The local transit agency, TriMet, likes to claim that continued expansion of the regional rail system is critical because rail has operational cost savings over buses.
Unfortunately, this assertion overlooks a glaring problem: The rail system breaks down approximately 30% of the time.
I subscribe to a TriMet email system that notifies me every time there are service outages on light rail or the streetcar. During the past 12 months, I received more than 117 such notices.
The Steel Bridge rail crossing is the source of most problems, and when it goes out, four MAX lines are affected. Thousands of riders are inconvenienced, often for hours. But there are many other reasons for rail malfunctions: cold weather, hot weather, collisions with automobiles, and security problems, to name a few.
In addition, Portland streetcar service was completely shut down in the South Waterfront for three weeks in September, due to construction of the Milwaukie light rail line.
In every case of a rail outage, passengers have to be rescued by buses. The road system is ubiquitous, so buses have many options for traveling from one location to another. When a rail car goes down, everything behind it backs up.
TriMet’s management is obsessed with building more rail, but the backbone of daily service is the ordinary bus.
John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.