“Field of Dreams” Is No Strategy for TriMet

PortlandTriMetMAX.serendipityThumbSeptember 12 will be the 15th anniversary of the opening of Westside MAX. Unlike most transit projects, Westside light rail was deliberately routed through vacant land with the expectation that it would be a catalyst for “Transit-Oriented Development” (TOD). Planners stated, “The success or failure will be determined in large part by what happens around its 20 stations.”

Fifteen years later, the record is disappointing. There have been thousands of housing units built near light rail, but very little retail or office space. In at least two cases, ground-floor retail near light rail was such a flop that it was later ripped out and converted to residential. Most projects have been under-built for parking, causing problems for both residents and neighbors.

Most importantly, light rail did not magically change travel behavior in Washington County. Extensive field monitoring by Cascade shows that for a quarter-mile or half-mile radius around MAX stations, more than 85% of all trips to and from the area during the morning peak period take place in a motor vehicle. Light rail use rarely exceeds 8% of all trips, and the ratio drops even more on weekends.

The “Field of Dreams” strategy was fun for a movie, but it hasn’t worked for transit planning. TriMet should learn from this experience and pull the plug on any more light rail projects.

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

Learn more at cascadepolicy.org.

  • Bob Clark

    It should be obvious to anyone traveling congested highways and seeing the Max go by with a few passengers aboard, light rail doesn’t really help relieve congested highways going through the core center of the City of Portland. Max usually just replaces what would otherwise be bus riders. It’s even worse for the proposed light rail extension to Vancouver. Instead, of having express bus service – the C-Tran speeding folks back and forth to Vancouver – these riders would instead be forced to right the yellow line with numerous stops meandering through North Portland. This is a cruel joke, even if it is Vancouverites.
    Another amazing thing I recently discovered is TriMet’s credit rating on its bonds is in some cases is AAA (considered a risk free investment, even better in quality than Oregon state’s general obligation bonds). This is because they are supposedly backed, lock and key by payroll taxes. But being an investor myself in tax free muni’s, I wouldn’t go near TriMet bonds. When things get tough and a government agency has to file for bankruptcy, the courts lately have been giving priority status to unfunded employee liabilities, something I don’t think the rating agencies fully recognize.
    Heck, if I could short TriMet bonds, it might be worth some spec monies. Somebody should develop a short TriMet bond fund.

    • Metro taxpayer

      Then there’s the oncology attending the spreading TriMet Orange (lemon) Line where repeated voter disapproval was never taken seriously, even though the a former Rose City Transit interurban rail clearly evidenced as impractical and unsustainable.

      Oh, the arrogance of TriMet, Metro, too – a pair of zoological specimens where their ‘do’ is unto taxpayers believing the tumorous regional government mindset is past due for chemotherapy.

  • guest

    Hey, do the crime train sound familia? Yep, it’s the same refrain attending the MAX gorilla in our midst metastasis’ going unchecked king kong forever and evermore.

  • Dan the Man

    On the other hand, as someone from the “other” Oregon –the part that usually just put up with the fallout of Portland-based politics– I gotta say I’m enjoying my visits to the area; indulging in the light rail rides that are only costing me about 30% of the actual cost of getting me around.

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