Metric

TriMet Yellow MAX Line to North Portland

CTRAN Express Buses Serving Downtown Portland

Capital cost of expanding  light rail to Vancouver

$932 million

$0

2011 annual operating cost

$10.2 million

$5.04 million

Operating cost/hour

$270

$110

Annual hours of service

40,492

45,996

Farebox recovery ratio for operations cost

47%

67%

Cost/new vehicle

$4,200,000

$458,333

Peak-hour frequency

Every 15 minutes

Every 10.3-15.5 minutes

Peak-hour travel speed

15 MPH

31-45 MPH

Travel time, Vancouver to Portland

36-38 minutes

16 -18 minutes

% of passenger seating capacity actually used at the peak period

34%

38%

Promises of Frequent Transit Services: Hope Over Experience

According to the most recent finance plan for this project, “Light rail in the new guideway and in the existing Yellow line alignment would be planned to operate with 7.5 minute headways during the “peak of the peak” and with 15-minute headways at all other times. This compares to 12-minute headways in “peak of the peak” and 15-minute headways at all other times for the existing Yellow line.”[1]

In fact, the Yellow Line runs at 15 minute headways all day, with even less service at night.  Yet according to the FTA Full Funding Grant Agreement for the Yellow Line, service is supposed to be operating at 10-minute headways at the peak, improving to 7.5 minute headways by 2020. TriMet is violating its FFGA contract, which could lead to a denial of funding for the $850 million grant request that the CRC project plans to make.

The Green MAX line is also operating at service levels of at least 33% below those promised in the FFGA. 

The legislature should not be expanding TriMet’s territory at this time – especially into another state that already has a transit district – because TriMet cannot afford to operate the system it already has. Despite a steady influx of general fund dollars, TriMet has been cutting service ever since the legislature approved a payroll tax rate increase in 2003, as shown below.

TriMet Financial Resources, 2004-2013 (000s)

 

FY 04/05

FY 08/09

FY 10/11

FY 11/12 (est)

FY 12/13 (budget)

% Change 04/05-12/13

Passenger fares

$   59,487

$   90,016

$   96,889

$   104,032

$117,166

+97%

Payroll tax revenue

$171,227

$209,089

$224,858

$232,832

244,457

+43%

Total operating resources

$308,766

397,240

$399,641

$476,364

$465,056

+51%

Total Resources

$493,722

$888,346

$920,044

$971,613

$1,111,384

+125%

Note: Pursuant to legislation adopted in 2003, the TriMet payroll tax rate was increased on January 1, 2005, will rise by .0001% annually until it reaches a rate of .007218% on January 1, 2014.

 

  Annual Fixed Route Service Trends, 2004-2012

FY 04

FY 06

FY 08

FY 10

FY 12

% Change

Veh. revenue hours

1,698,492

1,653,180

1,712,724

1,682,180

1,561,242

-8.1%

Vehicle revenue miles

27,548,927

26,830,124

26,448,873

25,781,480

23,625,960

-14.2

Average veh. speed – bus

15.8

15.8

14.9

14.7

14.6

-7.6%

Average veh. speed – L. Rail

20.1

19.4

19.3

19.4

18.4

-11.5%

Source: TriMet annual service and ridership report; TriMet budget documents and audited financial statements, various years.

 


[1] C-TRAN, High Capacity Transit System and Finance Plan, July 20, 2012, p. 4.

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John Charles talks with Victoria Taft about the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project

Victoria Taft, radio host on KPAM 860, interviewed John Charles about his latest commentary, Transit Hypocrisy, which discusses TriMet’s Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project.

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John Charles talks with Victoria Taft on light rail use and TriMet

Talk show host, Victoria Taft, talked with John Charles Monday about light rail use for the Expo Center’s Cirque de Soleil event, the Sustainability Center, and the future of TriMet.

 

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Free citizen education forum on Urban transportation and the CRC Light Rail Project

Citizens are warmly invited to hear five national experts share research on the myths and truths behind federally funded transportation infrastructure. This is a joint regional/national event, bringing in speakers around the country from the national think tank, the American Dream Coalition.

Come to this free, half-day conference on transportation solutions, their trade-offs, how to effectively address congestion, costs and funding, efficient use of public funds, bus service systems that actually work and how enforcement has been used to alleviate crime issues often associated with transit.

Come and hear about what other communities are doing to solve urban transportation problems and how these solutions can be applied in our region.


SPEAKER TOPIC
Tiffany Couch, Washington. Forensic Accountant & Financial Investigation, Acuity Group, PLLC Forensic Accounting Update – How has $152M in Federal and State Tax Dollars been spent so far?
Wendell Cox, Illinois. Public Policy Consultant, Principal of Demographia Improving economic growth and the quality of life in the Portland-Vancouver area
Tom Rubin, California. CPA, CMA, CMC, CIA, CGFM, CFM. Consultant for major transit capital projects How Cost-Effective Are Buses and Light Rail?
John Charles, Oregon. President and CEO Cascade Policy Institute Will Transit-Oriented Development Work in Vancouver?
Karen Jaroch, Florida. Licensed Professional Engineer. Co-founder of the Tampa 912 Project How to Organize Ideas into Action
Randal O’Toole, Oregon. Cato Institute Senior Fellow, Founder of American Dream Coalition What Are the Prospects for Federal Funding of the CRC?

 

Please visit http://btgaps2-stevescare.eventbrite.com to register!

Online registration is encouraged, but not mandatory.

 

 

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How many presidential buses does it take to equal the cost of one light rail car?

President Obama is traveling the Midwest on a new bus purchased by the Secret Service. The vehicle is painted all-black with tinted windows and appears to be the size of a standard Greyhound bus. Inside, we can assume that it’s tricked out with the latest in high-tech security gear and telecommunications and designed with a kitchen, shower, bedroom and lounge area.

Given its purpose, the price tag must be enormous.

Actually, it’s not. It was purchased for $1.1 million. A typical light rail car in Portland costs $4 million.

Regular transit riders might want to ponder that. A light rail car has hard seats, no headrests, minimal legroom and no on-board internet access.

The Presidential bus can go on any road in America, while light rail is limited to just a small part of the Portland region.

The proposed Milwaukie light rail project will cost $1.5 billion. If we cancelled the project, we could buy an entire fleet of presidential buses and run them to Milwaukie, with free coffee and donuts for everyone, and we still couldn’t spend as much as TriMet plans to spend on one mile of light rail.

Maybe transit customers would like to try the Presidential bus for a few months before we waste $1.5 billion on a slow train to nowhere.

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Cascade Requests Congressional House Committee to Delete Funding for Milwaukie Light Rail

Portland, OR – Today Cascade Policy Institute sent a letter to Rep. John Mica, Chairman of the Congressional House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, requesting that he delete all $750 million in federal funding being requested by TriMet for the Milwaukie light rail project.

Noting that the recently-signed Budget Control Act of 2011 requires Congress to reduce federal spending by $917 billion over the next 10 years and that Rep. Mica has released a draft six-year transportation spending bill forecasting a 35% cut in federal highway/transit spending, Cascade President John A. Charles, Jr. stated that the price tag of $205 million per mile for Milwaukie light rail was “indefensible” and should be terminated.

Cascade sent a second letter to Gov. John Kitzhaber, informing him of the letter to Rep. Mica and asking that he intervene to terminate the Milwaukie project, but implement a low-cost alternative concept with the following elements:

  • Finish the new bridge over the Willamette River
  • Cancel the light rail portion
  • Connect the streetcar loop
  • Offer more “express” bus service to Milwaukie

Charles stated, “The Milwaukie project offers no new transit service, forces the relocation of 68 businesses and 20 residences, and degrades current bus service to Milwaukie. We can improve service while saving about $1.3 billion, and that plan would free up about $600 million in local dollars for other civic improvement projects.”

For the letter to Rep. Mica click here.
For the letter to Gov. Kitzhaber click here.
For a summary of the low-cost alternative plan for Milwaukie light rail click here.

 

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Press Release: Light Rail and Streetcar Fail to Provide “High-Capacity” Service, Study Shows

study released today by Cascade Policy Institute shows that TriMet’s so-called “High-Capacity Transit” system – comprised of light rail, the Portland Streetcar and commuter rail – is incapable of actually moving large numbers of people when needed. Moreover, most of the time there is no demand for high-capacity transit because the region’s population is too dispersed, and people prefer to travel by modes other than passenger rail.

The study, Light Rail, Streetcars & the Myth of “High Capacity Transit,  measured actual trip choices made during 2010 at five big events when presumably “high-capacity” transit would be in demand: the Portland Green Building home show held in March at the Multnomah County Expo Center; the opening night show of the Cirque du Soleil in April; the final playoff game of the year for the Portland Trail Blazers in May; “Black Friday” at the Cascade Station shopping center in November; and December 21st at the Gresham Civic Station shopping center in December. The results were:

  • Light rail use at the Green Home Show averaged 20% of all passenger-trips;
  • Streetcar use at the Cirque du Soleil opening show was 8%;
  • Light rail use at the Blazer game was 21%;
  • Rail use at Cascade Station averaged 2% over a two-day period in November; and
  • Light rail at Gresham Civic Station carried 2% of all passenger-trips for the morning commute period and 2% of all passenger-trips for the mid-day shopping period.

In total, 47,666 passenger-trips were observed or estimated, and rail only garnered 11% of the market share, as summarized below.

Summary Totals
All passenger-trips to all events, by mode choice

 

Green
home
show
Circus Blazers Cascade
Station
Gresham
Station
Totals Market
share
(%)
Rail 516 110 4,238 333 120 5,317 11%
Auto 2,106 1,245 14,636 (est) 17,570 5,101 40,658 85%
Other 0 0 1,626(est) 5 55 1,686 4%
Total 2,622 1,355 20,500 17,908 5,276 47,666 100%

Note: For the Blazer game, only light-rail trips were observed; other mode totals were estimated.

In all cases except for the Blazer game, actual seating capacity of the trains was never an issue because so few customers chose to ride, even when on-site parking was quite expensive. In the one case where high-capacity transit would have been very helpful – the Blazer playoff game – the light rail system was overwhelmed by crowds and could only muster 21% of market share despite the use of four different MAX lines – the Yellow, Green, Blue and Red lines.

The reason for the modest transit totals is that light rail is inherently a low-capacity system, because there are only two rail cars per train. The system cannot use more than two cars because trains travel on surface streets in downtown Portland. If trains had 8-9 cars, as is common with the New York City subway or other heavy rail systems, the trains would be blocking downtown intersections for minutes at a time.

Also, trains generally cannot run at greater frequencies than every three minutes due to operational and safety requirements. In most cases, trains only run every 12-15 minutes, or less often. These constraints limit passenger-throughput compared to a bus transit system where vehicles can travel with minimal spacing requirements.

Cascade President John A. Charles, Jr. conducted the research with the help of several assistants. He stated, “The field research shows that continued use of the phrase ‘high-capacity transit’ by local planners to describe the regional rail program is Orwellian. Light rail is actually a low-capacity system, and the streetcar is simply irrelevant. TriMet’s buses carries two-thirds of all regional transit trips on a daily basis, and that’s the service that should be recognized as high-capacity transit. Unfortunately, bus service is being sacrificed by TriMet in order to build costly new rail lines that carry relatively few people.”

 

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John Charles talks light rail on Fox Business’s Tom Sullivan Show

Watch John Charles discuss the cost of light rail and the bankrupting state of Portland public transit.

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John tells TriMet Board, “Milwaukie Light Rail: You Will Own the Problem”

John A. Charles, Jr.Cascade Commentary

TriMet Board Meeting is currently considering Resolution 10-11-57 which would be a thumbs up to move forward with the Milwaukie Light Rail project as planned. John Charles provided the below testimony in response to this resolution. This resolution is scheduled for Wednesday.

****

Members of the Board:

Resolution 10-11-57 must be considered within the context of TriMet’s current financial crisis.

There are two major cost drivers for TriMet: employee compensation and capital projects. Most of you can say that the payroll costs you now face were negotiated years ago and you have simply inherited the problem. However, if you approve this resolution and commit yourselves to new light rail service at a construction cost of $210 million per mile, you will own the problem.  And I see no way of solving your financial crisis if you have unsustainable costs in both operations and capital expansion.

(more…)

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Excessive Cost of the Milwaukie Light Rail Line

John A. Charles, Jr.
Cascade Commentary

By John Charles

Testimony before the Metro Council Regarding the Milwaukie Light Rail Line Resolution No. 10-4133

Metro proposes to allocate $144.8 million of flexible funding to one corridor in SE Portland  to move a handful of people who could be served just as well by Bus Rapid Transit at less than .2% of the capital cost, and the staff concludes that there is no opposition “known at this time.” Only in the Orwellian world of regional transportation decision-making could two public votes AGAINST the South/North LRT project be re-defined out of existence 12 years later.

The analytical argument against this project is actually much stronger now than it was in 1998 when it was voted down. We know more about alternatives, and about the true costs of rail. Continued rail expansion inevitably cannibalizes service elsewhere, as shown by the fact that TriMet has had a 38% increase in funding over the past five years while service has dropped by 10%.

(more…)

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The politics of light rail pork

Steve BucksteinAlthough the phrase “light rail” wasn’t even mentioned in the hearing, it seemed to be the elephant in the room today when the Subcommittee on Transportation and Economic Development of the Joint Ways and Means Committee met to move forward a $100 lottery bond measure to fund transportation projects throughout Oregon.

As introduced in the House, HB 2278 would have required that at least 15 percent of the funding be allocated to each of five regions described in the bill. But when the bill reached this committee, the 15 percent number had somehow been reduced to (more…)

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The Market has Spoken: Light Rail Can’t Compete

John A. Charles, Jr.QuickPoint!

The most recent downtown employer survey by the Portland Business Alliance contains important news for taxpayers. It shows that light rail’s market share for downtown commuters dropped by 30% over the past five years. Considering that TriMet actually opened two new rail lines during that period, this is a stunning decline in ridership.

In 2001, 20% of downtown employees traveled to work by light rail. By 2005 that had dropped to (more…)

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Failing Grade for PSU and Light Rail

John A. Charles, Jr.QuickPoint!

On Thursday, July 8, a Metro committee will finalize the funding plan for TriMet’s $494 million “South Corridor” light rail expansion project. It will run to Clackamas County and through the Portland bus mall. The committee is counting on Portland State University to contribute approximately $5 million.

Unfortunately, putting light rail on the (more…)

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The Mythical World of Transit-Oriented Development: Light Rail and the Orenco Neighborhood, Hillsboro, Oregon

John A. Charles, Jr.

Executive Summary

During the past decade, Portland-area planners have embraced Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) as the dominant land use/transportation strategy. They assert that TOD, especially based on light rail, will reduce traffic congestion, increase transit use, improve air quality, and attract private investment.

Dozens of TODs have been constructed in the Portland region since 1990, with several winning national acclaim. Most have received public subsidies, on the assumption that the public benefits of TOD outweigh the costs. However, little is known about how transit-oriented projects actually perform once they are built, in terms of transit use and auto dependency. The purpose of this analysis—the first in a series of Portland, Oregon TOD case studies—is to begin filling in that gap by analyzing one of the most well-known TODs in the country, Orenco Station. (more…)

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Light rail train northbound on raised track-cm

Metro’s Untimely, Nonsensical Light-Rail Project

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Last month, the Metro Council voted to send a regional payroll tax to the November ballot. The rationale for the new $250-million-a-year tax is primarily to help fund a 12-mile light rail extension from Portland to Bridgeport Village in Tigard. It will also pay for a smattering of minor transportation projects throughout the region, but those are just ornaments on the tree.

There are at least three problems with this proposal. The first is that we already pay two transit taxes: the TriMet payroll tax assessed on employers, and the statewide transit tax collected from employees’ paychecks that was adopted by the Legislature in 2017. Most people don’t benefit from either one, because they don’t use transit. Adding a third tax to pay for light rail to Tigard ­– called the Southwest Corridor project – makes no sense.

Second, light rail ridership peaked in 2012 and has been dropping ever since. Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, it is down about 70% from last July, according to TriMet ridership numbers. With many worried about the inability to physically distance on public transit and the prospect that some may work from home permanently, more rail is the wrong project at the wrong time.

Third, if the Metro tax is approved, TriMet could bulldoze nearly 300 homes and up to 156 businesses for the right-of-way, according to its environmental impact statement. Roughly as many as 1,990 employees will be forced to leave the area, the analysis states.

This ghastly level of destruction recalls the heavy-handed actions of the government when it rammed I-5 through the Albina neighborhood in the 1960s, an act that reverberates today as the state aims to widen the highway in that same stretch. Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who resigned from the Oregon Department of Transportation’s steering committee for the I-5 project in June, emphasized this in her resignation letter: “In 1962, ODOT dug a trench through Oregon’s largest Black community, demolishing 300+ homes, disrupting and destabilizing the community, and polluting the environment.”

While the Southwest Corridor is not Albina and Commissioner Eudaly cannot undo history, she can help prevent a similar bulldozing of people’s homes. She is currently a member of the steering committee for the SW Corridor Project. If she really cares about protecting homes and businesses, she should resign from the SW Corridor Steering Committee and actively oppose more light rail construction. The other commissioners should join her.

But voters don’t need to wait for the Portland City Council to do the right thing. They will have the opportunity to reject Metro’s new tax in November, and they should.

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 Oregonian on August 5, 2020.

Click here for PDF version:

20-29-Metro’s_Untimely_Nonsensical_Light-Rail_ProjectPDF

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No More Failed Rail

Light rail was first introduced to the Portland Metro region by TriMet in the late 1980s. Since then a total of five “MAX” lines have been constructed. The Metro Council and TriMet have made the same promises every time a light rail line has been considered—that it will decrease traffic, cut greenhouse gas emissions, cut down on travel times, have frequent headways, and have high levels of ridership.

Every time these promises are made; every time these same promises are broken.

Traffic congestion increases as travel lanes are stripped away from drivers so that light rail can have an exclusive right-of-way. Travel times are longer than promised as light rail speeds decrease year after year. Train headways are less frequent, often occurring every 15-30 minutes instead of the promised 7-10 minutes. It takes decades for a MAX line to account for the greenhouse gas emissions that are produced during the construction of the line, and that’s if ridership is as high as Metro and TriMet have forecasted.

However, ridership numbers never come close to estimated levels. In fact, TriMet ridership has been decreasing every year since 2015, meaning that any new light rail line will have a high cost with very little added benefit.

The same promises are being made again by Metro and TriMet with the proposed SW Corridor Light Rail project, which will travel from downtown Portland to Tigard’s Bridgeport Village. The project is currently set to cost between $2.35-2.76 billion in 2023 dollars, though this amount is likely to increase based on the experiences of past lines. A vote on regional funding for the project is set to occur in November 2020.

Click below to learn more about the No More Failed Rail project and why you should vote “no” for another unsuccessful light rail line.

 

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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.

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TriMet Finally Admits Rail Problems

Last week I wrote about the problems TriMet is having with its constantly failing rail system. On Wednesday, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane announced that the agency is hiring an outside firm to review light rail maintenance needs. The contract will cost a maximum of $245,000.

This is an important acknowledgment by TriMet that the vaunted regional rail system is suffering from chronic breakdowns that will require ever-increasing levels of maintenance.

The ownership problems associated with rail transit are well known within the industry. Indeed, four years ago the head of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Peter Rogoff, gave a speech on this topic to a room full of transit executives. Mr. Rogoff reminded people that rail systems have significant long-term costs. FTA had recently concluded that there were more than $78 billion in deferred maintenance costs for public transit agencies in the U.S., and three-fourths of those costs were associated with rail systems.

TriMet management is having to face up to this reality. The supposed “operating advantages” of hauling rail cars disappear when the lifecycle costs of rail system ownership are taken into account. Bus transit doesn’t face these problems. The cost of a bus is only one-tenth the cost of a rail car; it can be sent to many locations rather than a few dozen; and the ubiquitous road system is paid for by millions of motorists, not the transit agency. This keeps the maintenance costs of bus transit to a manageable level.

Unfortunately, TriMet is in a financial free-fall, and absorbing substantial costs for depreciation and maintenance of light rail will worsen the fall for a long time to come.

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

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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.

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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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Metro Pushes Transportation Bond While Acknowledging Serious Problems

Oregon’s Business Community Is Challenging the $7.8 Billion Measure

By Vlad Yurlov

After years of planning, revising, and negotiating Metro’s transportation funding plan, the region’s business community has had enough. Last month, several tri-county chambers of commerce sent a letter to the Metro Council urging a delay on the measure, because of the COVID-19 epidemic.

