Portland Speeds to Transit Train Wreck?

For more than a quarter century, the leaders in the Oregon portion of the Portland metropolitan area have sought to transfer demand for urban travel from automobiles to transit. Six rail lines have been built, five of which are light rail and bus service has been expanded. If their vision were legitimate, transit’s market share should have risen substantially and automobile travel should have declined. Neither happened.

Light Rail, Commuter Rail and Trolleys Added, Transit Market Share Declines

The results have been modest, to say the least. Since 1980, before the first rail line was opened, transit’s share of work trip travel in the metropolitan area has declined by one-quarter, from 8.4 percent to 6.3 percent in 2011(even after opening a commuter rail line and adding downtown trolleys). Overall, the share of travel by car remains about the same as before the first light rail line opened (based upon data from the Texas Transportation Institute and the Federal Transit Administration).

Other Light Rail Cities Mirror Portland’s Transit Market Share Decline

And, while Portland’s transit performance falls far short of its hyper-promotion (around the world), other cities that have built light rail have also lost transit market share. Between 1990 and 2011, transit’s market share in Dallas-Fort Worth dropped 42 percent. St. Louis dropped 20 percent over the same period. Houston, which began building later, lost more than a quarter of its transit market share from 2000 to 2011. Each of these cities had miniscule transit shares (even smaller than Portland’s), both before light rail and after.

Transit is about Downtown

Transit access to destinations outside downtown Portland remains scant. Despite the huge expenditures on transit, only 8 percent of the jobs in the metropolitan area can be reached by the average employee in 45 minutes, despite the fact that nearly 85 percent of workers are within walking distance of the transit stops or stations. Portland’s transit access is better than the national major metropolitan average of six percent.

But Portland trails a number of other metropolitan areas and is well behind the best, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Even Milwaukee’s transit access, however, is “nothing to write home about,” at only 14 percent. This makes a mockery of the “transit access” measure used by many planning agencies. Being close to a transit stop or station is of little help if service to the desired destination is not available or takes too much time.

According to the latest American Community Survey data, the average work trip by people driving alone in Portland is 23.6 minutes, while the average commute trip by transit is 43.8 minutes. It is no wonder that transit ridership is so low. Few who have a choice will opt for spending an additional three hours more than necessary per week commuting.

Draconian Service Cuts Threatened

Further, Portland transit users could face draconian service reductions. Tri-Met, which operates light rail and most Oregon services, has warned that it may be required eventually to cut 70 percent of its service. This results from the failure to control labor costs, particularly pension costs, which is detailed in an Oregonian article. John Charles, president of the Cascade Policy Institute found that $1.63 all the benefits were being paid out for every dollar of wages, a claim confirmed by PolitiFact. The concern extends to the state capital, where the legislature has overwhelmingly approved a bill requiring an audit of Tri-Met by the Secretary of State.

The Clackamas County Voter Revolt

Tri-Met continues to expand light rail, but with some “pushback.” An under-construction line to Milwaukie evoked such controversy in Clackamas County, that voters elected an anti-light rail majority to the county commission. Voters have banned light rail expenditures without a public vote in the suburban municipalities of Tigard and King City. Clark County (Washington), voters rejected funding for a light rail connection to the Portland system. This opposition was at the heart of defunding a replacement Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River. The project recently closed after spending $175 million (see Project Closing Notice).

Were the Former Days Better than These?

With the investment and expansions, these should have been the halcyon days of transit in Portland. The future could be even more challenging.

Comments (11)

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  1. Lloyd says:

    Public transit serves its purpose in majorly developed urban areas. Places like Houston and Dallas really have tried over and over again to built such infrastructure, but they lacked the market’s support or the needed environment for such mass transit.

    • Lennon says:

      Market support is a huge part of this issue, because without market support it can’t be a viable option in our “quazi-capitalistic society”

  2. Bosh says:

    Dallas has set up the Dart light rail system that is extremely helpful for people in their daily commute.

    • Levin says:

      There has to be mass overpopulation of an area for people to actually be incentivized to use a rail system. It has be easier to use the light rail than it is to use a car (I.E. NYC)

      • Baldwin says:

        “With the investment and expansions, these should have been the halcyon days of transit in Portland. The future could be even more challenging.”

        Yes, and Portland is not overpopulated to the extent at which a light rail would be better.

  3. Larry says:

    “Transit access to destinations outside downtown Portland remains scant. Despite the huge expenditures on transit, only 8 percent of the jobs in the metropolitan area can be reached by the average employee in 45 minutes, despite the fact that nearly 85 percent of workers are within walking distance of the transit stops or stations. Portland’s transit access is better than the national major metropolitan average of six percent.”

    If there transit access is so high, what is going on?

    I guess there isn’t enough demand.

    • Larry says:

      “Portland trails a number of other metropolitan areas and is well behind the best, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Even Milwaukee’s transit access, however, is “nothing to write home about,” at only 14 percent. This makes a mockery of the “transit access” measure used by many planning agencies.”

      That is what is going on.

  4. David says:

    The problem with any infrastructure building activity is always the extreme amounts of capital it takes to construct. We see the same with California’s desire to build a one-hundred billion dollar rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

    However, the CEO of Tesla has come out recently and said his train could not only go faster, but would only be 10% of the cost proposed by California. Privatizing future infrastructure projects may become the norm in a globalizing society.

    • JD says:

      Definitely. If it works, let businesses do it. If not, why would we want to invest public money there? It seems that the government invests most often based on hope.

  5. Dewaine says:

    We need to quit trying to force things that aren’t feasible.

  6. Bob says:

    “Between 1990 and 2011, transit’s market share in Dallas-Fort Worth dropped 42 percent.” Isn’t this due to population growth and yet more sprawl? Dallas has the most miles of light rail of any U.S. city — but its population density is low.

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