Westside Commuter Rail Is a Fiscal Train Wreck

I received my copy of the TriMet monthly performance report yesterday. The most interesting news is the continued free-fall in the financial performance of the Westside Commuter Rail line (WES). Even by the low standards of TriMet, this is turning out to be a fiscal train wreck, especially when compared with bus or MAX service. The tale of the tape is below.

Operating cost per vehicle hour (May-April-March)

Bus $99 $92 $91
MAX $282 $279 $274
WES $1,408 $1,033 $875

Operating cost per vehicle mile (May-April-March)

Bus $7.56 $7.02 $6.93
MAX (car-mile) $10.27 $9.98 $9.85
WES $64.74 $47.07 $43.48

Operating cost per originating ride (May-April-March)

Bus $4.00 $3.68 $3.77
MAX $2.42 $2.45 $2.53
WES $32.74 $24.30 $21.06

While the cost per trip has increased 55% in just two months, ridership has stagnated. In February and March, the train averaged 1140 boardings per day (or 570 actual customers). In May it was only 1180, and most of those (by TriMet’s own estimate) were previous bus passengers.

TriMet’s operating deficit for WES was $336,246 in February, $373,195 in March, and $456,413 in April. Now that we know the monthly costs are skyrocketing, the deficit will go up as well. We are probably losing more than $500,000 per month on WES, of which Washington and Clackamas counties make up about $225,000 together.

There’s a reason why FTA did not want to fund this project with federal dollars. They knew it would be a financial loser. Too bad former Sen. Gordon Smith bailed it out with an earmark. Now we’re stuck with a white elephant that won’t go away.

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