Last October, Portland, Oregon, played host to an event immodestly called "Rail-Volution." Portland is widely touted as a public transportation mecca and model "green" city, and more than a thousand public transport enthusiasts descended on this burg of about 580,000 to gush and gawk at the sights. When they weren't riding demo trips on the light rail, they attended seminars with names like "Bikeways and Green Streets," "High-Speed-Rail and Development Paradigm Shifts," and "Sustainable Communities for the New Economy." Portland's mayor presided over one of the seminars, and Earl Blumenauer, the left-wing congressman who represents Portland's east side, was a featured speaker. The event, one local wag noted, had the air of a religious revival.
Yet even the most zealous Jacobins of the Rail-Volution would have been hard-pressed to ignore the protest that occurred just outside its doors as the seminars were under way. More than 200 employees of TriMet, Portland's public transit agency, picketed the event, protesting proposed changes to their health care plan.
Like many public transport agencies nationwide, TriMet is in a deep financial hole. For its current fiscal year, TriMet is facing a $27 million deficit, and there is no relief in sight. As the rail-volutionaries celebrated in the face of financial catastrophe, it was hard not to think of an old story about fires and fiddles.
It's somewhat odd that Portland is considered ideal for transit development. Motorists here face none of the hellacious conditions that denizens of Los Angeles or Washington endure, and like most cities in the American West, its layout is decentralized. (Many of the area's big employers are actually located at highway exits outside the city limits.) Most neighborhoods have a suburban feel, with wide streets and single-family homes. And then there's the weather. Two hundred days of rain a year is not exactly conducive to the walking and busing way of life -- at least if you value dry feet. (Although we do have the rain to thank for Portland's booming craft beer business.) Huddling and shivering at a rainy rail stop may be "green," but it's certainly not very pleasant. Unsurprisingly, then, only 7.4 percent of all work trips in the Portland area are undertaken on public transport.
TriMet's profligacy has not made success any easier; its financial distress is a caricature of the governmental largesse that is now dousing municipal and state budgets in red ink nationwide. The findings of a recent audit are breathtaking. TriMet funds "the entire health care tab for union employees, their families and all retirees....TriMet is actually responsible for more in fringe benefits than wages." In sum, "for every dollar paid, TriMet is responsible for $1.52 in benefits." Even the Oregonian, Portland's liberal paper of record, editorialized, "Talk about 'fringe' benefits. These move TriMet into the 'cringe' and 'unhinge' zone. They make TriMet operators outliers not only among transit operators, nationally, but also among public employees." As its retirement and benefit costs have skyrocketed, TriMet has seen its revenue fall, all the more so during the economic slowdown. What's more, fewer than 50 percent of TriMet employees are engaged in operations; a huge portion of TriMet's budget goes toward marketing, research, and other fields that have little to do with moving people from point A to point B.
TriMet is now trying to cajole its workers into paying for a portion of their health care. Thus far the union has refused -- hence the protesters outside the Rail-Volution. So it's TriMet's customers who have taken it on the chin. Two bus lines have been cut altogether, and service frequency has been reduced throughout the system. The bus line near my home, along a busy commercial strip, used to run every 15 minutes all day -- at peak times, every five minutes. These days, it comes every 18 minutes, and after 8:00 p.m., every 35 minutes. For the privilege of less service, Portlanders now face a fare hike from $2.00 to $2.05.
A PECULIAR 21st-CENTURY OBSESSION with that most 19th-century of technologies -- rail -- is also pushing TriMet ever closer to the precipice. Like many transport authorities across the country, TriMet is obsessed with light rail, arguing it will attract riders who refuse to take the bus. Portland currently boasts four light rail lines as part of its MAX (Metro Area Express) network, which TriMet considers its crown jewel. But it is not clear that the rider experience on light rail is worth its exorbitant cost.
Rider surveys show that public transport users value speed and frequency more than anything. On these two counts, MAX, the toast of transit enthusiasts nationwide, can only be deemed a failure. Take the Blue Line, which connects downtown Portland with the suburb of Hillsboro, 19 miles away. On MAX, the ride takes 50 minutes, meaning that the Metro Area "Express" travels at an average clip of less than 23 miles per hour. Or consider the Green Line, which opened only last year, and which runs from downtown Portland to Clackamas, a suburb to the southeast. Not only does that 11-mile distance take 42 minutes to traverse (that's average speeds of 16 miles per hour, for those of you keeping score at home), but at off-peak times, the train runs only every 34 minutes. All in all, people in a hurry do well to avoid MAX.
And they do, according to TriMet's leading critic, John Charles of the free market Cascade Policy Institute. Charles has done years of rider counting at MAX stations, and has found that TriMet exaggerates how many people take MAX.