Metro spent years finding ways to spend money on transportation projects, while spending about two months figuring out how to pay for it. They only settled on a payroll tax because polling was good.

But, Metro’s polling was from May, when much of the county was hopeful the pandemic would be over by the start of school. Instead, the economy has crashed with businesses closing, workers losing their jobs, and thousands of families struggling to pay their bills. For many households, Metro’s plan to create a permanent payroll tax costing $500 a year for the average worker reflects bad timing, if not poor judgment.

Metro Council President Lynn Peterson claims the spending will create jobs, reduce pollution, prepare the region for growth, and advance racial justice. But such claims require extraordinary evidence.

The plan will not “create” thousands of jobs. Metro President Peterson falls for the fallacy that spending more money creates more jobs. In fact, Metro’s payroll tax will reduce take-home pay and kill jobs. Research shows that workers pay the price of a payroll tax, with low-skilled workers suffering the most. Even the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Green Line extension states that “net employment change in the corridor and region over the long term…would likely be negligible.”

The plan will not “advance” racial justice. Metro admits the Southwest Corridor light rail line will displace hundreds of residents and businesses, many of whom are from minority and low-income communities. While strategies to reduce the impact have been discussed, communities of color will be forced to uproot their lives because of these projects.

Finally, the plan will not “reduce” pollution. Climate Solutions and Oregon Environmental Council expect that the measure’s projects would only reduce emissions by less than one-tenth of one percent per year.

The plan will not “transform” its key corridors. Most of the projects involve minor improvements such as adding lighting and mending sidewalks, as well as improved lights and access improvements.

The plan will not “prepare” the region for growth. Many of the new amenities will likely inhibit new commuters travelling between work, home, and leisure destinations, because most of the projects are designed to make congestion worse.

The Council President’s letters tried to cut deals with the business community. She offered a reduction of the payroll tax, on the condition that the Portland Business Alliance doesn’t campaign against the measure and lobbies Oregon’s legislature to recoup the losses. This was quickly rejected. Instead, Metro carved out local governments from the tax, right before the referral vote. This 11% loss further burdens businesses and residents.

Willamette Week reported that the Metro Council remains “undaunted.” The business community then filed a ballot title challenge arguing that Metro’s wording was unfair in using the phrase “business tax” rather than a “wage-based payroll tax.” While Metro employees use the term “payroll tax,” it was recharacterized as a business tax after realizing how unpopular the phrase sounds during a time when many firms can’t make payroll and so many families aren’t getting paid.

A large part of the push for the measure on the ballot is Lynn Peterson’s chase for federal funding, which she believes will run out if voters don’t approve the measure. Additionally, Lynn Peterson is suspected to be eyeing a run for Oregon governor. This means that this measure’s rush may not be out of preparedness, but of an eager Council looking to grab federal dollars, even if it means that our own tax rates will skyrocket, and personal gain.

Metro’s transportation measure would cripple the region’s COVID-19 recovery, because the payroll tax that funds it diverts development away from businesses that create wealth and into projects that merely move it around. This transportation bond measure will not allow the tri-county area to “Get Moving.” Residents and businesses will have to freeze in place to survive an additional payroll tax for another unsustainable gamble.

Vlad Yurlov is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He has closely followed Metro’s transportation bond and is currently researching its history and impacts.

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Portland Politicians Suffer From the Edifice Complex

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

On July 24th, the New York Times ran a 2,300-word piece describing the challenges owners of vacation homes have faced in converting their second homes into their primary residences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Challenges included the inability to get a Starbucks vanilla latte or find a bagel shop.

Readers overwhelming responded: “Read the room, New York Times!”

With millions out of work and struggling to pay the bills, it’s hard to sympathize with a vacation homeowner struggling to find a place in her second home to put a pencil holder and paper tray she bought in Florence, Italy.

Closer to home, our elected leaders can’t read the room either. Sitting safely in their home offices, collecting steady paychecks, and venturing out for a photo op at a protest, they continue to push ever higher taxes on their struggling constituents.

Less than five months after sending two new income taxes to the voters, Metro is now charging full speed ahead on a payroll tax to pay for the unneeded Southwest Corridor light rail project from Portland to Bridgeport Village. The project anticipates tearing up Barbur Boulevard and adding congestion to dozens of intersections and highway ramps. Making way for light rail will require the destruction of at least 78 residential dwellings, and as many as 293. In addition, as many as 156 businesses will be forced out, displacing up to 1,990 employees.

The payroll tax will cost about $500 a year for the average household in the region. That’s $500 that can’t be spent on rent, utilities, groceries and other necessities.

Read the room, Metro. Is a light rail line to an upscale shopping mall more important than the houses that’ll be bulldozed, the business that’ll be shuttered, and paychecks that’ll be raided?

The City of Portland is no better. Because of years of mismanagement, the city’s parks bureau has spent itself into a deep hole. Last year, the city closed the Sellwood and Hillside community centers. This year, Mayor Ted Wheeler cancelled all summer parks programs. Even with the cuts, the city claims the parks program has a deficit of more than $6 million.

Earlier this month, the city council voted to send a $48 million-a-year property tax increase to the ballot to fund its mismanaged parks program. It’s not clear why the city needs $48 million to fill a $6 million gap. But, I’m just a dumb voter who doesn’t understand the ins and outs of government accounting.

Nevertheless, in a time when tenants can’t pay their rents and homeowners can’t make their mortgage payments, Mayor Wheeler and city council are promoting a tax increase that will cost the average Portlander $180 a year. Read the room, Portland.

Of course, Multnomah County has to get into the money grab game, too. In November, voters will decide on a $37 million property tax measure to increase library spending. That’s about $115 a year for the average household. Currently, all the county libraries are closed, except for picking up books put on hold. Maybe the libraries can wait until after this recession is over before reaching into our wallets. Read the room, Multnomah County.

Even though schools are closed and Portland Public Schools is still mumbling and fumbling over its plans for the fall, PPS is looking to send a $1.1 billion property tax measure to the ballot in November. A big chunk of that money is earmarked to pay for nearly $250 million in cost overruns from the last school bond measure.

With the pandemic causing a radical rethinking of how education is delivered to our children, perhaps now is not the right time to embark on a spending blowout to build more massive brick-and-mortar schools. Read the room, PPS.

For years – no, more like decades – Portland-area voters seemed to have demonstrated an endless tolerance for raising their own taxes. They also seem eager to elect politicians who promise more and more spending on massive and costly projects. This has been called the “Edifice Complex” – it’s fun and sexy to be at the ribbon cutting for a new MAX line, library or remodeled school. There are no photo ops for trimming a budget.

In 2020, Portland-area politicians have become so consumed by their Edifice Complex that they have failed to read the room. In the middle of a pandemic and recession, voters may teach the elected that feeding their families is more important than feeding the beast of local government.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market public policy research organization. This article was originally published in the July 2020 Oregon Transformation newsletter.

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TriMet’s decreasing ridership makes the SW Corridor project obsolete

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet’s weekly system boardings were down 68% in May compared to last year due to the Coronavirus, and ridership will likely stay down since the CDC is recommending that people avoid transit altogether. But it’s not just the pandemic; ridership has been dropping for years.

TriMet’s revenues have increased by 171 percent since 2000, while the agency’s ridership (number of originating rides) has increased by only 18 percent. However, ridership peaked in 2012 and has since dropped by 7 percent between 2012 and 2019.

The negative trend for ridership is primarily due to a drop in light rail utilization. Since the peak in 2012, bus ridership has decreased by 2% while light rail has decreased by 12% (a difference of just under one million for bus and 4.2 million for light rail).

Since 2000, TriMet has constructed four new light rail lines: the Red Line (2001), Yellow Line (2004), Green Line (2009), and Orange Line (2015). However, the costly increase in light rail capacity has not corresponded with a similar increase in ridership.

TriMet seems to have learned the wrong lesson from this underperformance. The agency is proposing a $2.6-2.8 billion light rail line from Downtown Portland to the Bridgeport Village mall, nearly $1 billion of which TriMet expects will be paid for by Metro’s Get Moving 2020 transportation measure.

The Southwest Corridor project is the wrong investment for our region. Portland Metro area voters should vote “no” on Metro’s transportation measure this fall.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Metro’s Transportation Package: Progressive Politics Mask Regressive Tax

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

While much of the region is stuck at home under the governor’s “stay home, stay safe” order, the Metro regional government is charging ahead with a $7 billion “T2020” transportation package focused on an expensive and unneeded light rail line. Unlike Metro’s recently passed taxes for housing services, T2020 will impose hundreds of dollars in new taxes on just about every working person in the region.

To fund its massive spending plan, Metro has settled on a new poll-driven tax: a payroll tax anticipated to cost about $250 million a year. Approximately 925,000 people work in Metro’s jurisdiction, so the payroll tax will be about $270 a year per employee. Where will that payroll tax money come from?

In most cases, the payroll tax will fall on the workers. A review of the research on payroll taxes concludes that workers tend to bear nearly all of the burden of payroll tax, even if the tax is levied on their employer: “virtually all applied incidence studies assume that both the employee share and the employer share are borne by the employee (through a fall in the net wage by the full amount of payroll tax).”

Research published earlier this year concludes “the employment effects of payroll taxes are concentrated among low-skilled workers and workers performing routine tasks.” In other words, payroll taxes are regressive and disproportionately burden low-wage workers. There are several ways workers would bear the full burden of the payroll tax.

Employers will reduce wages. They may not directly cut workers’ wages; instead, workers may find that they don’t get the annual pay raise they expected. Employers may cut workers’ hours. Wage reductions can come in the form of making workers pay more for employer provided benefits such as health insurance. Wage reductions can also come in the form of reduced benefits like less vacation pay. There are many ways to push the costs onto employees.

Employers will reduce the number of workers. Hiring plans can be put on hold, and retiring workers may not be replaced. Evidence indicates some firms replace low-skilled workers with higher-skilled workers. Other firms replace low-skilled workers with technology, as seen with restaurants replacing employees with computer ordering kiosks. With the pandemic, some firms have learned there’s no special benefit to doing business in the metro region. Why not move to Bend, Vancouver, or Boise?

Proponents of the payroll tax argue the money will come out of company profits. This is simply not true. Currently, Metro’s payroll tax would be assessed on all employers, including nonprofits and government agencies which have no profits to tax. Portland-area businesses have already had their profits extracted with Oregon’s Corporate Activities Tax, Portland and Multnomah County’s business income taxes, Portland’s Clean Energy Fund tax, and Metro’s new business income tax that goes into effect next year. There are no more profits to tax.

Unlike Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment payroll taxes, workers paying Metro’s payroll tax receive no direct benefit. Most of the tax will be used to build a light rail line from Portland to Bridgeport Village—a light rail line that will worsen road congestion. The project anticipates tearing up Barbur Boulevard and adding congestion to dozens of intersections and highway ramps. Workers will be handing over a chunk of their paycheck for projects that will make their lives worse, not better.

For years, TriMet has been violating its contractual obligations with the Federal Transit Administration regarding operations of the Yellow, Green, and Orange light rail lines. For example, TriMet promised both the Yellow Line and the Green Line would run 8 trains during peak hours in 2020. In contrast, before the pandemic TriMet was running only 4 trains an hour on these lines. TriMet promised the Orange Line would run 6 trains during peak hours in 2020; instead, before COVID-19 it had been running 23% below the promised levels.

Metro’s transportation package is a monument to misplaced priorities, and its reliance on regressive payroll taxes makes it an abomination. It’s time to tell Metro enough is enough.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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The Era of Permanent Prosperity Is Over: It’s Time for a Serious Budget Discussion

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

The 2020 we’re living in is very different from the 2020 we rang in at the beginning of the year.

In January, there were about a dozen Democrats seeking the nomination for President. Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, free college tuition, and universal basic income were seriously debated as potential policies for a Democratic President.

State and local politicians in Oregon were eagerly awaiting the first payments from the billion-dollars-a-year Corporate Activities Tax (CAT), the money earmarked to finally pull Oregon out of its near-last in the nation ratings of K-12 achievement. Cap-and-trade would end climate change. More bike paths, sidewalks, and light rail—always more light rail—would put an end to traffic congestion. A booming stock market meant we’d never have to reform PERS.

Today, schools are shuttered, businesses are crushed by the CAT, and TriMet ridership has evaporated and may never come back. Climate change is the least of our worries, and PERS will likely sink the state.

We began the year with an illusion of permanent prosperity, a game of musical chairs in which the music never ends. There wasn’t a single problem that couldn’t be solved with more spending. Tax increases were sold as equal to the cost of a latte a day. But, there were a lot of lattes.

Little did we know the music would stop so soon. Never mind buying a latte a day, today half the state can’t get a haircut even if they could afford one. Not only is the state’s education system deeply flawed, we learned our unemployment system is completely broken and our health care system is way more fragile than we thought. Rather than ramping up testing, the state simply tells us to “Stay home. Save lives.” The myth of permanent prosperity has given way to a reality of endemic dysfunction.

The latest revenue forecast for the state should be a wakeup call for the governor and the legislature. With anticipated revenues down $2.7 billion from pre-COVID projections, there is no way to avoid big budget cuts. Tax increases must be ruled out—struggling households and businesses need the cash to pay their own bills. We can’t turn the public sector’s budget problems into a private sector bankruptcy crisis. It’s going to take strong political leadership.

Three program areas make up nearly 90% of the state budget: education, human services, and public safety. Employee compensation—salaries, PERS, and other benefits—are a huge portion of these costs. There is no way to balance the budget without cuts in these areas.

PERS must be reformed. The first step should be to move all new employees to a 401(k)-type defined contribution program. This small move won’t solve the impending pension catastrophe; it’s simply a crucial first step toward more meaningful reforms. The most meaningful would be an amendment to the state’s constitution specifying public sector employment agreements are not contracts.

Public school spending must be cut. Construction projects should be shelved, and the money used for planning these projects should be shifted to the classroom. Introducing an education savings account program could save the state money by encouraging students to pursue schooling outside of the public sector, thereby reducing public school enrollment and expenditures. The state’s university system must be streamlined. This means closing smaller, struggling public institutions that have demonstrated a low return on investment for their students.

The legislature should reconsider Oregon’s participation in Medicaid expansion. While the feds pick up 90% of the costs for the expansion population, the cost to the state for the other 10% is eye-popping. In the last budget cycle, the state faced a $1.7 billion budget shortfall. At the time, Governor Kate Brown claimed, “Three-fifths of this deficit is the cost of expanding health care to all Oregonians.” That was when the economy was going gangbusters. Today, Medicaid expansion is a luxury the state cannot afford.

The cynic says, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Nevertheless, a crisis is a time to re-evaluate priorities, and the best measure of politicians’ priorities are the budgets they pass. The era of permanent prosperity has ended, and we have entered an age where rational realism must rule.

: Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute and an adjunct professor at Portland State University, where he teaches courses in urban economics and regulation. He can be reached at eric@cascadepolicy.org.

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Cars, not transit, are the COVID-19 transportation heroes

By Rachel Dawson

When it comes to commuting during COVID-19, private vehicles are coming out well ahead of mass transit.

The Center for Disease Control has stated that cars are a better option than transit during the crisis and has even suggested that businesses offer their employees incentives to “use forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others,” such as driving alone or biking.

TriMet is seeing the effects of this recommendation firsthand. Transit use is estimated to have dropped 68% between February and May of this year as Portlanders chose to either stay at home or opt for other means of transportation.

TriMet is planning for significant revenue losses in coming years due to lost funds from payroll taxes and passenger fares. It may be years before the transit agency sees pre-COVID passenger numbers, which had already been falling since 2012 despite the addition of the Orange line in 2015.

Falling ridership and revenues should come as a signal to officials to halt any further investments to the costly light rail system. Instead, Metro and TriMet continue to push for the $3 billion Southwest Corridor light rail project from Downtown Portland to the Bridgeport Village.

Businesses and workers are already struggling with lost revenues and wages due to the virus. Our region doesn’t need another boondoggle, it needs relief. Metro residents should vote “no” on Metro’s proposed transportation measure this fall.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Metro’s Housing Measure: Bad Policy, Terrible Timing

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Does Metro’s appetite for more money ever end? Last November, Metro raised property taxes by $475 million for parks and nature. Now, with Measure 26-210, Metro wants another $2.5 billion for housing services. In November, Metro will have a third ballot measure, asking for an additional $3.8 billion to expand light rail. That’s nearly $6.8 billion in new taxes for Metro—in one year alone.

COVID-19 has crushed the economy. Our region is in a recession. Businesses are closing, and many of them will never reopen. Even so, Metro’s charging full speed ahead with Measure 26-210. Many small and medium sized business owners will be taxed twice by Metro’s measure. First on their business income, then on their personal income. It’s bad policy coupled with terrible timing.

In its rush to get Measure 26-210 to the ballot, Metro has left many unanswered questions. Who’s going to collect the taxes? How will collections be enforced? Who gets the money? How many people get off the streets and into housing? When will the camps go away? How do we measure success? No one knows.

Metro claims the measure is designed to provide “homeless services.” To most people, this means helping the people sleeping on the streets, in parks, or in cars. But if Measure 26-210 passes, those people will only receive a small fraction of the money.

Close to 40% of the assessed tax will go toward collection costs, administration, and overhead. Setting up two complex tax schemes is going to cost millions of dollars. Then, there are the costs of collecting the taxes. After that, there’s Metro’s overhead. Metro then passes the money to counties, who have their own overhead. The counties then pass the money to nonprofit service providers who also have their own overhead. Every time the money passes, the pot shrinks.

Based on Metro staff calculations, about 45% of the money raised will be spent on rent assistance for households who are facing “severe rent burden,” rather than those who are actually homeless. The measure itself makes clear that tax revenues will be used for “affordable housing and rental assistance,” “eviction prevention,” “landlord tenant education,” “legal services,” and “fair housing advocacy.”

According to Metro staff, only 15% of the tax money is earmarked for support services for unsheltered individuals and families.

Metro’s original mission was land use and transportation planning. Measure 26-210 expands Metro’s mission to include homeless and housing services. At a February work session, Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen declared, “it’s clear to me that Metro does not have the expertise or experience, let alone the capacity, to actually administer, to provide these services.”

Metro is already overwhelmed trying to manage its park and natural areas, the Oregon Zoo, the Convention Center, the Expo Center, and serving as the landlord for Portland area arts organizations. Adding another massive program to Metro’s expanding portfolio is more likely to lead to failure than success.

The region has had a homeless problem for more than 30 years. In 1986, Portland mayor Bud Clark made national news with his homeless plan: reach out to those who want help, be firm with those who don’t, and create an environment in which residents can feel safe and businesses can flourish. It was never fully implemented.

People have had enough of the homeless crisis. They don’t want camps in their neighborhoods, needles in their parks, or more crime. Rather than an expensive program of rental vouchers and “wraparound” services, the region needs more emergency shelters to transition the unsheltered into temporary housing and off streets.

Measure 26-210 doesn’t have a plan for action. It’s just a framework to create a plan. If it passes, the only thing we know for sure is that families and businesses will face a hefty new tax burden, with no clear idea of where the money will be spent or who will be helped. That’s a risk we can’t afford to take.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute and an adjunct professor at Portland State University, where he teaches courses in urban economics and regulation. He can be reached at eric@cascadepolicy.org.

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Ballot Measures with No Accountability Deserve a No Vote

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

We all need to raise questions about our politicians’ priorities and how they spend our money. Even well-meaning policies should be skeptically scrutinized. Especially well-meaning policies. At the heart of every crisis in Oregon, there’s a policy that’s gone sideways. From PERS to CoverOregon to housing affordability and homelessness to massive overruns on Portland Public Schools construction: All are failures because of inadequate scrutiny.

That’s why I’m opposed to both Metro’s housing measure and the renewal of Portland’s 10-cents-a-gallon gas tax. They’re both unfair taxes and are likely to fail to make any measurable improvement in the lives of Oregonians.

Much of the blame for the Portland area’s housing affordability and homelessness can be placed on Metro and other local governments’ decades-long policy to pursue density at any cost. Their push for expensive high-rise housing has displaced housing that was once available for low- and middle-income residents. Their refusal to expand the urban growth boundary has stifled any development of affordable housing on the edges of the region.

Now Metro tells us it will cost $250 million a year to deal with the problems their own policies have caused. Homelessness and affordable housing is a regionwide problem that affects almost everyone. However, Metro crafted their measure so the costs of Measure 26-210 fall on only 10% of households and businesses. That’s not a “we’re all in this together” approach, it’s an “us vs. them” approach—it’s not just unfair, it’s wrong.

