TriMet’s New Transit Bridge to the Last Century

On June 30 TriMet formally began construction on the new Willamette River Bridge for the Portland-Milwaukie light rail (PMLR) line. The bridge will be part of a 7.3-mile rail spur running from the Portland State University campus to a parking garage just south of Milwaukie on McLoughlin Boulevard. At a construction cost of more than $205 million per mile, this will be the most expensive transit project in Oregon history.

During the ground-breaking ceremony, economically illiterate politicians raved about how this project would “make Portland more competitive” (Portland Mayor Sam Adams), “reduce congestion on McLoughlin Boulevard” (Oregon Transportation Commission Chair Gail Achterman), and “show the rest of the country that this is not just spending, but a bridge to the future” (Congressman Kurt Schrader).

Any competent group of high school sophomores would know how silly these claims are. Building another rail line at a cost of $1.5 billion will make Portland less competitive than it would be otherwise, because the region has to allocate $750 million in “local funds” to match federal grants. All of that money could be spent on other more useful projects (like replacing the unsafe Sellwood Bridge) if light rail wasn’t constantly crowding them out.

Light rail has never reduced traffic congestion in the region and never will because it carries too few people. And contrary to the notion popularized by TriMet, the main corridor for this line – McLoughlin Boulevard – is not very congested, even at peak periods; it easily could be used for express bus service, which would travel at double the speed of light rail.

Finally, rail transit is not the future of cities. Passenger rail travel peaked in the Portland region and most other cities 100 years ago, and it will never come back due to the safety, speed and convenience of private auto travel.

Despite the vast expense, few people will ever benefit from Milwaukie light rail. TriMet estimates that in the opening year of 2015, the line will carry an average of 13,000 weekday “boardings.” Of those, 4,500 will be former bus rides diverted to light rail. Since each rider typically makes two “boardings” per day, the number of actual new transit customers will be around 4,250. So in construction costs alone, we will spend more than $352,941 per new rider.

I suspect that if we could locate these hoped-for riders and ask them how they’d really prefer to spend the taxpayer gift of $353,000, relatively few would choose a slow train to Portland.

The cost-per-mile numbers are staggering when compared with transit projects elsewhere. In 2002 Metro estimated that the same Milwaukie light rail project utilizing the Hawthorne Bridge would cost only $72 million per mile. The North Portland MAX line was built for $60 million per mile.

Express bus service is especially attractive in comparison. The Eugene Bus Rapid Transit line, known locally as the “Emerald Express,” cost $6 million per mile. The Los Angeles Rapid Bus system was implemented for a mere $335,000 per mile.

Because the LA Rapid Bus service is so economical, it has been implemented on 369 miles of routes in less than a decade. The service utilizes existing arterials and provides faster travel times than light rail by limiting passenger stops to no more than one per mile.

TriMet could have implemented a rapid-bus option on McLoughlin Boulevard years ago if good service was actually a priority, but it isn’t. In fact, during the past two years TriMet bus service has been cut by 14%, rail service by 10%, and the most recent new rail line – the Green Line to Clackamas Town Center – is operating 33% below planned-for levels. At certain times of the day, service is now down to one train per hour on the Green Line.

How many average taxpayers would vote to spend $1.5 billion on a slow train? We already know the answer. In both 1996 and 1998, the North/South light rail project to Milwaukie was on the ballot, and it was voted down each time. But those results clearly don’t matter to the seven members of the TriMet board, who are all appointed by the governor. They never have to answer directly to voters.

TriMet is taking a huge gamble with this project. The formal grant application for the $750 million in federal money has not even been submitted to the Federal Transit Agency; and local matching funds promised by Portland, Milwaukie and Clackamas County don’t exist. TriMet is building a transit-only bridge (no cars or trucks will be allowed) on pure speculation that more than a billion dollars will be forthcoming to finish the deal.

That speculation may prove fatal. Earlier this week the Oregon legislature revoked approval for $39 million in bond funding for another “iconic” boondoggle, the so-called Oregon Sustainability Center. Local proponents were shocked that the funding was pulled; they had assumed for years that the necessary tax subsidies for their green fantasy would be approved, and they were wrong.

TriMet could be building a bridge to nowhere. If it dies in mid-construction, it would be a fitting monument to the arrogance of the TriMet board.

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