For September 2010, TriMet reported 124,410 MAX "boardings" on an average weekday. But Charles says, "One customer who commutes accounts for at least 2 (if not 4) boardings per day; the number would be one-half of boardings or less. Also we still have a ‘free-rail zone' [in Portland's inner core, where the MAX is accessible from the sidewalk, it's free], many rail boardings are just pedestrians hopping on and off after a few blocks."
TriMet brags that high-earning professionals at Nike and Intel commute via MAX to their suburban campuses in droves. But Cascade has counted MAX commuters at Intel's campus west of Portland; there's a station directly at the entrance. On a recent morning between 6:30 and 8:30, Cascade tallied 632 vehicles, two cyclists, 10 walkers, and 23 MAX riders entering the campus. At Nike's headquarters, meanwhile, Cascade found that only about 3 percent of employees commute by MAX. More generally, more Portlanders work at home than commute by public transport, and Wendell Cox, a public transport expert, has shown that since the advent of MAX, the percentage of Portlanders who commute via public transport has actually fallen. This gives the lie to the claim that light rail is uniquely poised to overcome people's reluctance to use public transport.
LIGHT RAIL IS very costly. As of 2004, $3 billion had already been spent on MAX in Portland, and the Green Line has added another $557 million to the total. This has added significant stress to the already stretched TriMet budget. Even without light rail, TriMet would be in trouble because of labor costs; MAX just makes matters worse. To wit, TriMet has already begun deferring maintenance of its MAX trains and tracks.
You know the adage, "When you're in a hole, stop digging"? TriMet has revised it to: "When you're in a hole, build more light rail." Despite its financial distress, TriMet now plans to build another MAX line, its most expensive yet. Construction is slated to begin this summer on a segment connecting Portland and Milwaukie, a sleepy town of 20,000. The price tag: $1.5 billion. As the line would stretch only 7.3 miles, the cost per mile would be a little more than $200 million. The federal government has agreed to foot half the bill, and TriMet plans to fund most of the rest by floating $724 million in bonds.
Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere has met its match: this is the Light Rail to Nowhere. Numerous buses already run between Milwaukie and Portland, and traffic on the extant corridor is relatively light. Fanciful utopian thinking is providing the intellectual impetus for the project. Environmentalists are thrilled that a bridge that would be constructed as part of the new line would allow rail, bicycles, and pedestrians, but not cars, and they're championing the project as an example of "green" development. TriMet, meanwhile, claims that 8,000 to 12,000 people who do not currently use public transport would elect to ride the new MAX line daily-this in spite of the low ridership that Cascade has recorded.
Of course, the taxpayers themselves have not been consulted on the project: TriMet's board is appointed by the governor, and it is they who "greenlit" the plan. Residents have instead taken to voicing their disapproval with TriMet in any way they can. Last November voters rejected a bond measure that would have purportedly been used to buy new buses. Jack Bogdanski, a law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School, credited the defeat to "a backlash by taxpayers who are fed up with wasteful rail boondoggles."
But the public has little recourse. Public transport authorities exist outside of democratic accountability; they're not elected, and thus come under little oversight. Should TriMet wish to build an astonishingly expensive and needless light rail line, there's little the taxpayer can do to stop them. If it wishes to sacrifice utilitarian bus service at the altar of light rail, the people have no veto. TriMet serves the interests of its workers and environmentalist sycophants. Its customers are increasingly left in the rain.
THIS BLEAK PICTURE presents a stark contrast to the reputation that Portland's public transport network enjoys in the national media and among public transit enthusiasts. The New York Times calls Portland the "city that loves mass transit," and runs gushing tributes to the supposed triumphs of TriMet. The L.A. Times muses, "What can Portland teach Los Angeles about transportation?" (One wonders whether TriMet's dozen person-plus PR and advertising staff deserves credit for this state of affairs.) Jennifer Dill, a professor at Portland State University and high priestess of the TriMet clan, is a celebrated speaker worldwide, giving talks with names like "Toward Sustainable Urban Mobility: Insights into Portland's Journey." Nor is this a new phenomenon: almost 20 years ago, the Atlantic purported to answer the question of "How Portland does it."
Thanks at least in part to Portland's PR successes, cities and states across the country are now replicating Portland's failures. Los Angeles is currently building an 8.6-mile light rail line that will cost almost $900 million. Seattle just opened the first 15.6 miles of its nascent rail network at a cost of $2.4 billion. The first phase of a rail project that will connect Dulles airport with Washington, D.C., will cost $2.65 billion. This is occurring as highways are deteriorating -- yet there is no precedent to indicate that residents of automobile-oriented Los Angeles, Seattle, and Northern Virginia will suddenly abandon their cars for light rail.
Portland's experience with public transport holds lessons for the rest of the country. But they're not the lessons that the Rail-Volutionaries think they are.