Over and over in the endorsement interviews, the measure’s proponents were asked who they’re going to help and how they’ll measure success. Over and over, the proponents deflected from these obvious questions, saying it’s complicated or too hard to put numbers to. Willamette Week, which endorsed the measure, details the lack of accountability:

Here’s what gives us pause: The supporters of Measure 26-210 cannot say with any specificity how they plan to spend this money.

They don’t know how much money would be spent on rent assistance, how much on addiction treatment, how much on mental health care, and how much on employment services.

When pressed, the architects of the measure did not promise a single metric for measuring how many would be served by these tax dollars, or what aid they’d get. They have shielded themselves from failure by never saying what success might look like.

When most people think of the homeless crisis, they think of the people sleeping in doorways, under overpasses, or in their cars. They think of the camps scattered across the city. Even so, neither Metro nor Measure 26-210’s proponents can say how many people will get off the streets or how many camps will clear out. If there are no clear measures of success, then there’s no accountability, and the crisis will never clear up.

Portland’s streets are a mess. By the city’s last estimates, Portland has a road paving backlog of about 3,100 lane miles. That’s enough to pave a two-lane road from Pioneer Square to El Paso, Texas. Over the years, Portland has taken money away from road maintenance to spend on light rail and streetcars. For example, in 2009, Portland committed $30 million to the Milwaukie light rail project. That same year, the city eliminated paving projects on local streets. In 2012, the city suspended major paving projects.

Now Measure 26-209 is looking to raise about $75 million in gas tax revenues over the next four years to fund Portland’s “Fix Our Streets” program.

Except, very few of the streets will actually be repaired. The list of proposed projects shows paving projects for only seven miles of city streets. That’s less than one percent of the current backlog.

In the endorsement interviews, proponents claimed sidewalk repair would be a key areas of gas tax spending. But, again, the list of proposed projects identifies a total of only one mile of sidewalk repairs.

Take a look at the breakdown of spending under Measure 26-209. Many of the projects are designed to increase congestion and make things worse for drivers.

  • $4.5 million for Neighborhood Greenways designed to impose burdens on auto drivers. PBOT defines “Neighborhood Greenways” as “Streets with low traffic volume and speed where bicycles, pedestrians and neighbors are given priority.”
  • $1.5 million for all the “In Motion” plans—Northwest In Motion, North Portland In Motion, Southwest In Motion. All designed to make driving a car more costly. They’re more like “Slow Motion” plans.
  • $2 million for speed bumps.

We have a housing affordability and homeless crisis. We have a traffic congestion crisis. Both tax measures aspire to solve pressing problems. However, both measures are doomed to fail. They both lack the accountability that is necessary for effective government. That’s why Cascade Policy Institute spends so much time and energy staying on top of these issues—to provide skeptical scrutiny and accountability where they’re needed most.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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ODOT Must Move Forward on the Rose Quarter I-5 Bottleneck

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Last week, the Oregon Transportation Commission took a significant step in the process of widening I-5 through the Rose Quarter.

This stretch of freeway has been named one of the worst bottlenecks in the country by the American Transportation Research Institute.

ODOT forecasts the improvements will save more than 2.5 million hours of travel time each year and reduce crashes by up to 50 percent.

Despite these clear benefits, a small but noisy coalition calling themselves “No More Freeways” has tried to stymie the project at every step. Their spokesman, Metro Council candidate Chris Smith, is so upset that he has demanded the legislature strip the transportation commission of its power and hand it over to Metro, the regional government for which he is seeking a seat.

He points to Metro’s so-called success in planning for the SW Corridor light rail project. But, Metro’s light rail project will add to traffic congestion at more than 30 intersections and several freeway ramps. Ridership estimates are already down nearly 15% from earlier projections. And, the project has no guarantee of state, local, or federal funding to cover the costs. This isn’t success, it’s fumbling toward failure.

The Rose Quarter project has a plan, it has the money, and it’ll play a crucial role in relieving congestion at one of the country’s worst bottlenecks. It’s time to move forward on I-5 improvements.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Oregon and Washington Need to Think Bigger on I-5 Bridge Project

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

“It’s time to get this done!” Governor Kate Brown told the crowd at this year’s Oregon Leadership Summit, referring to a replacement for the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River. The statement ended with an exclamation point, but it should have ended with a question mark. Despite the urgency, it’s not clear what the governor means by “this” or when “this” should be completed.

Last month Governor Brown met with Washington Governor Jay Inslee and inked a deal to begin the process of replacing the I-5 bridge connecting the two states. The two states have allocated $44 million to open an office for the I-5 bridge project. Governors Brown and Inslee hope to pick up some of the pieces of the Columbia River Crossing project that fell apart in 2013 after a dozen years of planning, costing taxpayers more than $200 million.

But what is “this” bridge replacement? Will there be more lanes than we have now, or fewer? Will lanes be set aside for buses or light rail? Will bicyclists and pedestrians get their own lane? These are all different ways of asking the same question: Will the replacement have more lanes for cars and trucks?

If the answer is “yes,” there will be more lanes to relieve traffic congestion, then the governor should push to get as much done as possible before her term is over. If the answer is “no,” there won’t be new through-lane capacity, then she should admit the project is an expensive no-growth policy and be upfront with Oregonians about it.

Since the beginning of the original CRC planning in 2001, the region’s population has grown by nearly 30%. Over that time congestion has worsened, commuting times have lengthened, and the bridge has become one of the worst freight bottlenecks in the country, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.

At this point there are no clear plans for how the I-5 bridge replacement will relieve pressure on this key pinch point. The current bridge has three northbound and three southbound lanes. At the time the CRC project imploded, there were no clear plans to add through lanes for cars and trucks—just added lanes for bikes, pedestrians, and public transit.

Opponents of the bridge replacement come from all sides. Environmentalists and active transportation advocates argue that relieving traffic congestion will trigger “induced demand” for travel that will make congestion worse and increase carbon emissions. Commuters and freight haulers complain the set-aside for bikes, pedestrians, and public transit is a wasteful use of lane capacity. Good government folks question spending billions of dollars on a project that would do little or nothing to relieve one of the nation’s worst traffic bottlenecks. Another group of good government folks—mostly from Washington and Clark counties—are clamoring for a third bridge that would allow Westsiders to avoid slogging through US Highway 26 and I-5 through Portland.

Opponents of the original CRC noted that improving traffic flows crossing the Columbia on I-5 would not solve any congestion problems. Instead, they argued, the new bridge would shift the bottleneck further south to the Rose Quarter. Things have changed, and that argument will soon lose its relevance.

In particular, the Oregon Department of Transportation is in the middle of a project to widen I-5 through the Rose Quarter. The addition of lane capacity alone will do much to relieve congestion in this choke point. But, there’s more.

Along with the addition of lane capacity, the legislature directed ODOT to experiment with congestion pricing along the improved stretch—an experiment supported by Governor Brown. The money raised from congestion pricing should be used to improve and expand roads for the people paying the tolls. If the governor doesn’t want to use the funds to expand highway capacity, she owes the people of Oregon a clear vision of where she thinks it should go.

Transportation is a crucial element of economic development. With transportation improvements, trade between regions increases. With easier commutes, employment opportunities open up. Increased trade and improved employment drive economic growth and prosperity. An I-5 replacement that does nothing to improve the flow of goods and people is a waste of money. A replacement that adds capacity and reduces congestion is an investment in shared prosperity for Oregon, Washington, and the West Coast.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute and an adjunct professor at Portland State University, where he teaches courses in urban economics and regulation. He can be reached at eric@cascadepolicy.org.

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T2020 is the transportation measure that Metro wants—not Portland residents

By Rachel Dawson

Is it possible to spend billions of dollars on transportation to make congestion worse? According to Metro, the answer is “yes.”

More than 75% of residents in the Portland tri-county region commute to work by car. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that a similar percentage of voters surveyed by Metro consider traffic congestion a serious problem (73%) and say that improving roads, bridges, and highways to ease traffic should be a regional goal (78%).

Share of respondents who answered each issue is an “extremely” or “very serious” problem.

Next year, Metro wants to raise at least $3 billion in taxes for its transportation package (informally known as “T2020”). That $3 billion is just for what Metro calls its “Tier 1” projects; it still has a long list of “Tier 2” projects that could significantly increase the price. To pay for all that, Metro is considering bonds that would increase property taxes, an additional vehicle registration fee of up to $59, an income tax, or possibly a sales tax. Conservatively, Metro’s transportation package would cost the average household an additional $530 a year in taxes and fees and would be the largest proposed tax increase in Metro’s history.

But, Metro’s T2020 tax package is not the proposal residents in the region want. Close to $2 billion from the plan have been earmarked for transit. Of that amount, nearly $1 billion would go toward a light rail line to Bridgeport Village. Another $50 million would be spent on planning for a MAX light rail tunnel under the Willamette River—planning that most survey respondents did not support. Millions more will be spent devising potential MAX light rail expansions along Powell Blvd to I-205 and 99E from the Orange line’s last stop in Milwaukie to Oregon City.

In contrast, when voters were surveyed regarding the goals for additional transportation funding, more than twice as many people indicated that widening roads and highways to address bottlenecks (31%) was their first choice, compared with only 13% of respondents who preferred providing more frequent and faster bus and MAX service. Widening roads was by far the most popular choice, beating out retrofitting bridges to be earthquake resilient and improving pedestrian safety on streets.

Finally, when asked about specific types of projects that could be funded by a transportation ballot measure, repairing potholes had the highest percentage of support (86%), while upgrading MAX to run underground at a cost of $5 billion dollars was the only potential project mentioned to have support from less than half of respondents (only 44%).

Portland residents were clear about what they want: better roads and less congestion on roadways. They were equally clear about not supporting MAX upgrades.

Instead of crafting a measure that reflects what people want, Metro has chosen to allocate the majority of funds in their 2020 transportation measure to areas that received the lowest amount of support, such as public transportation and biking/walking infrastructure improvements. It is clear these are projects that Metro staff, not voters, want for the region.

Based on respondents’ answers, officials should consider adding auxiliary lanes on freeways and major arterials to address congestion in bottlenecks. For example, a new auxiliary lane on I-5 southbound from OR 217 to I-205 brought congestion levels down from five hours a day to only one; and an auxiliary lane added to 217 between 99W and I-5 S improved congestion from four hours to zero. Adding auxiliary lanes decreases the number of merges that occur at a given section. This in turn would lead to fewer vehicle emissions, as cars idling in congestion produce more emissions than driving in free-flowing traffic. Also, merging onto a freeway is a major cause of accidents, so decreasing the number of merges also improves safety.

Metro staff seem to forget their job is to serve the public. They are attempting to force their own transportation agenda on the region instead of providing the improvements residents say are most important. Portland metro residents should stand up to this bullying by voting “no” on Metro’s transportation bond measure next year. We need improved transportation, not more low-use government pet projects.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article was published by Pamplin Media Group on November 27, 2019.

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Like Other MAX Projects, TriMet’s Green Line Underdelivers at 10th Anniversary

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet has proven time and again that it is unable to live up to past promises. The MAX Green Line, which first opened 10 years ago, is no exception.

The Green Line is fifteen miles long and runs along I-205 from Portland State University to the Clackamas Town Center (CTC). It began as a portion of the North-South light rail alignment, which was canceled in 1988 after failing to secure voter funding. TriMet attempted to scale the alignment down to run from North Portland to the CTC, but the project was again rejected by voters in 1996 and 1998.

The plan for light rail to the CTC was later resurrected in 2001, and planning for the Green Line commenced in concert with the more recently implemented Orange Line to Milwaukie.

The alignment eventually earned federal approval in 2006. Of the total $575.7 million price tag, $478.2 million came from the federal government, $23 million came from the state, and $74.5 million came from local jurisdictions.

Of the local match, $69 million came from the City of Portland, $39.3 million from Clackamas County (the majority of which came from the county’s urban renewal funds), $23 million from the Oregon Department of Transportation, $20.5 million from TriMet, and $6.2 million from land donation and other funds.

The Green Line has failed to live up to these promised expectations:

Ridership is lower than projected. When the Federal Transit Administration completed its 2015 “Before and After Study” on the line, there was an average 24,000 daily weekday boarding rides. This is well below the 30,400 riders that TriMet predicted at entry into preliminary engineering for the line’s opening year. That number has continued to decrease to just over 16,000 average daily riders in August 2019, making up only 34% of the FEIS’s predicted ridership levels for 2025. With five years to go until 2025, it seems unlikely that the Green Line will garner the 30,500 riders needed to hit TriMet’s promised level of 46,500 boarding rides.

The line has lower frequency than promised. Trains arrive at stations every 15 minutes during peak periods and every 35 minutes at other times of the day. TriMet promised trains would arrive every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 15 during other times. TriMet attempted to blame this low level of service on a decline in tax revenues during the recession, but train frequency has not increased since the economy has recovered. Furthermore, TriMet’s total operating and non-operating revenues increased from 2009 to 2018 by 54%, and revenue from payroll and other taxes increased by 71%. The payroll tax rate will continue to go up every year until 2024, although it appears the Green Line’s level of service won’t increase with it.

Instead of the promised passengers, light rail brought increased crime to the CTC area. Clackamas County experienced heightened crime in the corridor from 2009-2012 after the Green Line opened and an increase in graffiti around MAX stops, according to a survey by the Oregon High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program sent to the Clackamas County Sheriff.

Unsurprisingly, the line’s cost was higher than TriMet originally anticipated. The final price tag of $576 million was 14% greater than the anticipated cost in preliminary engineering, a difference of about $70 million.

TriMet is now planning for a 12-mile line from downtown Portland to Tigard. Elected officials from Tualatin, Tigard, Durham, and Washington County should take a sobering look at TriMet’s track record on the Green Line, the Yellow Line, and WES. It shows a consistent pattern of over-promising and under-performing. Given this history, TriMet’s projections for the SW Corridor project should not be trusted.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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TriMet Broke Key Promises About MAX

Published in Portland Tribune

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet’s payroll tax has been increasing since 2005 and will continue to go up every year until 2024. There is no issue with revenue; rather, the issue lies with light rail.

TriMet’s MAX Yellow Line first opened 15 years ago in May 2004. The Yellow Line’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) made a myriad of predictions for the year 2020, which makes now the perfect time to reflect on what officials promised and what taxpayers and transit riders since have received.

The Yellow Line originated in 1988 as a 21-mile project connecting Vancouver, Washington, with downtown Portland and Clackamas Town Center. This plan was scrapped after Clark County voters defeated a proposal to raise $236.5 million in 1995 and Oregon voters turned down a $475 million regional ballot measure in 1998.

Read the full article here

Content credit to Portland Tribune

 

 

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The MAX Yellow Line: A Look Back After 15 Years

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet’s MAX Yellow Line first opened 15 years ago in May 2004. The Yellow Line’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) made a myriad of predictions for the year 2020, which makes now the perfect time to reflect on what officials promised and what taxpayers and transit riders have since received.

Yellow Line History

The Yellow Line originated in 1988 as a 21-mile project connecting Vancouver, Washington with Downtown Portland and Clackamas Town Center. This plan was scrapped after Clark County voters defeated a proposal to raise $236.5 million in 1995 and Oregon voters turned down a $475 million regional ballot measure in 1998.

Not to be deterred by a lack of voter support, officials developed a shorter alternative in 1999 that would run from the Expo Center to Downtown Portland along Interstate Avenue. This alternative cost $350 million, 74% of which came from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

The construction of the new alternative was not put to a public vote. Portland officials instead expanded an urban renewal district to include the Interstate Avenue Corridor. Doing so allowed them to appropriate $30 million in tax increment funds to finance the rail that otherwise would have gone to other tax-collecting jurisdictions, including Multnomah County. The county commissioners opposed expansion of the urban renewal district, but the Portland City Council approved it anyway.

Looking back after fifteen years, we find that key promises made in the FEIS were never kept:

1.  Frequency of Service

What We Were Promised: TriMet promised FTA in their Full-Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) that peak-hour trains would arrive every ten minutes and off-peak trains every 15 minutes. The promised service according to the FEIS was supposed to reach eight trains during peak hours in 2020.

What We Received: Instead of having 10-15-minute headways between trains, the Yellow Line runs every 15 minutes during peak-periods and every 30 minutes during other parts of the day.

2.  Travel Times

What We Were Promised: TriMet predicted travel times to be 24 minutes from Downtown Portland to the Expo Center and 19 minutes from Downtown Portland to N Lombard.[1] Light rail speeds were projected to reach 15.3 miles per hour (mph), and bus speeds were projected to be 13.2 mph in 2005.[2]

What We Received: Actual travel times are slower than predicted. It takes 35 minutes to take light rail from Downtown Portland to the Expo Center and 28 minutes from Downtown Portland to N Lombard, even though light rail has its own exclusive right of way. Actual travel times are 45.8% greater to the Expo Center and 47.4% greater to N Lombard. Actual light rail speeds in the corridor only hit 14.1 mph in 2005 while bus speeds averaged 16.1 mph—significantly faster than predicted.

3.  High ridership

What We Were Promised: The FEIS forecasted ridership in the corridor to dramatically increase with the building of the Yellow Line. By 2020 the line’s ridership was expected to have 18,100 average weekday riders.

What We Received: At no point since the Yellow Line opened has ridership met projected levels. In April 2019 ridership only reached 13,270, 26.7% less than projected. This number will not meet 2020 projected levels based upon the negative trend observed over the past three years. From March 2016 to March 2019 ridership levels decreased by 3.6%.

Lower than promised ridership isn’t unique to the Yellow Line; every TriMet rail forecast has been wrong, and always wrong on the high side.

Light Rail Is Not Superior to Bus Transit

The Yellow Line was expected to provide superior service compared to the no-build bus alternative. This forecast hasn’t panned out. The Yellow Line replaced Line #5, which if it were still operating, would have seven-minute headways between Vancouver and Downtown Portland. C-Tran express service was forecasted to have three-minute headways.[3]

Light rail does not reach any more people or businesses than Line #5 did. In fact, Line #5 had more stops along Interstate Avenue, meaning some riders now have a longer walking commute to the MAX stations.

TriMet bus service from Vancouver to Downtown Portland continues to be an option even after the Yellow Line’s construction. Line #6 was changed to pick up the link between Jantzen Beach and the Yellow Line’s Delta Park stop that Line #5 had previously serviced. It then continues down MLK Boulevard to the Portland City Center.

In Spring 2019, Line #6 saw 665 average weekday on/offs at Jantzen Beach and only 190 total on/offs at Delta Park. This means that the vast majority of Vancouver commuters on Line #6 opt to stay on the bus to Portland instead of transferring to the Yellow Line.

Given the Yellow Line’s history, we can expect the prospective SW Corridor light rail project to increase traffic, have fewer trains than promised, and have lower ridership than predicted. If ridership levels are 26.7% below forecast 15 years into service, why should the SW Corridor ridership estimate of 43,000 daily boardings be taken seriously? The FTA should not offer TriMet additional light rail funding in the future if TriMet is unable to honor its past promises.

TriMet may argue that service levels are below EIS forecasted levels due to a lack of funds. However, TriMet’s revenue increase in recent years tells otherwise. Between 1998 and 2018, passenger fares increased by 116% and tax revenue increased by 64%. TriMet’s payroll tax has been increasing since 2005 and will continue to go up every year until 2024. There is no issue with revenue; rather, the issue lies with light rail.

Moving forward, Metro and TriMet should focus on creating a more reliable bus network that runs on an already built road system. Doing so will benefit riders and taxpayers alike.

__________________________

[1] Federal Transportation Authority, Interstate MAX Before and After Study, 2005, 2-5.

[2] Id, 2-10.

[3] North Corridor Instate MAX Light Rail Project, Final Environmental Impact Statement Executive Summary, October 1999, S-17.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Better Buses May Be the Transit Solution the SW Corridor Needs

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet may have found a better alternative to the proposed SW Corridor light rail project without realizing it.

TriMet is planning a 15-mile-long transit project on Division Street that will run 60-foot buses from downtown Portland to Gresham. The project is estimated to cost $150 million and will include expanded bus stations that offer protection from the weather and signal priority for buses to cut down on travel times by 20%. Each bus is equipped with three doors and can hold 60% more passengers than the typical TriMet bus.

TriMet discarded the idea of continuing buses along the proposed SW Corridor route in favor of light rail despite decreasing transit ridership and increasing light rail costs. Instead of spending nearly $3 billion on a new light rail line, TriMet could mimic the Division Transit Project and run high capacity buses along the route with upgraded stations for just 5% of light rail’s cost. Running buses on an already built system will save hundreds of residents and employees from being displaced. TriMet can also decrease bus emissions by trading diesel for renewable or compressed natural gas for a cleaner ride.

