Surprise! TriMet Wants More Light Rail | The Antiplanner
. . . even though it can't maintain its current train set.
"In a move that surprised no one, the staff of TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, wants to build light rail instead of bus-rapid transit between Portland and Sherwood."
Brilliant! Build a low capacity, high cost rail line to a place with few commuters.
"TriMet’s last light-rail line cost about $168 million per mile. This proposal is for an 11.5-mile line that will cost at least $2 billion, or $174 million per mile. Of course, that cost is likely to go up. By comparison, Portland’s first light-rail line cost only about $28 million per mile in today’s dollars.
A state auditor says TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, is falling behind on light-rail maintenance. TriMet’s general manager says that the agency’s pension and health-care obligations are so great that it will have to cut all transit service by 70 percent by 2025 to meet those obligations. So naturally, it makes perfect sense to talk about spending $2 billion that the agency doesn’t have on another low-capacity rail line."
The delusion of light rail grandeur runs deep.
"Of course, TriMet’s staff memo about the project repeatedly calls light rail “high-capacity transit.” But light-rail transit can be no longer than a city block or they’ll block traffic every time they stop for passengers. Since downtown Portland has some of the smallest city blocks in the country, TriMet can only run two-car trains, making it one of the lowest-capacity light-rail systems in the country. And since the “light” in light rail is short for “light capacity transit,” Portland’s is low-low capacity transit."
The MAX rail cars are more like articulated buses than rail cars they are so short. Building a light rail line here is like building a bus-rapid transit lanes but at 10 or 20 times the cost.
Best yet, these rail cars are pretty much empty except for a few hours each day, and then usually only in one direction. Portland (not all metro area) commuters total transit use is 11.9% for all modes, breaking that down, about half of transit commuters use rail, and half use bus (and a small number of other modes), or about 6% each. In Portland, bicycle commuters account for 6.1% of all commuters. For all trips the total transit share is minuscule at about 2.3% of all daily trips in the Portland metro area.
"The memo also claims that light rail has a lower operating cost per passenger than buses. But that’s only true if you don’t count maintenance costs, which might be appropriate considering TriMet’s apparent policy of letting trains break down rather than spending money on maintaining the infrastructure. The memo frequently uses the term “cost effective” but never performs an analysis to prove whether rail is actually more cost effective than buses."
Remember, he is discussing operating costs per passenger, not total amortized costs per passenger. Rail transit never charges the passenger for the initial up front capital costs, here estimated to be $2 billion, or the 40 year capital maintenance cost which will be nearly an identical $2 billion. Amortizing these costs would obviously blow the costs per ride sky high, even if we consider the initial construction costs to be a "freebee" that would still drive the costs through the roof. Depending on actual ridership it would likely increase the per trip cost by at least $10-20. TriMet also receives very little from the fare box, commonly 20%, or so, of operating costs. Taxpayers pay for nearly the entire cost of TriMet.
The Antiplanner ends, "In short, the memo is filled with the same old specious ideas that led TriMet to blow $1.5 billion on the Milwaukie light-rail line and other boondoggles. Portland doesn’t need to blow another $2 billion building more light-rail miles that TriMet can’t afford to maintain."
While sage, this advice will never be followed. Portland will extract about $1.5 billion from federal coffers, match that with another $500 million that Oregonians don't have, and build the light rail line incurring 50% cost overruns, finagle the additional costs with the feds, and open the line to great fan fare, but ultimately few riders. Then in 2025, TriMet will run out of other peoples money to pay some of the most lavish public employee benefits in America, and the wheels will begin to fall off this buggy.
TriMet under pressure to reduce generous health benefits
"TriMet pays 100 percent of health premiums -- among the most expensive for U.S. transit agencies -- for union workers and retirees 55 or older who leave the agency with 10 years of experience or more. The workers, retirees and their dependents pay no deductibles. A doctor visit typically costs $5 or less."
Benefits so lavish they are forcing the agency to cut bus routes, and raise fares. Although to be fair, the agency has had to cut bus routes to make the budget work for a very long time. Rail is much more expensive then TriMet lets on, and to keep the trains running, it takes loads of money, money which increasingly comes from closing bus routes or reducing bus service, injuring the poor who ride buses more than the middle class who ride trains. The Portland to Sherwood line would be an attempt to collect mostly upper middle class commuters driving in from the wine country southwest of Portland.
The Antiplanner continues, "The memo also claims that light rail would attract more riders than buses. This isn’t at all clear from TriMet’s experience. TriMet’s transit ridership peaked in 2009 and has since declined despite opening several new miles of light rail in 2010 and the city’s rapid recovery following the 2008 recession. The Portland Business Alliance’s annual census of jobs in the downtown area, where most transit riders commute to, says that the area had 16 percent more jobs in 2014 than 2009. The census found that transit carried about 1,000 more people to work in 2014 than 2009, but TriMet carried 8 percent fewer riders in 2014 than 2009."
The agency is slowly dying, while the Portland metro area is growing, and the non-urban counties within the TriMet service area, are rapidly growing.
The gig economy, ride share programs like Uber and Lyft, and the self drive car will all deal transit serious blows. Fixed rail lines will be unlikely to survive these changes. Some bus transit will be able to survive for a while due to flexibility but even these will likely fail.
The gold standard for all personal transportation should be door to door transportation. The public's cost in this should be limited to an antipoverty assistance amount, and should only be accessible by the actually poor. Today we pay for the middle class and the wealthy transportation when they choose public transportation. There is no reason to subsidized these transportation costs, much of which comes from the poor themselves!
If we assume the 15% of the US population who are poor drive only 10% of the miles, and pay only 10% of the gas tax, it means of the $2 billion or so TriMet will receive from the feds ($1.5 billion plus more for the cost overruns or about $2 billion), $200 million will come from the poor. This money will go for a light rail line to transport the wealthier, in class, and comfort, leaving the poor to ride the bus.