Tag: light rail

TriMet Zombie Light Rail Project-cm

TriMet’s Zombie Light Rail Project

By John A. Charles, Jr.

President Trump is not the only one refusing to accept election results. The general manager of TriMet, Doug Kelsey, is claiming that the $3 billion Tigard light rail project is still alive, even though Portland-area voters rejected a proposed funding measure by a wide margin last month.

 At a recent public meeting, Mr. Kelsey stated that Tigard light rail would be built eventually because “demand still exists.”

That is a complete fantasy. Peak-hour ridership on all MAX lines during October was down 72% from a year ago. Unlike driving levels, which have nearly returned to normal, transit ridership has remained depressed over the past 9 months. Transit riders have simply moved on to other options.

Rail transit in particular requires high levels of both residential and worker density, but COVID has induced a mass exodus of workers from downtown Portland. Many of these changes will become permanent. Employers have discovered that remote working is not only feasible, it’s preferred by many employees.

Where is the value proposition for a network of slow trains to the city center if few people need to go there?

The TriMet board should start downsizing the agency immediately, and the easiest first step would be to cancel a rail line that doesn’t yet exist.

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

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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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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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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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