It’s time for TriMet to stop making excuses for light rail and do what is best for both taxpayers and commuters in Portland.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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SW Corridor Project: A Net Negative for the Environment

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Portland politicians claim to be concerned about carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. That’s why so many of them support TriMet’s proposed 12-mile light rail line from Portland to Bridgeport Village near Tigard. They think it will reduce fossil fuel use.

Their assumptions are wrong.

According to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project, energy used during construction of the rail project will equal 5.9 trillion Btu. Much of this will be in the form of fossil fuels needed to power the heavy equipment. Additional energy will be used to manufacture the rail cars, tracks, and overhead wires.

The EIS claims that the negative environmental consequences of construction will be made up by energy saved from operations of the train. However, the operational savings are so small it would take 61 years to mitigate the carbon dioxide emissions of construction.

2035 Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled and Energy Consumption 

Vehicle Type Daily VMT – No build option Million Btu/Day – No build option Daily VMT

With Light Rail

Million Btu/Day

With Light Rail

Passenger vehicle 51,474,286 249,084 51,415,071 248,798
Heavy-duty trucks 3,389,982 73,132 3,389,288 73,117
Transit bus 100,122 3,546 97,501 3,453
Light rail 19,189 1,247 21,200 1,377
TOTAL 54,983,579 327,009 54,923,060 326,745

                                          Source: Draft EIS, SW Corridor Project

Unfortunately, all of the light rail cars will need to be replaced before then. Building new cars will require more energy, resulting in additional CO2 emissions and a longer payback period.

Light rail is not a solution to a perceived climate change problem; it IS a climate change problem. Any further planning for the SW Corridor project should be terminated.

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

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Metro Transportation Funding Task Force Testimony

By John A. Charles, Jr.

At the last meeting, there was a fair amount of discussion about how the proposed bond measure should be structured to reduce GHG emissions from the transportation network.

If that is the direction the committee prefers, then it implies that the bond measure should not fund any road expansion projects. But it also has implications for light rail construction.

According to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the SW Corridor project, the estimated energy consumption during construction of light rail will be 5,886,876 million Btu. The DEIS also asserts that the “one-time energy use required to construct the Light Rail Alternative would be offset by the project’s long-term, beneficial operational impacts.”

To determine if this is true, we can look at the estimated daily energy savings from rail operations. On page 4-129 of the DEIS, the following information is presented:

2035 Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled and Energy Consumption

Vehicle Type Daily VMT – No build option Million Btu/Day – No build option Daily VMT

Light Rail option

Million Btu/Day

Light Rail option

Passenger vehicle 51,474,286 249,084 51,415,071 248,798
Heavy-duty trucks 3,389,982 73,132 3,389,288 73,117
Transit bus 100,122 3,546 97,501 3,453
Light rail 19,189 1,247 21,200 1,377
TOTAL 54,983,579 327,009 54,923,060 326,745

 

Since the energy savings from light rail operation compared with the base case are quite small, it would take 61.09 years to overcome the GHG deficit caused by construction. Also, the useful life of the equipment is likely to be only 40 years, so replacing all the light rail cars and track system would create another energy deficit.

If you asked the Energy Trust of Oregon for a grant to install an energy conservation project with a 61-year payback, they would probably reject your request. Cost-effective energy efficiency projects need to have a payback period that is less than the lifespan of the equipment.

Given the over-riding goal of GHG reduction, I recommend that bond expenditures be limited to bike and pedestrian projects only. Among other things, this would drop the total cost by about 90%, which would greatly increase the chance of voter approval.

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Testimony Before the Joint Subcommittee on Capital Construction HB 5005

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Members of the subcommittee, my name is John Charles and I am President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, a nonpartisan policy research organization.

Most witnesses ask you to spend money. I am here asking you to save money – by deleting the Governor’s request for $27.5 million in lottery-backed bonds for TriMet’s planned light rail line to Bridgeport Village mall near Tualatin.

It’s important to note that HB 5005 is actually the first part of a two-part request for this project. As Ms. Gabriel stated in her April 5 briefing, the Governor will be asking for an additional $125 million of bond revenue in the next biennium, so you should really think of this as an appropriation of $152.5 million.

I encourage you to reject the request because TriMet has a consistent record of over-promising and under-performing on all its capital construction projects, as detailed below. You should stop rewarding that kind of behavior.

Analysis of the SW Corridor Project

TriMet makes two primary claims regarding this light rail line. First, it will attract 43,000 average weekday riders by 2035. Second, it will provide a “reliable, fast travel option” between Bridgeport Village and Portland.

Neither of these claims is plausible.

TriMet Ridership projections are always inflated

TriMet has a 40-year track record of making ridership forecasts. They have been consistently wrong, and always on the high side. As Figure 1 shows, actual ridership has never even reached 60% of projected ridership on a specific rail line. In 2017 total average weekday ridership was less than half the predicted ridership for MAX in 2020. 

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SW Corridor Light Rail Project Joint Ways and Means Committee Testimony John Charles April 2019

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Our Most Pressing Environmental Crisis Is at Home

By Miranda Bonifield

Oregon’s most pressing environmental crisis isn’t in forests or renewable energy. Our human habitats have been endangered by our restrictive so-called “smart growth” policies. Even when we talk about allowing growth, policymakers tend to favor light rail over people’s real needs. Senate Bill 10, which would require cities like Portland to allow development of 75 housing units per acre in public transit corridors, misses the mark in two key areas.

First, the bill’s attempt to legislate the location of new development won’t improve transit ridership. Despite billions in new light rail lines and mixed-use developments, TriMet’s ridership has been declining since 2012.

Second, the bill removes parking minimums from these developments. This could lower the cost of development, but it could also worsen parking and traffic problems in a city that’s been trying and failing to cut down on automobile use for decades. It’s a mistake to allow denser development while assuming that the people who live here will depend on public transit rather than cars.

Taking the shackles off developers so that we can provide housing is a good idea, but lawmakers need to plan around people rather than trying to stack people into their plan. Transit-oriented development hasn’t worked in the last twenty years. It’s not going to start working today.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Metro’s Priorities Don’t Match Yours

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The Portland regional government known as Metro recently published the results of a poll regarding the most important issues to the region. Unsurprisingly, traffic congestion emerged as the number one concern: 96% of all respondents stated that congestion was a serious problem.

These results are consistent with virtually every poll taken over the past 25 years, yet congestion continues to get worse. The reason is that the Metro Council refuses to improve driving conditions and authorize new bridges and highways where they are needed, such as the west side of Portland.

Instead, Metro is determined to spend enormous sums of public money on additional light rail service that most people will never use.

Metro has appointed a 30-person Task Force to draft a ballot measure for 2020 seeking billions of dollars to build a light rail line to Bridgeport Village. This would be a complete waste of money. Transit ridership peaked in 2012. Since then, thousands of customers have left for Uber and Lyft, and they’re not coming back. TriMet is becoming irrelevant.

Sadly, no one at Metro or TriMet cares what taxpayers want—they only care about expanding their bureaucratic empires. Voters should remember this when the bond measure is unveiled later this year.

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

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The Housing Affordability Crisis: The Role of Anti-Sprawl Policy

By Randall Pozdena, Ph.D.

Executive Summary

So-called smart growth policies are advocated as a means of avoiding sprawl.  These policies have at their heart a policy of reducing the availability of land for housing in urban areas. In Oregon and some other states, anti-sprawl policy is implemented by regulations that impose urban growth boundaries (UGBs).  Other regulations impose minimum density policies and others reduce spending on highways and increase spending on transit service—especially light rail—as an alternative.  Advocates of anti-sprawl policies argue that such regulations would allow urban growth to proceed at a lower overall cost.

Many states adopted smart growth policies in the last five decades—enough time for the policies to have demonstrated their purported advantages.  The evidence, at least on the housing front, is that the cost-containment claims have not materialized.  Instead, many urban areas are finding themselves with home prices that make ownership and rental of housing increasingly unaffordable.  Cities and states are thus using or considering additional regulations and subsidy policies to provide their residents with more affordable housing.  There is virtually no discussion of whether anti-sprawl regulatory interventions precipitated the housing crisis, let alone consideration of abandoning the policy.

The purpose of this study is to examine the links between anti-sprawl regulations and the spectacular increases in housing costs and the virtual disappearance of affordable housing in many markets.  Specifically, we measure the extent of site supply restrictions and its impact on housing prices using an economic model of housing markets, data on the economic conditions in housing markets, and trends in development revealed in satellite inventories of US land uses.

We apply the analysis to data from all 50 states and identify those states whose development policies reflect constrained site supply and those that do not.  Because Oregon has among the longest-standing and most aggressive implementations of smart growth land use policy, we pay particular attention to the state, and drill down with analyses at the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) level in Oregon to demonstrate that the state-level findings are corroborated for all of its MSAs.

The primary metrics examined in this study are the rate of housing price appreciation, the degree of rigidity (“inelasticity”) of the supply of new homesites, and the degree to which the housing stock has failed to increase enough to affordably provide additional housing services.  Since we note that the adverse trends in house price inflation and slowing of site supply took greatest effect the last 30 years or so, we scrutinize market behavior subsequent to this period.  Because of the onset of the Great Recession in 2007, however, we estimate our models on this period.  This is because we do not wish to conflate the effects of anti-sprawl policy with the collapse of mortgage markets and home construction that persisted for the next half decade.

After establishing the linkage between constrained site supply and housing prices and affordability, we turn to the evaluation of the various policies that are in place or proposed to redress these problems.  This analysis is performed for the state of Oregon only.  The State’s wide-ranging and aggressive policies and proposals make it broadly representative of the nature, cost, and effectiveness of these policies—both those in place and those recently proposed.  With theory as a guide, and our acquired knowledge of the reactivity of the housing market to various stimuli, we can then opine on the likely effectiveness of these policies.  We also offer our own suggestions.

At the national level, using state and MSA data, we find the following:

  1. Twenty-three of the 50 states studied fail to provide housing units at a volume adequate to keep housing prices and incomes growing at a rate consistent with affordability. On average, these states under-provided housing units by 6.4 percent of their current stock of housing units.
  2. We demonstrate that those states that fail the affordability and supply adequacy test are overwhelmingly those with documented adoption of one or more aggressive anti-sprawl growth regulatory initiatives.
  3. Annual housing price inflation exceeded annual income growth by 14 percent each year during the study period in those states that failed to provide housing in sufficient quantity to keep it affordable. Extrapolating the findings to the nation, the housing stock is smaller by as much as 4.5 million housing units (in 2015 likely) than it should have been to preserve affordability.

Because Oregon has aggressively pursued anti-sprawl policy, it was given special attention in the study.  We found the following:

  1. All eight of Oregon’s MSA housing markets failed the test of affordability and adequacy of supply over the various study periods for which data was available. The estimated total shortfall in supply equals approximately 18 percent of the existing stock—virtually identical to that found for Oregon using state-level data.
  2. We analyzed the current and proposed housing policies of the state of Oregon. At present, proposals include approximately $2.3 billion by the State and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to assist housing access and over $600 million in new affordability-related programs. This study finds that there is little hope that these policies can redress the scale and extent of Oregon’s affordable housing problems and, in some cases, may worsen them by burdening developers of housing with new regulations.

In summary, this study finds anti-sprawl policy to have been implemented in a manner that has pernicious effects on housing affordability.  Specifically, regulatory constraints on site supply have caused an on-going crisis of housing supply and affordability.  In many markets, the development of land for housing is regulated too aggressively.  Additionally, existing and new programs for addressing housing affordability rely on other regulation and spending programs that will not have the designed effect of providing affordable housing.  This study strongly recommends, instead, relaxation of regulations that limit the land area available for housing development.  Any residual concerns about sprawl should be addressed by reforming current highway and transit pricing and finance practices, which are known to be economically inefficient.

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Press Release: Report shows ride-hailing services would be a viable solution for TriMet’s high-cost bus lines

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
John A. Charles, Jr.
503-242-0900
john@cascadepolicy.org

PORTLAND, Ore. – Today Cascade Policy Institute released a report that recommends TriMet pursue a one-year pilot program which replaces one or more high-cost and low-ridership bus lines with ride-hailing services. The program would be supported by a subsidy funded by the costs saved by eliminating the bus line.

The report, Ride-Hailing as a Solution for TriMet’s High Cost Bus Lines: A Proposal for a Pilot Project, was authored by Eric Fruits, Ph.D., an Oregon based economist and Portland State University adjunct professor.

The proposed pilot program would offer riders point to point service from ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft within a ride-hail zone, when and where within the zone would be most convenient to the rider. The two high-cost bus lines suggested by Fruits include lines 97 (Tualatin-Sherwood Rd) and 63 (Washington Park/Arlington Hts). These lines intersect other bus lines and MAX stops, so the proof of the transaction should be used as a 2.5-hour TriMet pass. Doing so would allow passengers to connect to other buses or light rail in the area.

Cascade President and CEO John A. Charles, Jr. stated, “TriMet should embrace the benefits ride-hailing services offer instead of viewing them as a threat. Pairing services like Uber and Lyft with TriMet’s bus services would give riders a convenient and affordable way to commute while saving TriMet considerable money.” Indeed, the cost of subsidizing 75% of a user’s ride-share fare would be 55% lower than the current cost of operating proposed bus lines 97 and 63.

This proposal comes with its own set of challenges in the form of barriers to access. Services such as Uber and Lyft are hailed through an app on an individual’s smartphone and paid for by linking an individual’s bank account to the app. Some TriMet users do not own either a smartphone or a bank account. Jurisdictions which have adopted similar programs have handled this challenge by creating call centers available to riders without smartphones and by giving unbanked riders prepaid gift cards.

Ride-hailing services also contract out wheelchair accessible rides to third-party companies which would allow disabled riders to continue to commute in the corridor.

Similar pilot projects have been implemented in cities across the United States as transit authorities have recognized and taken advantage of the benefits ride-hailing services offer. TriMet should follow suit and engage in a low-stakes, one-year pilot project in order to cut costs that are rising due to declining ridership in certain areas. Doing so will serve riders, TriMet, and taxpayers alike.

The full report, Ride-Hailing as a Solution for TriMet’s High Cost Bus Lines: A Proposal for a Pilot Project, can be downloaded here.

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s free-market public policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.

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High Costs and Low Ridership Are Nothing New for Southwest Corridor Project

By Rachel Dawson

Decreasing ridership paired with increasing costs makes for a bad business decision for TriMet’s proposed Southwest Corridor plan. The TriMet proposal would add an additional light rail line stretching from downtown Portland to Bridgeport Village in Tigard. The project’s draft environmental impact statement predicts what TriMet thinks will happen, without taking into consideration what has occurred with past projects.

The plan estimates that rides on every current light rail line will more than double, and the total weekday rides will nearly triple by the year 2035. However, in recent years light rail rides have been decreasing or plateauing across the board.

But overpredicting ridership isn’t anything new: Every single past TriMet light rail plan overestimated the number of rides it would have.

Additionally, the capital costs of light rail projects historically have been underestimated, meaning projects have proven to be more expensive than what TriMet had predicted. This has already become evident with the Southwest Corridor plan: In 2016 the capital costs were predicted to be $1.8 billion dollars, which increased to $2.8 billion in 2018.

Increasing prices plus decreasing ridership sounds more like a recipe for economic disaster than a successful project. You have the opportunity to voice your opinion at the southwest corridor public hearing on Thursday, July 19 at the Tigard City Hall.

Rachel Dawson is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Metro’s November Bond Measure Would Make All Housing More Costly

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Metro recently decided to refer a $652.8 million bond measure to the November ballot. If approved by voters, it would authorize Metro to borrow money either to purchase existing housing units or to subsidize the construction of new ones. The loans would be paid off by higher taxes on every property owner in the region for the next 30 years.

Unfortunately, of all the things Metro could do to reduce the price of housing, borrowing money is likely to be the least effective.

For one thing, new construction is expensive. Many public housing projects in recent years have cost more than $250,000 per unit. If Metro is lucky, the bond measure might pay for a total of 2,400-3,000 new apartments. Since the Portland region produces over 10,000 units of new housing every year, Metro’s intervention would not even be noticed.

In addition, borrowing $652.8 million and paying it back with interest (for a total of over $1 billion in debt service) would make every current home and apartment more expensive. We can’t tax ourselves to prosperity.

The basic weakness in the Metro bond measure is that it misdiagnoses the problem. When the Metro Council adopted its long-range growth management plan in 1995, it made a conscious decision to limit the physical size of the urbanized metropolitan region. That limit is imposed through Metro’s control of the Urban Growth Boundary. The planning goal was to “grow up, not out,” in order to prevent rural development and create the population density needed for light rail.

While that vision may sound appealing to some, there is a tradeoff: It limits the supply of new housing. Metro has always known this. As the agency’s economists wrote in 1994, “…the data suggest a public welfare tradeoff for increased density, more transit use, and reduced vehicle miles traveled. The downside of pursuing such objectives appears to be higher housing prices and reduced housing output.”

Metro controls the regional land supply and doesn’t want lots of cheap land for housing. Metro actually needs land to be scarce and expensive, because that’s the only way to justify its vision of high-density housing projects and light rail transit. Inevitably, this will be self-defeating; higher home prices will push more and more people out of Portland, where they will become even more auto-dependent.

In addition to its control of the regional land supply, Metro also imposes a tax of 0.12 percent on all new housing construction, with the exception of projects where the value of land improvements is less than $100,000. The tax revenues are used to pay for planning required on lands that might be used for housing in the future. The City of Portland also imposes its own tax for a similar purpose, at a much higher rate. It should be obvious that taxing new construction makes the housing problem worse.

Metro’s November Bond Measure Would Make All Housing More Costly The best thing Metro could do would be to systematically inventory every artificial barrier to housing production, such as zoning ordinances, planning requirements, building codes, system development charges, and hidden taxes—and figure out a way to reduce or eliminate them.

In other sectors of the economy where supply is unregulated, the market does a wonderful job of providing us with the products we want at reasonable prices. The same thing will happen in housing, if we allow it.

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 appeared in The Portland Tribune on July 3, 2018.

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TriMet Shows That Public Pension Reform Is Possible

By Scott Shepard and John A. Charles, Jr.

The Oregon Legislature is currently meeting, and the conventional wisdom is that reform of Oregon’s overly generous Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) is impossible. According to Governor Kate Brown, we signed contracts with public employee unions, a deal is a deal, and we should just quietly accept our fate that the massive cost of PERS will lead to layoffs and service cuts at schools and other service providers.

There is another way.

The Portland regional transit district, TriMet, is not part of PERS and has been slowly reforming its pension program since 2002. As a result, 100% of all new employees are now in 401(k)-style pensions that have no long-term liabilities for employers. These are referred to as “defined-contribution” (DC) pensions in which monthly payments are made by management into personal accounts owned by employees. Once those payments are made, the employer has no further financial obligations. The eventual pension payouts will be a function of the market performance of whatever investments are chosen by individual employees.

This stands in contrast to “defined benefit” (DB) programs like PERS in which employees are promised various levels of retirement payments calculated through arcane formulas that leave management mostly clueless about the level of funding obligation they’ve agreed to. In many cases, those liabilities turn out to be much larger than expected.

The advantages for taxpayers of moving public employees into DC pensions is now evident in the actuarial valuations done for TriMet. According to the most recent valuation, projected annual benefit payments for TriMet DB pensions will peak in 2034 at $74.6 million, and then steadily decline to $6 million in 2072. They will hit zero by the turn of the century.

This was not something that TriMet did casually. Management was forced into it because of decisions made a decade earlier that caused long-term retiree obligations to explode. TriMet Board members are appointed by the governor. In the early 1990s, Governor Barbara Roberts and TriMet General Manager Tom Walsh wanted public approval of a massive expansion of TriMet’s light rail empire and the tax funding to pay for it. They feared that controversy about a union contract could endanger public support.

In their efforts to avoid strife, in 1994 they granted expensive concessions to the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 (“the ATU”) on behalf of its represented employees. Loren L. Wyss, the long-serving president of TriMet, objected and his battle with Walsh became public. In back-channel communications with Gov. Roberts, Walsh made it clear that either he or Wyss needed to go. In August 1994, Wyss met with Gov. Roberts, where he submitted his resignation.

As later explained in The Oregonian,

“…the contract just approved by Tri-Met union employees will protect all its members from additional contributions to their pensions for 10 years. It will also guarantee 3 percent minimum wage increases in the future…every single dollar of health, welfare, dental and vision plans will be paid for by the public employer; [and] the retirement age will decline to 58 within 10 years….”

The die was set for cost escalation. In the decade from 1994 to 2004, salaries and wages increased 72 percent; annual pension costs went up 160 percent; and the cost of health care benefits rose 116 percent. These increases plus stagnant revenues in the latter half of the period resulted in a tripling of unfunded pension liabilities, from $38 million in 1993 to $112.4 million in 2002.

Fred Hansen followed Tom Walsh as General Manger; and he moved new, non-union hires into DC pensions after 2002. This was a first step towards fiscal sanity. Resistance from the ATU kept TriMet from moving its new unionized workers to DC plans for another decade, by which time a citizens’ committee of Portlanders had issued a report declaring TriMet “on the brink” of disaster.

During a protracted negotiation with the union in 2012, TriMet CFO Beth deHamel testified at a binding arbitration hearing,

“TriMet’s union defined benefit plan would be placed on critical status and under federal oversight if it were a private pension plan subject to ERISA.” She also stated that unless something was done to shore up the plan, “TriMet could be forced to default on its pension obligations or its other financial obligations in the future.”

Union leadership eventually agreed to move all new members to DC pensions by 2013, while protecting existing members from reform. As a result of this delay, the union workers’ DB fund remained only 59 percent funded in 2013.

Nevertheless, the trends were now moving in the right direction. The number of active employees still accruing DB pension benefits fell from 1,580 to 1,460 from 2016 to 2017 alone. In 2017 the unionized workers’ DB account reached nearly 80 percent funding, with unfunded liability falling by nearly $50 million in a single year.

Neil McFarlane was TriMet General Manager during that era. He commented recently, “The shift [to DC pensions] has been a success. TriMet is paying more than the required annual contribution every year right now” because the system is closed. “We will be fully funded within the next few years: five to ten for the union plan, fewer for the non-union.”

The DC plan to which TriMet moved new workers has been recognized as one of the best in the country. It features low costs, high returns, and a guaranteed employer contribution that is paid irrespective of employee matching contributions. As a DC plan it does not create open-ended, unpredictable public liabilities to be paid by generations as yet unborn.

TriMet has not fully banished the ghosts of unsustainable employee-benefit promises past. It still faces a massive and escalating unfunded liability driven by health care costs, known in accounting jargon as “other post-employment benefits,” or OPEB. The health care benefits that TriMet granted away in the 1994 contract debacle have been described as “universal health care into the afterlife.”

The description is only a minor exaggeration, as the plan offered TriMet’s unionized employees health care without premiums and with mere $5 co-pays, and benefits that ran not only throughout retirement, but to the employees’ spouses and dependents for fully 16 years after the employees’ deaths. Total unfunded liability for OPEBs reached an astonishing $769 million dollars in 2016.

Compare: State Paralysis on PERS 

TriMet’s pension reform efforts offer a valuable guide to the Oregon legislature on how to contain and reverse the spiraling PERS disaster. The unfunded liabilities for PERS have grown from $16 billion to more than $25 billion in less than ten years, even with the far-too-optimistic 7.2 percent assumed-savings rate (i.e., discount rate) in place. Were the rate adjusted down to its actuarially appropriate level, PERS’ unfunded liability would explode to $50 billion or more at a stroke.

Even at the current recognized rate, funding status has fallen below 70 percent, even while mandatory payments to PERS by government employers have passed 26 percent of payroll.

Municipalities are laying off workers, depleting public services, and raising fees in order to fund the present level of recognized PERS unfunded liabilities. Some reduction in pension benefits will have to happen, one way or another. All parties will benefit from an orderly effort to reform benefits while there is still time. 

The Way Forward

The state should follow the tracks laid by TriMet by moving its employees from DB to DC plans as soon as possible. As TriMet has demonstrated, this move will begin to stanch the fiscal wounds that have been inflicted by a generation of recklessly overgenerous pension benefit promises.

Unfortunately for everyone, PERS reform has been hamstrung for more than 20 years by a wayward state Supreme Court, which has thwarted previous attempts at thoughtful change with erroneous interpretations of the federal Contract Clause. The legislature will be obliged to make bigger changes than would have been required years ago. It will have to move all current workers, whenever they were hired, to DC plans for all work performed after the date of the effective legislation.

While this reform will be significant, it also will be deeply equitable. Right now, older workers are receiving higher benefits for each hour worked than ever will be available to younger workers. This isn’t fair, and it may violate civil rights laws: Younger workers are more diverse than their older peers, which means that benefit reductions that affect only new workers have a disparate impact on women and minorities.

The reform will also pass constitutional muster. As the Oregon Supreme Court finally recognized in its Moro decision, correcting its long-held error, the legislature may change any benefits for work not yet performed, even for current employees.

The Oregon Legislature can and must follow TriMet’s example. The sooner this is done, the less drastic any later steps will be. According to TriMet General Manager McFarlane, solving a pension crisis “doesn’t get any easier with passing time.”

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market research center. Scott Shepard is a lawyer and was a visiting law professor at Willamette University during 2016. This essay is a summary of a case study of TriMet’s pension reform written by Mr. Shepard for Cascade Policy Institute. The full report is available here. This essay was originally published in the February 2018 edition of the newsletter “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change,” a project of Third Century Solutions.

Click here for the full report, Following in TriMet’s Tracks: Defined-Contribution Plans a Necessary First Step to Oregon’s Fiscal Health:

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TriMet Needs a Broader Definition of Diversity

By John A. Charles, Jr.

TriMet has been recruiting a new General Manager for the past six months. At its January meeting, the Board announced the name of the leading contender and offered the public a chance to ask questions.

Before the questioning began, however, an executive search firm hired by TriMet summarized the recruiting process. Celia Kupersmith of KL2 Connects said that more than three dozen applications had been vetted, and a significant number of them were women or racial minorities. A black woman was one of three finalists.

However, the top applicant was Doug Kelsey, a white male currently employed by TriMet.

Many activists in the audience criticized the process. They complained that TriMet had proceeded too quickly and with not enough transparency. In particular, they were upset that virtually all applicants requested privacy in order to protect the jobs they already had. Soon thereafter, the TriMet Board announced that it would delay a final hiring decision while it reassessed its process.

Many of TriMet’s critics have a naïve view of the business world, and it shows in the self-contradictory nature of their demands. They want a deep pool of talent, rich with ethnic and gender diversity, but they also want a very public process. The two goals are mutually exclusive. Complete transparency means most qualified candidates will not apply.

They also have a narrow concept of “diversity.” Race and gender are just two attributes the Board should consider. What about intellectual diversity?

TriMet has been working off the same philosophical playbook for over 35 years. The focus has always been two-fold: (1) building a network of low-speed, low-capacity light rail lines; and (2) maintaining “labor peace” by agreeing to wage agreements that include expensive retiree benefits. That vision is looking very stale these days.

TriMet’s ridership is in a steady decline. It peaked in fiscal year 2012 and ridership has dropped in each of the last three years. Only 2.4% of total travel in the Portland region takes place on transit, making it irrelevant or even a nuisance to most taxpayers.

Light rail has lower ridership today than before the Orange line to Milwaukie was built. During FY 2017, boarding rides per-hour on MAX reached the lowest level since light rail opened in 1986.

TriMet’s financial position would be unsustainable were it not for massive and growing subsidies. During the past two decades, TriMet has promised so much to employees in the form of pensions and post-employment health care benefits that the agency now has unfunded liabilities of nearly $1 billion.

At the TriMet hearing in January, I asked Mr. Kelsey whether he saw any possibility that TriMet’s next light rail project—a multi-billion line to Bridgeport Village—might be canceled under his leadership, given the problems stated above. He responded that light rail was still a very important part of TriMet’s planning and he was not about to abandon it.

That answer concerned me because TriMet seems wedded to an outdated business model. Both in Portland and elsewhere, ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft are steadily eroding the market share of both regulated taxis and transit operators. This trend will only accelerate as autonomous vehicles become a reality.

Over the next 20 years, shared driverless cars likely will revolutionize the transit industry. Capital-intensive light rail and streetcar systems will face rising costs with declining ridership, creating a fiscal death spiral.

TriMet and its executive search consultants have done a commendable job of recruiting a diverse field of CEO candidates when measured by race and gender. What is lacking is a broader concept of “diversity” to include new ways of thinking about transit.

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.

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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 was originally published by the Pamplin Media Group and appeared in the Wilsonville Spokesman and The Portland Tribune.

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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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TriMet’s Edifice Complex

Recently TriMet announced that after two years of planning for an expensive new “bus rapid transit” line from Gresham to Portland, the new service would actually take 8-11 minutes longer than current buses.

Over in Southwest Portland, TriMet is planning a $2 billion light rail line to Bridgeport Village near Tualatin, a suburban shopping mall.

Agency planners are fascinated with shiny new objects, but most riders don’t benefit. For example, between 2000 and 2015, TriMet opened five new rail lines, but the total vehicle-miles of daily transit service actually dropped by 5%.

It’s time to admit that TriMet’s basic business model is becoming obsolete. The agency is a sluggish monopoly that takes years to bring new service to market, while customers live in a smartphone world where they have millions of choices and same-day delivery.

In particular, the coming era of driverless vehicles will create entirely new businesses that will free riders from the tyranny of fixed-route transit service. Legacy systems such as TriMet will be stuck with a vast network of aging infrastructure that will be too expensive to maintain.

We don’t need another light rail line to Bridgeport, or a bus rapid transit line to Gresham. What we need is new vision of mobility in Portland.

(revised 4/6/16)

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Broken Promises: The Real Trends in TriMet’s Transit Performance (2004-2015)

TriMet’s ridership is declining and its level of fixed-route service is lower today than it was in 2004. According to mainstream transit advocates, the solution is to spend more public money.

The problem is we’ve already tried that, and it’s not working. TriMet has been imposing a regional payroll tax on most employers since 1972. The rate was initially 0.30%, then grew to 0.60% by 1979. During the 2003 legislative session, TriMet sought approval to raise it by another tenth of a percent. According to TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen, “TriMet’s proposed payroll tax increase will be used exclusively to provide new or enhanced transit service. This will include assisting in the operation of Washington County Commuter Rail, Clackamas County light rail, Lake Oswego Streetcar, increasing Frequent Service routes, and enhanced local service connections to these lines.”

The rate increase was approved, and was phased in over a 10-year period, beginning January 2005.

During the 2009 legislative session, TriMet lobbied for another rate increase, phased in over 10 years. The new rate of 0.7337% went into effect on January 1, 2016.

Now that we have more than a decade of experience with payroll tax rate increases, it is informative to compare revenue trends with service trends. The results show that there is no correlation between revenue and service.

 

 

TriMet Financial Resource Trends for Operations

2004-2015

 (000s) 

2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 2015 % change
Passenger fares $55,665 $68,464 $80,818 $93,729 $102,240 $114,618 $116,734 +110%
Tax revenue $155,705 $192,450 $215,133 $208,933 $248,384 $275,357 $292,077 +88%
Total operations $290,513 $342,274 $404,481 $433,609 $488,360 $522,155 $493,572* +70%

 

*Grant revenue in 2015 dropped by $41,876 due to timing of receipt; those funds will appear in TriMet’s 2016 income statement.

 

VIEW TABLE IN PDF HERE

 

In fact, there is negative correlation – as TriMet’s revenue went up over the course of a decade, actual service went down. 

 

Annual Fixed Route Service and Ridership Trends for TriMet

2004-2015 

2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 2015 % change
 
Hours of service 1,698,492 1,653,180 1,712,724 1,682,180 1,561,242 1,608,090 1,676,826 -1.3%
Miles of service 27,548,927 26,830,124 26,448,873 25,781,480 23,625,960 23,763,420 24,248,910 -12%
Originating rides 71,284,800 74,947,200 77,582,400 77,769,119 80,042,810 75,779,560 77,260,430 +8.4

 

Source: TriMet, http://www.trimet.org/pdfs/publications/trimetridership.pdf 

VIEW TABLE IN PDF HERE

 

There is a slight correlation between revenue and transit use, as total originating rides went up 8% while operating revenue went up 70%. However, ridership peaked in 2012 and has dropped by 3.5% since then.

It is also interesting to compare revenue trends with TriMet’s share of commute trips. The Portland Auditor has conducted an annual “community survey” since 1997, and those surveys measure travel choices by Portland residents. The results show that TriMet’s market share of commuting has remained exactly the same since 1997, despite (or because of) massive expenditures on rail transit during that period. 

 

Travel Mode Share for Weekday Commuting

Portland citywide, 1997-2015 

Mode 1997 2000 2004 2008 2010 2012 2013 2014 2015
                   
SOV 71% 69% 72% 65% 62% 61% 64% 63% 60%
Carpool 9% 9% 8% 8% 7% 6% 6% 6% 5%
Transit 12% 14% 13% 15% 12% 12% 10% 11% 12%
Bike 3% 3% 4% 8% 7% 7% 7% 8% 9%
Walk 5% 5% 3% 4% 6% 7% 7% 8% 8%
Other n/a n/a n/a n/a 7% 6% 6% 6% 7%

VIEW TABLE IN PDF HERE

Notwithstanding the obvious drop in service, TriMet claims that the legislative promise was met because new rail lines were opened. But to the 66% of TriMet riders who saw their bus service drop by 12%, shiny new rail lines were of little consolation.

The chief enablers of TriMet’s tax addiction have been Portland-area business associations, including Portland Business Alliance, Westside Economic Alliance, Oregon Business Association, and the Central Eastside Industrial Council. Those groups repeatedly embraced higher taxes for their members on the premise that more transit revenue equaled more transit service. That premise is clearly false.

When the TriMet Board meets to increase the tax rate again in September, Portland business groups should reconsider their automatic support. Unless and until TriMet service levels reach those of 2004, there is no reason to continue “throwing money” at an underperforming monopoly.


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

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Failed Promises: Why the Legislature Should Reject TriMet’s Request for New Spending Authority

TriMet is currently seeking new spending authority in SB 1510 to help finance regional “multi-modal” transportation projects. Legislators should deny this request based on previous experience with TriMet commitments.

To refresh the memory: during the 2003 session, TriMet sought approval to increase the payroll tax rate by one-tenth of a percent. According to TriMet’s then-General Manager,

“TriMet’s proposed payroll tax increase will be used exclusively to provide new or enhanced transit service. This will include assisting in the operation of Washington County Commuter Rail, Clackamas County light rail, Lake Oswego Streetcar, a substantial increase in Frequent Service routes, and enhanced local connections to these lines.”[1]

The rate increase was approved, and was phased in over a 10-year period.

During the 2009 legislative session, TriMet sought an additional rate increase. The legislature again approved the request. The TriMet board approved the first of 10 planned rate increases last September, and the new rate of 0.7337% went into effect on January 1, 2016.

Let’s look at the results. After a decade of tax increases, it’s clear that there is no correlation between increased TriMet revenue and actual levels of service: 

TriMet Financial Resource Trends for Operations, 2004-2015

 (000s)

CLICK HERE TO VIEW TABLE IN PDF 

2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 2015 % change
Passenger fares $55,665 $68,464 $80,818 $93,729 $102,240 $114,618 $116,734 +110%
Tax revenue $155,705 $192,450 $215,133 $208,933 $248,384 $275,357 $292,077 +88%
Total operations $290,513 $342,274 $404,481 $433,609 $488,360 $522,155 $493,572 +70%

 

In fact, there is negative correlation – as TriMet’s revenue went up over the course of a decade, actual service went down: 

Annual Fixed Route Service and Ridership Trends for TriMet

2004-2015

CLICK HERE TO VIEW TABLE IN PDF 

2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 2015 % change
 
Hours of service 1,698,492 1,653,180 1,712,724 1,682,180 1,561,242 1,608,090 1,676,826 -1.3%
Miles of service 27,548,927 26,830,124 26,448,873 25,781,480 23,625,960 23,763,420 24,248,910 -12%
Originating rides 71,284,800 74,947,200 77,582,400 77,769,119 80,042,810 75,779,560 77,260,430 +8.4%

 Note: The term “originating rides” excludes transfers.

Source: TriMet, http://www.trimet.org/pdfs/publications/trimetridership.pdf 

There is a slight correlation between revenue and transit use, as total originating rides went up 8% while operating revenue went up 70%. However, ridership peaked in 2012 and has dropped by 3.5% since then.

TriMet claims that the 2003 promise of “enhanced service” was met because many new rail lines were built. But to the 66% of TriMet riders who travel by bus and saw their service drop by 12%, shiny new rail lines were of little consolation.

TriMet now wants to expand its reach through SB 1510 so as to spend new funds for “multi-modal” projects. We suggest a simple response: unless and until TriMet transit service returns to at least 2004 levels, no additional spending authority should be granted.

[1] Fred Hansen, testimony before the Senate Revenue Committee on SB 549, March 11, 2003, p. 3.


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

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What Can Be Learned from Portland’s Smart Growth Experience?

The annual “New Partners for Smart Growth” conference opens in Portland on Thursday, February 11. “Smart Growth” refers to an amorphous planning theory favoring (or requiring) high urban densities, mixed-use development, and non-auto travel.

Given Portland’s status as the Mecca for this philosophy, it’s likely that the conference will be a love fest of planners, activists, and consultants celebrating the “Portland story.” Unfortunately, the reality of Smart Growth is a lot less glamorous than the PowerPoint slides.

For example, Portland has been a leader in light rail construction for over 30 years, but it hasn’t changed how people travel. According to the Portland City Auditor, in 1997 – when Portland had only one light rail line terminating in Gresham – 12% of Portland commuters took transit.

In 2015, transit use was still only 12% of commuter travel, despite (or because of) a multi-billion rail construction campaign that added a streetcar loop, a new commuter rail line, and five new light rail lines. During that era bus service was reduced by 14%, and buses still account for two-thirds of daily riders.

On the land-use front, planners have succeeded in their goal of densifying the region; but there was collateral damage. Due to density regulations, buildable land is now scarce, driving up the cost of housing. This is incentivizing many property owners to tear down nice homes and replace them with out-of-scale apartment buildings – many with no off-street parking. Some Portland Progressives who supported this planning agenda now wonder why their formerly pleasant neighborhoods are flooded with automobiles.

In the suburbs, most new projects simply have no backyards. It’s hard to remember now, but in 1995, the average lot size for a new home in Washington County was 15,000 square feet. This provided plenty of room for kids.

Those days are over. In the new “South Hillsboro” development, which will be built out over the next decade, most dwellings will be attached units on tiny lots. The larger parcels – averaging only 7,000 square feet – are being marketed as lots for “executive housing.”

Nice backyards that were once common are now only available to the rich, due to the artificial scarcity of land that Smart Growth calls for.

The Portland conference will feature trips to “transit-oriented developments” (TODs) like Orenco Station in Hillsboro. Orenco features a housing project with passive solar design along with urban-scale density near light rail, but both elements required large public subsidies. It would be difficult to replicate those projects elsewhere.

Perhaps the most disappointing fact about regional planning in Portland is that very little effort is being made to learn from the experience. Since 2008, at least four audit reports by the Metro Auditor have criticized agency planners for this failure.

In the 2010 report, the Auditor found that “Metro’s processes to plan transportation projects in the region were linear when they should have been circular. After a plan was adopted, the update process began anew with little or no reflection about the effectiveness of the previous plan or the results of the performance measures they contained.”

It’s clear that this was not an accident; it was by design. As the Auditor noted, “systems to collect data and measure progress towards these outcomes were not in place.”

No measurement means no accountability. That’s not a smart way to plan a region.


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

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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.

 

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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.”

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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.

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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
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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.

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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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What They Say vs. What They Do: How PCC Students Really Get to School

By Anna Mae Kersey, Emma Newman, and Thomas Tullis

TriMet is considering the construction of a light rail line from Portland State University to Tualatin, at a cost of roughly $2 billion.

One routing option still on the table is to run the train down Barbur Boulevard, then build a tunnel to the Sylvania campus of Portland Community College. The tunnel would add $244 million in capital cost. It also would require moving several dozen homes and take at least two years to build.

To put this in perspective, for the price tag of the proposed tunnel, one could purchase approximately 23,094 Teslas, build 41 aerial trams like the one at OHSU, buy two brand-new cars per PCC-Sylvania student, or pay for 117,200,000 Uber rides from the PCC Sylvania campus to downtown Portland.

Such a hefty sum might be justified if there were a need for “high-capacity” transit at PCC-Sylvania, but such a need does not exist.

According to survey data released by PCC, 58 percent of Sylvania students drive to class, while 32 percent take shuttles or buses. However, travel surveys are notoriously unreliable, in large part because people tend to underreport their reliance on auto travel.

To correct for this, Cascade Policy Institute collected field data by going to PCC-Sylvania and counting every trip to and from the campus, at various times and on various days. The field observations tell a different story. Roughly 84 percent of students drove and only 15 percent took TriMet or the PCC shuttles during our observations, which covered nearly 7,000 trips.

During final exams week, when students really had to be in class, the split was even more skewed: 89% traveled via private automobile.

The difference between what students said in a survey and how they actually traveled is significant because it shows that college students are much less willing to forego cars and take transit than is commonly thought. For TriMet, this means the proposed light rail line likely will not have the increase in ridership that planners assume.

We can also learn from experience elsewhere, because one other PCC campus has been directly served by light rail for the past five years. The PCC Willow Creek campus is a single building located directly next to a light rail station on the west side. This is unlike the spread-out PCC Sylvania campus, where students would still have to walk a significant distance from the proposed light rail station to get to their classes.

Despite the convenience of light rail stopping right at the front door, at Willow Creek the field observations showed that 80 percent of students drove, 14 percent took light rail, and 5 percent took the bus. This is only a slight decrease in automobile use compared with Sylvania. Is it really worth spending $244 million to service a suburban college campus with light rail for this tiny difference?

Driving is the preferred method of travel for the majority of college commuters because it offers versatility that caters to their complicated schedules both in and out of the classroom. It seems that the complexities of student lives and lack of demand for transit are being overlooked in this decision.

PCC-Sylvania is already served by a rich mixture of college shuttles and TriMet buses. Those options are currently underutilized. Thus, there is no reason to spend $244 million and disrupt the serenity of this neighborhood to build a light rail tunnel.

Anna Mae Kersey, Emma Newman, and Thomas Tullis are research associates at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market think tank.

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TriMet’s Great Disappearing Act

During the 2003 session of the Oregon State Legislature, TriMet sought an increase in the regional payroll tax rate. In public testimony, TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen said, “TriMet’s proposed payroll tax increase will be used exclusively to provide new or enhanced transit service.”

The legislature approved TriMet’s request, and the payroll tax rate went up every January for ten straight years. By the end of 2014, TriMet had received $34.4 million in new payroll tax revenues attributable to rate increases. Yet during that same decade, the miles of transit service offered to patrons actually dropped by 14%, while the hours of service declined by 5%.

Like a magic show, TriMet tried to distract the audience by pointing to grand celebrations for the opening of the WES commuter rail line and the Green MAX line, both of which opened in 2009. But overall service levels were reduced five times in six years, the opposite of what was promised in 2003.

TriMet’s proposed budget for 2015-16 was released last week. It calls for “expanding service through the opening of the Portland-Milwaukie light rail line.” Once again, all the attention will be on new trains, while total service levels will still be far below the levels we had in 2003.

State legislators should be asking TriMet where all the money went. But sadly, no one in Salem cares about results.

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Scare Tactics Not Working in Road Tax Debates

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) recently issued a report describing the deteriorating condition of Oregon highways. The authors estimate that the cumulative cost to the state economy from poor roads will be $94 billion by 2035.

At the same time, the Portland City Council is considering a new local income tax to pay for road maintenance and safety, citing a lack of adequate funding.

While road maintenance is indeed a problem throughout Oregon, the public is unlikely to approve new road taxes. The primary reason is a lack of trust. During the past 15 years, Portland has squandered vast amounts of money on fads like streetcars, light rail, bioswales, and “road diets.” At the state level, ODOT spent nearly two decades and $180 million on a silly bridge-with-light-rail proposal to Vancouver, Washington that is now dead.

These projects were mostly aimed at getting people “out of their cars.” Yet the reality is, regardless of how people travel, more than 99% of all trips take place on a road. So road maintenance needs to be the top priority with existing transportation dollars.

New methods to pay for transportation infrastructure will eventually be needed, but politicians need to re-earn the public’s trust before that can happen.

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Scare Tactics Not Working in Road Tax Debates

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) recently issued a report describing the deteriorating condition of Oregon highways. The authors estimate that the cumulative cost to the state economy from poor roads will be $94 billion by 2035.

At the same time, the Portland City Council is considering a new local income tax to pay for road maintenance and safety, citing a lack of adequate funding.

While road maintenance is indeed a problem throughout Oregon, the public is unlikely to approve new road taxes. The primary reason is a lack of trust. During the past 15 years, Portland has squandered vast amounts of money on fads like streetcars, light rail, bioswales, and “road diets.” At the state level, ODOT spent nearly two decades and $180 million on a silly bridge-with-light-rail proposal to Vancouver, Washington that is now dead.

These projects were mostly aimed at getting people “out of their cars.” Yet the reality is, regardless of how people travel, more than 99% of all trips take place on a road. So road maintenance needs to be the top priority with existing transportation dollars.

New methods to pay for transportation infrastructure will eventually be needed, but politicians need to re-earn the public’s trust before that can happen.

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Should Portland Residents Pay Another Fee to Cover Basic Road Maintenance?

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales is proposing a new transportation tax for 2015. He claims this is needed to offset a decline in revenue.

However, the facts show a different story. Total revenue for transportation has been growing for decades. For example, from 1996-2007, Portland transportation revenue grew by 60%. According to the city auditor, that was the largest increase among all city agencies during that period.

Portland’s general fund has also been flush. Between 2003 and 2012, the amount of annual tax revenue the city received from each Portland resident increased from $2,292 to $2,656. Total property taxes grew by 27% during that time.

Despite all this money, the city’s streets are poorly maintained. The problem is that local politicians have preferred to spend vast amounts on frivolous toys like the eastside streetcar and Milwaukie light rail, rather than taking care of basic maintenance. As a result, transportation debt service has increased from 10% of discretionary spending to 20% in just the past four years. The charge card is getting maxed out.

Instead of demanding more tax dollars for shiny new objects, the City Council should maintain and improve the basic road network. If this task is too difficult, taxpayers should ask why we bother to have a city government at all.

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

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Testimony to TriMet Board on Resolution 14-01-03

Cascade President John A. Charles, Jr. submitted the following testimony to the TriMet Board on January 21, 2014.

 

To the TriMet Board:

In Resolution 14-01-03, TriMet staff proposes to give away a land parcel valued at $570,000 to a developer on the grounds that the net present value of 30 years of increased transit fares generated by the development is estimated to be $648,732.

The staff has neglected to mention that $648,732 is the gross revenue associated with future boardings. Since TriMet loses money on every trip, the net value of future fares will be a negative number.

For example, the operations cost/boarding for light rail in FY 14 has averaged $1.87. The average originating fare for TriMet fixed route service is $1.47.

Last year all passenger revenue totaled $152,698,000 while operating expenses were $580,289,000, a 26% recovery ratio. So it doesn’t matter what assumptions you use about 30-year discount rates, rental occupancy rates, or rail usage by TOD residents; under all scenarios, TriMet loses substantial amounts of money servicing the proposed project. Therefore there is no “profit” to subsidize the $570,000  giveaway of a public asset.

Moreover, FTA has had a long-standing policy prohibiting such transactions, as noted in the following guidance document:

“Thus, locally preferred Plans for highest and best transit use may be acceptable even if they do not generate the highest possible level of financial return, although the transit system is expected to realize some financial return (i.e., not transfer the property for $1) in a development.”  (Innovative Financing Techniques for America’s Transit Systems, FTA, September 1998, p. 45, http://libraryarchives.metro.net/DPGTL/publications/1998_innovative_financing_techniques_americas_transit_system.pdf).

Elsewhere in the same document, FTA discusses exactly the type of Portland situation contemplated with the SE 17th Street proposal, and declares it impermissible:

“In one property, the highest and best use was considered to be a 9-unit, median income townhouse condominium, with built-in parking for all units. The metropolitan planning organization, Metro, had calculated that social, economic and environmental benefits in that area would be maximized by a rental apartment development, for low-to-moderate income residents, with structured parking for 40 percent of units. Developers maintained that, while the Metro plan could eventually prove economically viable, the current market would not support the higher density plan. The risk of substantial non-payments of rent, and resulting default on project financing, was considered too high. Thus, the value of the land would have to be reduced to reflect this risk. In discussions with Metro, FTA indicated that while the price of the land was to some degree negotiable, FTA would not accept a zero or negative valuation of property to make the project feasible.” 

Other subsidies: In the staff memo, it is also stated that TriMet has agreed to “assistance with permitting fees” for the developer. What, exactly, does this mean? Is TriMet proposing to subsidize the soft costs of development, and if so, why?

Alternative uses: The proposed land giveaway should be rejected and alternative uses considered. TriMet staff recommends against using the parcel as a parking lot, but offers no analysis. In fact, light rail depends on park-and-rides to attract riders and most TriMet parking lots exist to service light rail. If you don’t provide parking at this station, out-of-district riders will simply invade nearby residential neighborhoods, creating a nuisance.

Sincerely,

John A. Charles, Jr.

Cascade Policy Institute

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As TriMet Sinks, Should Portland Suburbs Go Down With the Ship?

Last week Cascade released a report encouraging cities and counties to consider leaving TriMet due to its financial mismanagement.

TriMet has long admitted that its labor costs are unsustainable. In addition, the agency’s addiction to costly rail construction has cannibalized bus service, which has been cut by 14% in the past five years.

Comparison with other local transit districts paints a stark picture. The cost per mile of operation for the TriMet commuter rail line is $43.74. TriMet’s flagship service, light rail, costs $11.96 per mile. Yet, the small city of Sandy runs its own bus service for $2.57 per mile.

TriMet predicts that additional service cuts will be required by 2017 and every year thereafter to balance the budget, which essentially would shut down the agency by 2025. TriMet’s only strategy has been to seek contract concessions from the bargaining unit representing most workers, but this is unlikely to succeed. The ongoing PERS crisis shows that once management agrees to expensive fringe benefits for unionized workers, it’s almost impossible to reduce them later.

TriMet is in a death spiral of its own making. Local jurisdictions might be hoping for the best, but they should plan for the worst. Leaving TriMet is an option that needs to be on the table.

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

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$52 Million Retrofit Makes Traffic Worse in Portland’s South Waterfront

A case study released by Cascade Policy Institute shows the $52 million retrofit of Portland’s Southwest Moody Avenue is already increasing local traffic congestion and will be unable to accommodate future road capacity needs in the future.

SW Moody Avenue was raised 14 feet and the overall right-of-way widened to 75 feet. This was to accommodate double-tracking of the Portland streetcar, pedestrian walkways on either side, and a massive two-way bicycle track. The primary purpose was to allow the Portland-Milwaukie light rail line to pass over Moody Avenue at-grade and stop at the OHSU Collaborative Life Sciences Building.

Before-and-after traffic counts conducted by Cascade Policy Institute on Moody Avenue show the percentage of all trips by automobile has increased since the retrofit was completed, despite the generous right-of-way allocated to non-motorized travelers.

According to Cascade President John A. Charles, Jr., “The South Waterfront has long been a Potemkin Village for Portland planners. It…will soon be served by an aerial tram, streetcar, light rail, elevated pedestrian walkway, a monster cycle track, and a 100-foot wide pedestrian greenway. But the actual evidence shows that the district is highly reliant on auto use, and the reliance is growing. Now it’s too late to provide road capacity for future build-out because so much space was allocated to the streetcar and light rail.”

To read the full report on Portland’s Moody Avenue retrofit, visit cascadepolicy.org.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Report Shows $52 Million Street Project Makes Traffic Worse

case study released today by Cascade Policy Institute shows that the $52 million retrofit to Portland’s Southwest Moody Avenue is already increasing local traffic congestion and will be unable to accommodate future road capacity needs for the South Waterfront district in the future.

During 2011-12 SW Moody Avenue was raised 14 feet and the overall right-of-way (ROW) widened to 75 feet. This was done to accommodate double-tracking of the Portland streetcar, pedestrian walkways on either side, a massive two-way bicycle track, storm water treatment planters, and relocated utilities. The primary purpose of the retrofit was to allow the Portland-Milwaukie light rail line to pass over Moody Avenue at-grade and stop at the OHSU Collaborative Life Sciences Building, currently under construction.

The retrofit reduced lane capacity on Moody for motor vehicles by moving the streetcar directly onto the road (it had previously run on adjacent ROW) and adding a double-track, despite the fact that motor vehicles are the dominant mode of travel in the district. Before-and-after traffic counts conducted by Cascade Policy Institute on Moody Avenue show that the percentage of all trips by automobile has increased since the retrofit was completed, despite the generous ROW allocated to non-motorized travelers.

To make matters worse, in September 2013 the entire road was shut down for three weeks and much of the new work torn up so that the light rail tracks could cross at grade just west of the new Willamette River rail bridge. Since accommodating light rail was the primary purpose of raising Moody in the first place, this additional retrofit simply wasted tax dollars and inconvenienced local travelers. Neither the City of Portland nor TriMet has provided a credible public explanation of why this was done.

According to Cascade President John A. Charles, Jr., “The South Waterfront has long been a Potemkin Village for Portland planners. It’s likely the only neighborhood in the world that will soon be served by an aerial tram, streetcar, light rail, elevated pedestrian walkway, a monster cycle track, and a 100-foot wide pedestrian greenway. But the actual evidence shows that the district is highly reliant on auto use, and the reliance is growing. Now it’s too late to provide road capacity for future build-out because so much space was allocated to the streetcar and light rail.”

Click here to read the report.

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TriMet Violates Clean Air Act While “Regulators” Stay Silent

In previous decades the Portland region failed to meet national air quality standards for carbon monoxide pollution and was designated a “non-attainment” area under the federal Clean Air Act. As a result, the region was required to develop and implement strategies to reduce carbon monoxide.

One of the strategies is that TriMet must increase transit service by 1% annually for the period 2006-2017, on the premise that more transit service will reduce auto-related carbon monoxide emissions. TriMet’s compliance must be measured on the basis of a 5-year “rolling average” of actual hours of service. The “baseline year” for compliance is 2004 and includes the opening of the Yellow MAX line, which began operating that year. This strategy was specifically devised by TriMet to grandfather in the Yellow line, thus giving the agency the best chance for compliance.

However, even with this advantage, TriMet has not met the obligation to increase service. In fact, TriMet service has been steadily decreasing. This is a potential problem not only for TriMet, but for other local governments. If the Portland region were to be found out of compliance with the Clean Air Act, the federal government could delay or cancel federal dollars for such projects as Milwaukie light rail and the Columbia River Crossing. For regional politicians, this would be a disaster.

In January, the crisis was taken up by one of the obscure committees run by Metro―the Transportation Policy Advisory Committee (TPAC), comprised mostly of local government bureaucrats. TPAC agreed to recommend that compliance be measured on the basis of cumulative average of service hours for the 10-year period 2007-2017. The new “baseline year” would become 2008.

After TPAC, the plan had to be approved by the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission (EQC), the governing board for the state DEQ. The EQC took testimony in August and rubber-stamped the TPAC recommendation in early December.

Last week the issue moved to JPACT, another obscure Metro committee that approves all regional transportation spending. The free pass for TriMet was quickly approved.

The final stop will be the Metro Council, which will approve the change on December 19.

Sadly, none of the four entities approving the recommendation ever seriously considered enforcing the Clean Air Act. The top priority at every level has been to craft an escape hatch so that business as usual can continue. However, even a cursory look at the evidence would have shown that TriMet had no excuses for non-compliance.

For example, Metro/TriMet/DEQ have all claimed that the “abrupt drop” in TriMet service was “caused by the recent deep recession.” However, as shown in Table 1, the drop in TriMet fixed-route service has not been abrupt; both hours of service and miles of service were lower in 2012 than they were in 2004, so this has been a problem for years.

 

Table 1

Annual Fixed Route Service Trends for TriMet

2004-2012

 

FY 04

FY 06

FY 08

FY 10

FY 12

Change

Veh. revenue hours

1,698,492

1,653,180

1,712,724

1,682,180

1,561,242

-8.1%

Veh. revenue miles

27,548,927

26,830,124

26,448,873

25,781,480

23,625,960

-14.2

Moreover, the recession had little to do with the cuts because TriMet’s operating budget has grown by 62% since 2004 (Table 2).

Table 2

TriMet Financial Resources

2004-2013 (000s)

 

 

2004

2006

2008

2011

2012

2013

% change

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Passenger fares

$ 59,487

$ 68,464

$ 80,818

$ 96,889

$ 102,240

$ 112,500

+89%

Payroll tax revenue

$ 168,378

$ 192,450

$ 215,133

$ 226,456

$ 248,384

$ 259,233

+54%

Total operations revenue

$ 315,130

$ 342,274

$ 404,481

$ 410,388

$ 488,360

$ 508,971

+62%

It’s interesting that the pollutant in question here―carbon monoxide―is a serious one that can permanently injure or kill people, and has been explicitly regulated under the Clean Air Act for over 40 years. Yet, local air quality regulators don’t care about TriMet’s non-compliance. Meanwhile, Metro is squandering a vast amount of public money on its co-called “Climate Smart Communities” plan, aimed at decreasing carbon dioxide―a harmless trace element that has never been explicitly regulated by the Clean Air Act.

In fact, the most notable consequence of increased CO2 levels in lab experiments is the faster growth of plants, which is generally thought to be a good thing. But CO2 has been demonized by environmental activists as a cause of “global warming,” so it must be regulated.

The new compliance plan for TriMet subtly changes the goal posts. By moving from a five-year rolling average to a 10-year average, and shifting the baseline year to 2008, TriMet picks a better year to begin measuring (service levels had already dropped by 2008), and gives itself more future years to “forecast” increased service, even if there is no reason to think such service will materialize. TriMet has publicly stated that the cost of employee fringe benefits must be reduced by 50% in order to restore lost service, and everyone who has watched public employee union negotiations knows that such concessions will never be made.

TriMet is a federal clean air scofflaw, but the local “regulators” are all in on the scam. For a region that prides itself as an environmental leader, this is a disgrace.

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

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The Portland Streetcar: Time to Reset the Vision

If some Portlanders are confused about why we have a 19th century trolley operating in a 21st century city, they are not alone. City leaders are confused as well.

According to the Streetcar Concept Plan adopted by the Portland City Council in 2009, there are three primary policy goals related to streetcar expansion: (1) help the city achieve its peak oil and sustainability strategies; (2) provide an organizing structure and catalyst for the city’s future growth along streetcar corridors; and (3) integrate streetcar corridors into the city’s existing neighborhoods.

Oddly, providing transit service is not an explicit priority, even though that’s the primary reason people ride. Instead we have a mishmash of peak oil mania―now a quaint artifact due to the shale oil and gas booms, coupled with advanced technology―and vague references to real estate development. Given that this plan was estimated to cost $750 million and the city is broke, perhaps we should rethink the objectives.

First, the fundamental purpose of any transit program is to move people. On this criterion, the trolley is a weak performer. It’s slow, it doesn’t go many places, and each car only has 30 seats. It has high costs and low capacity, when what we need is the exact opposite.

If a secondary purpose of the streetcar is to encourage development, there are much better ways to do so. Subsidizing the streetcar means that most property owners will never benefit, because the system is tiny―seven route-miles after two decades of planning. If the city were simply to streamline the permitting process and lower System Development Charges, we would incentivize far more development in all sectors of the city compared to laying another mile of track.

Advocates claim that streetcar lines are “permanent” and provide stability for nearby development, but thousands of miles of streetcar tracks in the United States were paved over when they became obsolete 80 years ago. More recently, the streetcar tracks in South Waterfront along Moody Avenue have been torn up three separate times since 2011 to accommodate light rail. Nothing is really permanent; and when change is needed, it’s a lot easier moving a bus line than it is ripping up streetcar tracks.

A Better Way

We should insist that the streetcar be treated as a transit expenditure and evaluated on those terms. If we do this, it’s clear that rubber-tired vehicles traveling on the existing road network make much more sense.

Of the bus options I’ve examined, the best one is the Metro Rapid in Los Angeles. This system relies on distinctive, low-floor CNG buses with red stripes providing fast, reliable transit service. It operates in general purpose traffic lanes and achieves relatively high speeds by having stops spaced 0.75 miles apart, on average.

Also, the Metro Rapid buses have the technical capacity to shorten a red light or extend a green light at intersections to improve travel time.

A summary of the key characteristics of this system compared with the Portland Streetcar is shown below:

LA Metro Rapid Bus

Portland Streetcar

Year opened

2000

2001

Annual boardings

72 million

4.1 million

System length

400 miles

7 miles

Capital cost/mile

$0.35 million

$29 million

Peak frequency of service

Every 3-10 minutes

Every 14-19 minutes

Average speed

14-30 MPH

7-12 MPH

The Portland Streetcar is 83 times more expensive to build than the Rapid Bus alternative. Is it 83 times better? No. In fact, it is not superior by a single metric. The Rapid Bus is cheaper, twice as fast, and has much greater coverage throughout the city. It’s an actual transit system, not a Disneyland ride.

We should stop further expansion of the streetcar and shift public resources to low-cost, higher-speed bus transit.

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

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Metro’s War on Single-Family Housing Continues

For more than a decade, the regional government, Metro, has been quietly herding people into high-density neighborhoods. For those unaware of this policy, the recently announced plans for 80 acres of development near the light rail station at Sunset Transit Center should be a wake-up call: The developers plan to build 2,175 new housing units, and none of them will be single-family homes. In order to meet Metro-imposed density requirements, the project will be dominated by mid-rise apartment complexes, along with commercial and retail buildings.

Metro anticipates that virtually all future development projects will be similar. In draft documents for a planning exercise called “Climate Smart Communities,” Metro notes that the current number of Portland-area households in mixed-use neighborhoods is 26%. By 2035, that number likely will rise to at least 36%. No options for reducing density are being studied.

Metro’s vision of ubiquitous apartment bunkers means that the region will slowly become a childfree zone, because few parents wish to raise their children in vertical housing. Portland parents, and those who hope to become parents, should ask hard questions about why the Metro Council thinks this is a great leap forward for livability.

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

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Why Was Moody Avenue Shut Down―Again?

Last week, TriMet proudly announced that the tracks for Milwaukie light rail had successfully been laid in the South Waterfront district to allow light rail to cross SW Moody Avenue next to the new OHSU construction project. When finished, there will be a light rail stop at that location, and the train will then go up and over the new Willamette River bridge.

What TriMet did not say in its press release is that SW Moody had already been torn apart, raised 14 feet, and rebuilt over an 18-month period ending June 2012. The tab for this retrofit was $52 million. The whole point of raising the road was to allow the Milwaukie light rail line to cross it at grade. Thus, the light rail tracks should have been laid when the entire road was being rebuilt during 2011.

The most recent retrofit shut down Moody Avenue for three weeks and required the complete removal of the Portland streetcar tracks for the third time in three years. This was a severe inconvenience to South Waterfront workers and a waste of taxpayer money.

TriMet has yet to publicly say how much this second retrofit cost, nor has the agency explained why it was done 15 months after the first rebuilding. An explanation is in order.

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

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“Field of Dreams” Is No Strategy for TriMet

September 12 will be the 15th anniversary of the opening of Westside MAX. Unlike most transit projects, Westside light rail was deliberately routed through vacant land with the expectation that it would be a catalyst for “Transit-Oriented Development” (TOD). Planners stated, “The success or failure will be determined in large part by what happens around its 20 stations.”

Fifteen years later, the record is disappointing. There have been thousands of housing units built near light rail, but very little retail or office space. In at least two cases, ground-floor retail near light rail was such a flop that it was later ripped out and converted to residential. Most projects have been under-built for parking, causing problems for both residents and neighbors.

Most importantly, light rail did not magically change travel behavior in Washington County. Extensive field monitoring by Cascade shows that for a quarter-mile or half-mile radius around MAX stations, more than 85% of all trips to and from the area during the morning peak period take place in a motor vehicle. Light rail use rarely exceeds 8% of all trips, and the ratio drops even more on weekends.

The “Field of Dreams” strategy was fun for a movie, but it hasn’t worked for transit planning. TriMet should learn from this experience and pull the plug on any more light rail projects.

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

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Mayor Hales’s Environmental Vision Lacks Grounding in Reality

Recently, Mayor Charlie Hales gave a speech welcoming out-of-town dignitaries visiting Portland as part of “World Environment Day.” Speaking before an obviously friendly audience, Mayor Hales made a number of claims that show a lack of critical thinking about environmental issues. Four in particular deserve comment.

First, the Mayor said that the city “must urge” the Oregon State Treasurer to divest of all state holdings in fossil fuel. This might be a harmless gesture if the Mayor did that with his own personal portfolio, but forcing public investment managers to sell off holdings for strictly political reasons would be a violation of their fiduciary trust to those whose funds they manage. Arbitrarily selling assets would increase transaction fees and could reduce total returns to beneficiaries by disposing of securities at discounted prices (relative to true market values).

Moreover, divesting fossil fuel assets would have no effect on any measurable environmental problem.

The Mayor also invoked the tired “Peak Oil” argument that companies managing fossil fuel assets must inevitably fail because oil, gas, and coal are finite resources. But that prediction has been wrong for over 100 years and will continue to be wrong for the foreseeable future. Indeed, at least one international energy statistical agency has predicted that the United States likely will be energy-independent by 2020 due to technological innovations in oil and gas exploration that are causing large increases in production.

Mayor Hales further warned that we must act before the “carbon bubble bursts.” While it is true that we currently have a carbon bubble, it’s not the one he is thinking of. It is a government-created buying binge in carbon offsets, renewable energy credits, and green tags. These products, which exist primarily to satisfy regulatory mandates, have no underlying assets backing them and represent one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history. When the fraud is finally exposed, holders of these worthless securities will be forced to write off billions of dollars in losses.

If the Mayor is really concerned about avoiding the subprime carbon market, he should publicly instruct his staff to quit buying renewable energy credits.

Second, Mayor Hales pledged to begin implementation of the resolution passed last year requiring 100% of city electricity from politically correct “renewable sources.” Unfortunately, the Mayor is more than a decade late to this party, and the beer is stale. Back in 2001, the City Council pledged the very same thing, to be implemented by 2010. When that deadline passed, the city had managed to reach only about seven percent of the goal.

Not only is this goal unachievable for the city, it’s not even desirable. Since large-scale hydroelectric projects and nuclear power plants are typically excluded by green power advocates as “renewable” energy sources, the only way to achieve 100% renewable energy purchasing in the short term would be through massive expenditures for utility-scale wind energy. But since wind is guaranteed to fail randomly, it must be backed up at all times by base-load sources such as hydro, natural gas, and coal. If hydro steps in when wind fails, there is no net environmental gain. It’s one renewable substituting for another. If coal and gas are used, there is a net environmental loss, since these sources must be kept running even when not needed.

The Mayor’s vision is akin to forcing a rental car company to buy a large percentage of cars that randomly stop working, and then maintaining a back-up fleet that is kept idling 24 hours a day to rescue the stranded cars on a moment’s notice. Nobody would propose such a policy for an auto fleet; and environmentally conscious politicians should not advocate it for the electricity grid, either. Wind power is an expensive nuisance to the grid and should be discouraged, not mandated.

Third, the Mayor pledged that within 10 years, the bike “will be the preferred mode of transportation for all trips under three miles in Portland.” While politicians love to make outrageous predictions―since no one can disprove them―there is nothing in the recent past that suggests bicycling will come anywhere close to meeting this forecast. Bicycling has achieved a healthy market share for commuter trips into the central city, but over a 24-hour period for the entire city, cycling is minimal. Even in the South Waterfront district, a massively subsidized high-density neighborhood with a vibrant cycling population, 79% of all daily passenger-trips to and from the district are made in motorized vehicles.

Finally, Mayor Hales pledged that over the next 20 years, the Council will identify new revenues that will allow the city to turn every street in Portland into a “Complete Street” with pervious surfaces, street trees, and sidewalks. Given that the condition of Portland streets has been declining for years and been the subject of several scathing reports by the Portland City Auditor, I’d suggest a much more humble goal for the Mayor. He should stop the pork-barreling of massive amounts of tax dollars on streetcars, light rail, and “traffic calming” projects (the primary cause of our current road system embarrassment) and begin allocating most transportation dollars to fixing and maintaining what we have.

One of the great success stories of the last century has been the steady improvement in environmental quality due to market-driven technological change. The best way Portland politicians can help continue this trend is to focus on the fundamentals of making the city a great place for entrepreneurs.

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

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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.

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Testimony on Beaverton Economic Development Project Grant

Cascade President and CEO John A. Charles, Jr. testified regarding a proposed economic development grant in Beaverton before the Oregon Transportation Commission.

Testimony of John A. Charles, Jr.

President & CEO

Before the Oregon Transportation Commission

June 19, 2013

My name is John Charles and I am President of Cascade Policy Institute. Cascade is a non-partisan policy research center, working to promote economic opportunity, individual liberty, and personal responsibility.

I have analyzed the staff report for Agenda item C1, along with related documents provided by Metro and the City of Beaverton. I have also visited the .8 mile stretch of HW 8 that is being considered for a retrofit, and walked the area on both sides of the highway. In addition, I have conducted extensive field research since 1996 on the nearby Beaverton Round light rail station.

I urge the Commission to reject the IOF grant request, for the following reasons:

 

This is not an economic development project. The primary objective of project advocates is to lower the design speed on HW 8 from 45 MPH to 30 MPH. There is no evidence that such action would incentivize additional capital investment in the region. Indeed, the sad experience of the nearby Beaverton Round district suggests that just the opposite will occur. Deliberately slowing traffic and encouraging more density in the region will make it less attractive.

The series of photos below are instructive on this point. Notwithstanding the seductive architectural rendering that advertised the future project back in 1996 – in which many pedestrians were envisioned relaxing near light rail and no parking was necessary – the reality proved to be quite different. The project went bankrupt twice. Retailers have struggled. And oddly enough, the site is covered with parking, including surface lots, gated private parking, and the tallest single building in Beaverton – a parking garage.

Unfortunately, local planners have learned nothing from the experience. On two different occasions, Metro appropriated $2 million of public money to Beaverton so that the adjacent Westgate theatre could be purchased and bulldozed. The apparent goal was to build more “transit-oriented development” that would improve the neighborhood. The site is still vacant after nearly a decade.

 

The proposed “tie-ins” of the HW 8 project to a low-stress bike route are a waste of money because sensible cyclists are already riding on nearby parallel streets. One of the selling points of the Beaverton proposal is that “traffic calming” on HW 8 will make it easier for cyclists. But low-stress cycling options already exist, as shown below.

 

Attempting to turn a state highway into a boutique “Downtown Main Street” is a nostalgic trip to the past that has no relevance. Metro has encouraged most local governments to subsidize downtown investments based on a “Main Street” model. Tigard has done this, but not by trying to re-invent nearby HW 99w; the city has simply created a faux-downtown that benefits a few businesses while being largely ignored by most Tigard residents.

 

There is no need for a new traffic light at the Rose Biggi/HW 8 intersection. The proposed Canyon Road retrofit project would add another traffic light at Rose Biggi Drive, even though there are already 5 traffic lights on HW 8 in the .8 miles of project territory. The fact that the Beaverton City Council is moving the entire City Hall staff to the Round is no reason to add another light; there are already two traffic lights serving the Round, on either side of Biggi Drive.

 

Conclusion: Stripping away the political window dressing, the real point of this project is to degrade the state highway system by reducing the design speed from 45 MPH to 30 MPH on HW 8. The OTC should resist this effort. Local planners have been waging a political campaign against auto-mobility for over 25 years, on such routes as HW 43, HW 97, and HW 26. Planners and the cycling/pedestrian/transit advocacy groups will never be satisfied, and will be emboldened to ask for even more if you keep giving away the mobility functions of the state highway system.

 

Click here to see the full testimony with photos.

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Open Letter to Federal Transit Administration Regarding TriMet

 On June 14th, John Charles sent this letter to the Federal Transit Administration regarding TriMet and C-TRAN proposals for the CRC light rail project.

June 14, 2013

 

Richard F. Krochalis

Regional Administrator, FTA

Jackson Federal Building
915 Second Avenue, Suite 3142
Seattle, WA 98174

            Re: FTA requirements for operating funds on New Starts projects

Dear Mr. Krochalis,

I was in the audience on May 15th when you discussed the CRC light rail proposal with the C-TRAN board. I heard you say repeatedly that the application for a FFGA could not proceed until C-TRAN had a firm commitment of adequate funding to operate the new train line.

However, those statements are at variance with how FTA is handling the same issue for federally funded LRT projects in Portland. As I outlined to you in a detailed letter two years ago, TriMet has been in violation of its FFGA for the Green Line since the day it opened, and FTA has done nothing about it.

Service hours for the Green Line were reduced by 33% before it ever opened in September 2009.[1] Service has continued to decline since then. Weekly revenue hours have dropped from 692.4 in the opening year to 686.3 in the fall of 2012, a loss of 1%.[2]

TriMet is also in violation of its FFGA for the Yellow MAX line. That line opened in 2004 with 605.4 weekly revenue service hours. By the fall of 2012, service had dropped to 568.4 weekly revenue hours, a loss of 6%.[3]

Peak-hour service on the Yellow Line was supposed to operate at headways of 10 minutes in the opening year, improving to 7.5 minutes by 2020[4]. Instead, peak-hour headways are currently 15 minutes.[5]

As I pointed out to you in 2011, TriMet has a dedicated revenue source that was supposed to be used to fulfill the obligations of the respective FFGAs. That source, the regional payroll tax, was enhanced by the state legislature in both 2003 and 2009, allowing TriMet to raise the tax rate. The first tax increase was implemented effective January 2005, and has raised a cumulative total of $122.6 million in new revenue through FY 13.[6]

The combined net operating costs of the Green and Yellow lines in 2011 were $10.2 million.[7] Clearly the new revenues generated by the payroll tax rate increase were adequate to pay for all promised new service on the two new MAX lines, if such service had been a priority for TriMet – which it isn’t.

Not only has TriMet failed to provide promised service on federally-funded light rail lines, the agency’s  total fixed route service has dropped by 14% since 2005 — despite the fact that the agency’s all-funds budget has gone up by 125% over that same period, as displayed below:

TriMet Financial Resources, 2004-2013 (000s) 

 

FY 04/05

FY 08/09

FY 10/11

FY 11/12 (est)

FY 12/13 (budget)

% Change 04/05-12/13

Passenger fares

$  59,487

$  90,016

$  96,889

$  104,032

$117,166

+97%

Payroll tax revenue

$171,227

$209,089

$224,858

$232,832

244,457

+43%

Total operating resources

$308,766

397,240

$399,641

$476,364

$465,056

+51%

Total Resources

$493,722

$888,346

$920,044

$971,613

$1,111,384

+125%

 

Annual Fixed Route Service Trends, 2004-2012 

FY 04

FY 06

FY 08

FY 10

FY 12

Change

Veh. revenue hours

1,698,492

1,653,180

1,712,724

1,682,180

1,561,242

-8.1%

Veh. revenue miles

27,548,927

26,830,124

26,448,873

25,781,480

23,625,960

-14.2

In its most recent long-term financial forecast, TriMet admits that the agency’s current service problems are “not caused by TriMet’s revenue base.” According to the agency, TriMet’s operating revenues per capita “are 70% higher than its peer comparators.”[8]

Nonetheless, TriMet service is in a death spiral.

TriMet General Manager told his board in February that the forecast for TriMet service shows that by 2030, the agency will have a “revenue-expenditure imbalance” of some $200 million. Therefore, TriMet clearly does not expect to meet its light rail service obligations to FTA at any time during the life of the two relevant FFGAs.

In your response to me on June 20, 2011, you noted that many transit agencies experience temporary service declines due to various economic factors. Such conditions were “not typically viewed by FTA as a breach of contract.”  You pointed out that Section 19(a) of the FTA FFGA discusses “default” in terms of “…substantial failure of the Grantee to complete the Project in accordance with the Application” for federal funding.

It is clear that TriMet has failed and will continue to fail to meet its contractual obligations to operate federally-financed light rail lines as promised.

Given these facts, I can only conclude that either you misinformed the C-TRAN board about the importance of local operating revenues, or you will soon be requiring TriMet to begin fulfilling its FFGAs for the Green and Yellow lines. Which of these things is true?

Please advise at your earliest convenience.

Sincerely,

 

John A. Charles, Jr.

President & CEO

 

CC:       C-TRAN Board of Directors

TriMet Board of Directors

Interested parties

 


[1] TriMet, Fall 2010 Financial Forecast, p. 39.

[2] TriMet finance office, personal communication with the author, September 18, 2012.

[3] Ibid

[4] TriMet, Before and After Study, Yellow MAX Line, 2009, p. 2-2.

[5] TriMet website as of June 14, 2013, http://www.trimet.org/schedules/w/t1190_1.htm.

 

[6] TriMet, CRC August 2011 New Starts Submittal, Table 1.

[7] TriMet, FY11 Operating Statistics

[8] TriMet, Long Term Fiscal Sustainability Plan, December 2012, p. 7.

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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.

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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.

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Hospital Apologizes, PDC Repeats the Tragedy

Last Friday, Legacy Emanuel Hospital held a breakfast to apologize to the North Portland community for bulldozing nearly 300 homes and businesses 40 years ago. Hospital administrators conspired with Portland urban renewal officials to secretly plan a 55-acre expansion in the Albina neighborhood. By the time affected property owners were informed, the final decision had been made. The city used its powers of eminent domain to seize all private property within the district, destroying a vibrant African American community.

Hospital officials now admit they were wrong and promise never to do it again. Unfortunately, their colleagues at the Portland Development Commission (PDC) haven’t learned the same lesson. PDC is teaming up with TriMet to build the Portland-Milwaukie light rail line. Sixty-eight businesses and twenty residences will be destroyed to make way for the slow train, at a taxpayer cost of $1.5 billion.

This is a tragic waste of money, time, and energy. The Portland-Milwaukie corridor is already served by five TriMet buses, including express and local service. There will be no public benefits to the light rail line, yet 88 private buildings will be lost.

If urban renewal officials refuse to learn from experience, we should take away their powers. The State of California did this last year when it abolished all urban renewal districts. Oregon should do the same when the legislature convenes in 2013.

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

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Testimony before the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners

Testimony before the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners

Regarding the revised IGA for the Milwaukie Light Rail Project

August 22, 2012

 John A. Charles, Jr.

President & CEO

My name is John Charles and I represent Cascade Policy Institute, a non-partisan policy research center.

The Clackamas County Board seems to think that the financing agreement signed with TriMet in 2010 is a binding contract. However, TriMet itself has already breeched the contract, as follows:

  1. The Clackamas County Commission formally endorsed the “PMLR Locally Preferred Alternative” (LPA) on July 24, 2008. That endorsement was for a light rail plan including 1,000 parking spaces at the Park Avenue station and another 1,000 spaces at the Tacoma Street station.

In addition, the LPA offered a possible alternative alignment, known as the “Minimum Operating Segment”, terminating at Lake Road in Milwaukie. If this plan were chosen, the Tacoma Street station would include 1,250 parking spaces.

  1. The LPA with 1,250 – 2,000 committed parking spaces was endorsed by the County Commission when it signed the IGA in 2010.
  1. The project now being built has changed dramatically. The Park Avenue station includes only 350 parking spaces and the Tacoma Street station 320 spaces. This will lower the expected ridership of the project by a wide margin.

The entire 26-year experience with TriMet’s light rail system shows that outside the Portland city center, light rail is largely dependent on park-and-ride lots for ridership.  For example, the Gateway Transit Center has had a chronic parking shortage for decades because it is the closest parking lot to downtown on the east side. On the Westside, the Sunset Transit Center has only 587 spaces. Since this is the closest Westside TriMet lot to downtown Portland, it is usually filled to capacity every weekday by 7:00 a.m. TriMet would have higher ridership on the Westside MAX if it had built a much larger parking lot.

  1. By under-building for parking on the PMLR line, TriMet is asking both Clackamas County and the City of Milwaukie to absorb the many downsides of this project – including the taking of homes and businesses, loss of express bus service to Portland, and the cannibalization of other public services – while offering no transportation benefits compared with existing bus service.

Since TriMet has chosen to begin construction on a different project than the one promised, the Clackamas County Commission is free to opt out of previously made commitments, and should do so. The PMLR project never made any sense from a transit standpoint, and is clearly a step backwards for express bus commuters on HW 99e, who will be forced to transfer from the fast bus to the slow train in Milwaukie if this is built.

Regardless of how the project was perceived in 2008, public sentiment has changed. The County’s most recent “Community Services and Issues” survey, conducted by Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall during late February and mid-March, asked respondents for “the most important issues” facing the county. Supporting light rail elicited only a 3% positive response, while 5% of respondents stated that “stopping MAX” was important to them. Overall, many other issues are of greater concern to county taxpayers, including the economy, road maintenance, education and law enforcement.

Recommended Course of Action for Clackamas County:

  • The BCC should formally state that the IGA with TriMet is no longer binding because TM is building a different project than the one promised in 2010 and 2008.
  • The county’s plan to sell bonds should be abandoned and the entire PMLR project de-funded.

 

  • The terminus of the line should be moved from Park Avenue to Tacoma Street, and the parking facility at that station should be increased to 1,250 spaces, as originally anticipated in the EIS. That would be financially feasible with savings from shortening the line.

Conclusion

It is clear that the September 18th ballot measure requiring a public vote on rail expenditures is going to pass easily. Instead of fighting the obvious, the BCC should use this vote as a mandate to protect county taxpayers from a bad deal negotiated in a different era.

 

Fortunately, it’s not too late to make this move; the single most expensive property scheduled for condemnation on the entire PMLR right-of-way – the Beaver Heat Treating facility on Moore Street – is still standing. This one property alone is likely to cost more than the entire $19.1 million IGA that is being discussed tonight. If the BCC does the right thing, the family-wage jobs at Beaver Heat Treating and other businesses in the ROW will be protected, and we won’t throw scarce tax dollars down a rat hole.

However, the window of opportunity is closing, because TriMet knows that the faster they destroy private property, the more difficult it becomes politically for elected officials to do the right thing. I encourage you to reject the proposed amended IGA, and to terminate the County’s interest in this project immediately.

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Tear Down These Walls!

As a founder of Cascade, I was asked to speak at the fourth annual Oregon Tax Day Tea Party, this year held on April 14 in Clackamas County. Some 400 activists attended what turned out to be the most inspiring event of its kind since the Tea Party began organizing in 2009. For a full description and video of the event, go to www.OregonTeaParty.org.

 

I told the audience a human story from when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. My friend Wall Street Journal editorial writer John Fund wrote about his encounter with four teenage girls while visiting East Berlin in 1984. As he prepared to board the train that would take him back to the West, John asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up.

 

“A schoolteacher, said one. A hairdresser, said another. A nurse, said the third. Only Monika, the oldest and clearly the wisest, hesitated. Finally, she sighed and said, ‘It doesn’t make any difference what we become when we grow up. We will still always be treated like children.’”

 

That statement made a profound impact on John. He noted how he could go anywhere in the world from that street corner, but these teenagers could not go 500 yards to see the bright lights of West Berlin.

 

They had to remain in “a semi-comfortable, but drab and kindergarten-like existence, in which independent thoughts were hidden from the government.”

 

John and Monika kept in touch over the next few years. Then, two days after the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, John’s phone rang.

 

There was the unmistakable sound of an overseas call. “This is Monika!” she shouted in halting English. “I am calling from Berlin West! I am over the Wall!”

 

Monika did not plan to flee East Germany. But now that the Wall was down, she could leave if the people who ran that government reneged on their promises of free elections and economic reforms.

 

John reminded Monika of their first meeting and asked if she felt she was finally being treated like a grownup.

 

“Yes,” she said. “I think everyone in my country decided for themselves to grow up overnight.”

 

I explained to the Tea Party audience that Monika knew what it was like to be treated like an adult by her government; but Americans are now being treated more like children, as the limited government our Founders gave us morphs into a behemoth. Activists like them must stand up and tear down the Walls of national programs like ObamaCare, and the Walls erected by local programs like “Smart Growth” that have overtaken Multnomah County and threaten to encroach into neighboring counties.

 

Many in the Tea Party audience were part of what is becoming known as the “Clackastani Rebellion” because of their efforts to defeat smart growth and light rail plans in cities like Damascus and throughout Clackamas County.

 

Cascade Policy Institute has helped educate Oregonians since 1991 about the benefits of freedom and liberty. We look forward to working even more closely with everyone who is committed to keeping our communities and our state from being encircled by our own, self-created Berlin Walls.

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Jeff Kropf talks with John Charles about TriMet’s Transit Hypocrisy

KUIK radio host Jeff Kropf interviewed Cascade President John Charles on his latest commentary, Transit Hypocrisy, about federal funding for the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project.

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Transit Hypocrisy

Two years ago, the head of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Peter Rogoff, gave a speech to a room full of transit executives. His remarks were unusually blunt. Mr. Rogoff admitted that the transit planning process for new projects was biased in favor of light rail. But he reminded people that rail systems had significant long-term costs. FTA recently had concluded there were more than $78 billion in deferred maintenance costs for public transit agencies in the U.S., and three-fourths of those costs were associated with rail systems.

Mr. Rogoff pointed out that many local transit districts were seeking large federal grants for new rail lines, even though their overall levels of service were shrinking. He asked rhetorically, “If you can’t afford to operate the system you already have, why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion?”

In the face of funding shortages at all levels of government, Mr. Rogoff reminded the executives that decisions about new transit service were moral decisions and that political leaders needed to “have the guts to say ‘no’ when everyone else wants to say ‘yes’.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Rogoff apparently forgot this speech as soon as he gave it. During the next two years, his agency encouraged Portland’s TriMet to continue planning for the most expensive transit project in the state’s history, the Portland-Milwaukie light rail line (PMLR). The Milwaukie line will cost more than $205 million per mile to construct and will destroy 68 businesses and 20 private homes.

In order to partially finance the so-called “local share” of the price tag (50% of construction cost), TriMet will have to sell $60 million of bonds in the next two years, and the debt service on those bonds will cannibalize bus service that has already been reduced four times since 2009.

Since TriMet service is shrinking, the agency is clearly in need of the “tough love” that Mr. Rogoff preached in 2010. Yet tomorrow, Mr. Rogoff himself will be in town to announce FTA approval of a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) that will waste some $745 million in federal money on the project over the next eight years.

There are many reasons why federal funding should have been denied years ago for the PMLR project. The most important is that TriMet has consistently violated FTA requirements that local transit agencies successfully operate federally funded capital projects for at least 20 years.

The most egregious example is the original MAX line that opened in 1986. At the time the Blue Line was being planned, TriMet promised that trains from Gateway to downtown Portland would run every five minutes during peak periods. Today, the actual frequency (known as “headways”) is every 8 minutes, or 60% worse than promised.

TriMet learned a lesson from this experience, but unfortunately it was the wrong lesson. Instead of killing the expensive rail program, TriMet simply lowered expectations for service on future rail lines. For the Yellow Line to North Portland, TriMet promised 10-minute service intervals for peak periods. Yet even with this lower bar, the agency could not meet its commitment. Peak-hour service on the Yellow Line currently operates at 15-minute headways, 50% below what was committed to.

The agency’s newest rail line, the Green Line to Clackamas Town Center, opened in September 2009. By then TriMet’s finances were so bad that project managers knew even before it opened that promised levels of service would not be met. Green Line service has been at least 33% below FFGA requirements since day one.

TriMet is now promising FTA that when the Milwaukie line opens in March 2016, it will offer peak-hour service every 10 minutes and off-peak service every 15 minutes. But since TriMet is unable to offer such service on any of its rail lines right now, no one should take this forecast seriously.

The saddest part about Milwaukie light rail is that it will make current transit riders in that corridor demonstrably worse off than they are today, due to the elimination of express bus routes. Nine buses stop at the Milwaukie Transit Center, and five of them travel on McLoughlin Boulevard to Portland city center. However, once light rail opens, all of these buses will no longer provide service north of Milwaukie. Transit customers boarding buses from points south will be forced to transfer at Milwaukie.

Light rail will also take longer than express bus service. The current scheduled time-of-travel for a trip from downtown Milwaukie to Portland State University on the #99 McLoughlin Express bus averages 17.5 minutes. An early morning run makes it in 12 minutes. The forecasted time of travel for light rail – which offers no express service – is roughly 19 minutes for the same distance.

None of this is necessary, because there is a very cheap alternative – a fact well known to Mr. Rogoff. Last month the FTA released a study, Metro Orange Line BRT Project Evaluation, looking at the cost-effectiveness of two different versions of bus rapid transit (BRT) in Los Angeles. The Orange Line is high-end BRT that resembles light rail because it has its own exclusive right-of-way and never has to travel in mixed-flow traffic. A second variation, known as the Metro Rapid bus, operates in general purpose arterial lanes, but achieves relatively high travel speeds simply by spacing stops apart by about 0.8 miles.

The study showed that in most respects, both light rail and exclusive-lane BRT are not cost-effective. The Metro Rapid bus system is the real bargain, especially compared with expensive light rail projects:

Capital Costs of Light Rail and Bus Rapid Transit Projects

Portland-Milw. Light Rail Line

LA Gold Line Light Rail

LA Orange Line BRT

LA Metro Rapid BRT, Ventura Line

Capital cost/mile

$205 million

$62.7 million

$26 million

$0.2 million

Peter Rogoff is about to hand over $745 million in federal funds for a Portland light rail line that will cost 1,017 times more than the LA Metro Rapid system. In what ways is it 1,017 times better?

Actually, it’s not even as good. The Rapid Bus system is cheaper, more flexible, twice as fast, arrives more often, and is easier to implement.

For more than 25 years, the Federal Transit Administration has been playing Charlie Brown to TriMet’s Lucy. No matter how many times TriMet promises to successfully operate another light rail project, in the end they always yank the ball away from FTA. Yet, here is the FTA administrator, getting ready to tee up another new project.

We know how this is going to end. TriMet’s rail empire will grow by a tiny fraction, while more bus service gets cut. As Mr. Rogoff once said, we need someone with the guts to say “no,” but it certainly won’t be him.

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Testimony Before TriMet Board of Directors Regarding the Proposed FY 2012-13 Budget

 

 

Testimony of John A. Charles, Jr.

 

Before the TriMet Board of Directors

 

Regarding the Proposed FY 2012-13 Budget

 

 

 

April 25, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

There are some elements of the proposed budget that move TriMet in the right direction. I support the proposals to eliminate the free-rail zone and reduce streetcar funding. Rail passengers have been coddled for far too long and these changes will require them to finally put some skin in the game.

 

 

 

Notwithstanding this progress, the budget overall has serious problems that the Board needs to address. The first is the assumption that management will win its protracted dispute with the ATU. Management has been forecasting this outcome for years, and has consistently been wrong. Examples of past predictions include the following:

 

 

 

  • TriMet press release, April 13, 2011: “The FY2012 budget assumes that a new Working and Wage Agreement with the ATU has benefits more in line with peer agencies, and consistent with those contained in TriMet’s July 2010 Final Offer.”

 

 

 

  • TriMet FY 2012 budget message, July 2011: “A critically important assumption upon which TriMet’s financial forecast and the FY 12 Adopted Budget are based is that TriMet enters into a Working and Wage Agreement WWA) with the Amalgamated Transit Union, probably through the binding arbitration process, and that the wages and benefits are consistent with those contained in TriMet’s July 2010 Final Offer….”

 

 

 

  • TriMet press release, October 26, 2011: “The contract expired in 2009 and both parties are now heading to interest arbitration scheduled for mid-January 2012.

 

 

 

  • TriMet FY 13 budget message, April 2012: “…the FY 13 proposed budget includes a $12 million revenue increase/expenditure reduction package, based on the assumption of a labor arbitration decision favorable to TriMet.”

 

 

 

Given that every recent prediction about the ATU contract has been wrong, it might be time to change the forecast. A more prudent forecast would be that the ATU wins, creating a $5 million imbalance for FY 13. Perhaps that should be addressed now in the current draft budget.

 

 

 

The second big problem with the budget is the continued fantasy that rail construction has no harmful effects on bus service. Some board members may not be aware that in February 2011, TriMet succeeded in getting the Oregon Transportation Commission to approve $13 million in scarce OTC “flex funds” for the Milwaukie light rail project, by promising that TriMet will “agree to refrain from requesting Capital bus Program funds for bus purchases for the next three biennia…”  This deal was made even though TriMet had been so desperate for new buses that it had put a $125 bond measure on the ballot the previous November. My testimony to the OTC is attached.

 

 

 

TriMet management simply does not value bus service; all the glamour is perceived to be in the ribbon-cutting ceremonies for new train lines. In FY 13 TriMet will sell bonds for PMLR and thus incur $3 million in new debt service. The agency is already paying more than $25 million in annual debt service for previous light rail bonds. This debt is a major reason why bus service has been cut by 13% in recent years, even though buses move 2/3 of TriMet customers each day.

 

TriMet has never demonstrated that the alleged “operating cost savings” of rail transit offsets the debt service and other “opportunity costs” associated with new rail construction.

 

 

 

There’s a very simple solution: terminate all rail expansion plans. It doesn’t matter how attractive rail may have once seemed; moving forward, the capital costs cannot be justified. It is indefensible to impose service cuts year after year, while spending more than $205 million/mile for tiny expansions of the rail empire (7.3 miles for PMLR and 2.9 miles for the CRC).

 

 

 

A third point is that the proposed budget once again hides the true cost of labor, by planning for another token payment into the OPEB trust fund of $865,760. While this is better than the FY 12 contribution of $410,000, the level recommended by the outside auditor last July was $77.7 million.

 

 

 

The unfunded actuarial accrued liability for OPEB is at least $876 million, and because TriMet is allowed to carry this debt off-book the public naturally assumes that all is well when the agency announces that it has a “balanced budget” each year. This practice of shifting obligations downstream simply sets up a ticking time bomb for future TriMet board members.

 

 

 

While making the full ARC payment of $77 million would be impossible now, a substantial down payment – with the tough decisions it would force right now — would have the medicinal effect of waking up the public to the seriousness of the problem.

 

 

 

Finally, attached is a chart showing the juxtaposition of TriMet’s huge revenue increases since 2004 with the steady decline in transit service.  This is a disgrace, yet the Board continues to accept it year after year, without even considering fundamental changes in strategy.

 

 

Business as usual is not going to work anymore. It’s time for board members to stop acting like victims and start taking control of the organization.

 

 Click here to see February 14 OTC Testimony.

TriMet Financial Resources, 2004-2013 (000s)

 

 

FY 04/05

FY 08/09

FY 10/11

FY 11/12 (est)

FY 12/13 (budget)

% Change 04/05-12/13

Passenger fares

$   59,487

$   90,016

$   96,889

$   104,032

$117,166

+97%

Payroll tax revenue

$171,227

$209,089

$224,858

$232,832

244,457

+43%

Total operating resources

$308,766

397,240

$399,641

$476,364

$465,056

+51%

Total Resources

$493,722

$888,346

$920,044

$971,613

$1,111,384

+125%

 

Note: TriMet payroll tax rate increased effective 1/1/05, and will rise .01% every January through 2024.

 

 Annual Fixed Route Service Trends since 2004

 (light rail, bus, commuter rail)

 

2004

2006

2008

2010

2011

% change

             

Peak veh

625

606

613

618

601

-3.8%

Revenue hrs

143,784

137,973

144,469

133,776

128,435

-10.7%

Vehicle hrs

2,621,657

2,476,114

2,532,453

2,375,802

2,247,113

-14.3%

 

Sources: Annual budget documents; monthly TriMet performance reports.

 

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Cascade in the Capitol: Testimony Before the Joint Committee on Legislative Oversight on Columbia River Crossing

Testimony of John A. Charles, Jr.

President, Cascade Policy Institute

Before the Joint Committee on Legislative Oversight on Columbia River Crossing

 Regarding the Proposed Light Rail Extension to Vancouver

March 15, 2012

The CRC is fundamentally a light rail project. Therefore the first task for the Oversight Committee should be to rigorously assess the purpose and need for light rail. Specifically, what transportation service will light rail provide, and how does that service compare with express bus service currently offered by CTRAN?

It is important that the comparisons be made on a side-by-side basis, not system-wide.  The reason is that the cost-effectiveness of TriMet’s light rail system varies considerably by line. The Yellow line is the least productive MAX line in the entire system[1], averaging only 127 boarding rides/vehicle-hour. In contrast, the most productive line (Blue) averages 166 rides/vehicle-hour.

A summary of key metrics clearly shows that light rail compares poorly:

 

CRC Light Rail vs. CTRAN Express Bus

 

MAX Yellow Line

CTRAN I-5 Express buses

Peak-hour travel time*

36 minutes

16 minutes

Total capital cost, 2012-2020**

$856-$944 million

$4-$8 million

% of operations cost covered by fares***

47%

67%

 

 

*Derived from the FEIS and CTRAN published schedules.

**Various CRC finance documents; author’s estimates for CTRAN.

***Personal communication with finance staff of the respective agencies, 3/14/12.

Travel Speed: The only reason to add new transit service is to make bi-state travelers better off. Light rail would make them worse off, by lengthening commute times by 125%. The attached paper by transit consultant Thomas Rubin provides a more detailed analysis. This is a fatal flaw that cannot be overcome, because MAX is an all-local system, and it is competing with Express Bus service.

Cost: At roughly $300 million/mile, this would be the most expensive transit project in Oregon history. For comparison, the Milwaukie LR project is estimated to cost $211 million/mile while the Emerald Express BRT project in Eugene-Springfield cost $6 million/mile.

Light rail proponents have long argued that the high capital costs of rail are offset by savings in operations cost, but that is based on systemwide averages.  Actual numbers for CTRAN I-5 Express Buses and the Yellow MAX line suggest that there will be no operating cost savings for light rail.  CTRAN recovers 67% of bus operating costs from passenger fares, while the Yellow MAX line collects only 47%.

Conclusion: Vancouver light rail would serve no public purpose and would have extremely low ridership. The Legislative Oversight Committee should euthanize it as soon as possible.

 


[1] TriMet FY 2012 Transit Investment Plan, P. 103

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John Charles interviewed by KHON-2 News in Honolulu, HI

This week John Charles is in Honolulu, HI where he will be speaking at two conferences related to a proposal there for a new light rail line. John will be explaining why so-called ‘transit-oriented development’ doesn’t work the way planners think it does.

Tuesday morning, John was interviewed by local TV station KHON-2 News where he spoke about the pros and cons of fixed rail transit versus “rubber tire” bus service and the benefits of one over the other for Hawaii and most locations around the world.

Click here to view the full 3-minute interview.

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Rubber-Tire Contempt: TriMet’s $1.5 Billion Plan to Deliver Inferior Transit Service

As a young environmental activist growing up in north Jersey in the 1960s, I took transit buses all over – into Newark, Elizabeth, and New York City. Later, as a college student in Pittsburgh, I took Greyhound across the state many times to get home.

For environmentalists, it was a badge of honor to abandon our 9 MPG autos and travel on a bus with 35-45 other passengers. The oil embargo was very real. We had odd/even license plate days for gas fill-up in 1973, so it seemed like a form of patriotism to be frugal.

Times have certainly changed. Cars have become more efficient, and chronic urban smog has permanently disappeared due to improved auto technology. That’s the good news. But the bad news is that many transit agencies are no longer content to merely provide a service to those unable or unwilling to drive in a private vehicle.

Portland is the poster child for this problem. In fact, TriMet doesn’t really care about transit service per se; the agency is obsessed with expensive trains that are supposed to recreate the way entire neighborhoods function, through “transit-oriented development.”

TriMet is so contemptuous of bus service that the agency is building massively expensive trains that simply replace cheap buses. And the replacement service is actually worse. The Milwaukie light rail line, now being built by TriMet (even though they have very little of the required funding in hand), is breathtaking in its sheer wastefulness. It will cost $205 million per mile for a train that will average 17 MPH. It will make the daily commute for current Milwaukie bus riders worse by forcing them to transfer to rail at Milwaukie. Rail will never offer express service; but there are already at least four bus routes on McLoughlin that offer a menu of local, limited-stop, and express bus routes.

Worse yet, the train will take 68 businesses and 20 residences. More than 60 mature shade trees on SW Lincoln Street near PSU are being cut down this week.

How can one government agency spend $1.5 billion for a mere 7.3 miles of train service, to provide a level of transit that is demonstrably inferior to bus service being replaced?

The answer is that TriMet is institutionally designed to fail. The agency has a monopoly on service and a monopoly on subsidies. Actual customers only account for about 25% of the agency’s operating revenue and none of the capital funds used for construction. So customers don’t really matter. TriMet does what its management wants, simply because it can.

I was down at Lincoln Street for an hour watching the trees getting cut. It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen a governmental agency do. The street is already served by the #17 bus. The train is simply unnecessary. Yet, for the 906-foot segment of Lincoln Street that is being wrecked, we will spend $35.2 million.

If you had $35 million to spend to improve three blocks of an urban street, how would you spend it? Not on light rail. Not if it was your own money. Not if you actually cared about the urban environment.

The Obama presidential bus only cost $1.1 million and rides on regular roads. Couldn’t we have just bought a few of those, run them up and down Lincoln Street, and saved the trees? I’m sure they would offer a much nicer ride than generic light rail cars.

The day the Portland City Council put private bus companies out of business in 1968 was a sad day in local history. Private companies could never get away with destroying a street like this or spending $1.5 billion on a pointless boondoggle.

TriMet is hopelessly corrupt. It’s time to admit that the agency is out of control and has utterly lost sight of its mission. Maybe in 2012 the legislature should consider abolishing this rogue agency, and starting fresh with a market-driven transit concept that focuses on actually serving customers with the best transit at the lowest public cost.

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