MAX at 30: Portland Transit Needs a New Plan

CascadeNewLogoBy John A. Charles, Jr.

September 5 marked the official 30th anniversary of the opening of TriMet’s light rail system. Like many Portland residents, I took a free ride that day and felt that this was a big step forward for transit service.

Unfortunately, actual performance never lived up to the hype. My hopes for “high-speed” transit were dashed when I discovered how many stops there were. The average train speed today is only 18 MPH.

My expectation that MAX would include five or six train cars was also incorrect. There are only two cars per train on MAX, and there will never be more than two cars because Portland has 200-foot blocks in downtown. Longer trains would block busy intersections.

The cost of construction also spiraled out of control. The Orange line to Milwaukie cost $210 million per mile, making it hundreds of times more costly than simple bus improvements.

In short, MAX is a low-speed, low-capacity, high-cost system, when what we really need is just the opposite—a higher-speed, higher-capacity, low-cost system.

Regional leaders should pull the plug on any more rail and start focusing on the future of transit, which will feature driverless vehicles, door-to-door delivery, and private car-sharing services such as Uber Technologies.

The passenger rail era died a hundred years ago. It’s time for Portland to get into the 21st century.

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

  • myke

    Passenger rail is NOT dead, it’s just poorly managed, and bloated. Its not in the interest of government to find efficiency.

    • Granola girl

      Totally agree. My husband has done work for Tri Met and he can’t believe the amount of waste that goes into their projects. No checks and balances – just an open checkbook that we the public pay for.

    • David Clark

      You forgot to mention that is costs at least 4 times what driving a car costs. You forgot to mention that transit is slower than driving.

  • Bob Clark

    You could have bought about 500,000 new electric bicycles for the cost of the orange line, and simply paved instead of cemented the path ways (electric bicycles can get up to 28 mph). Folks could have had door-to-door service instead of like driving their car to an orange line parking spot, drudging and waiting for the train to arrive. Maybe could have bought 70,000 smart electric cars with the same attributes of door-to-door service.

    Most times of the day the Orange line is maybe used at 5 to 10 percent of capacity; it is only weekday rush hour where it is squeezed; and mostly people just trying to avoid the stiff parking fees in down town Portland.

  • Get Real

    Passenger rail isn’t dead in all cases, but the type of LRT that is typical in cities like Portland, Seattle and SLC is a total waste of money, and a halfway reasonable Bus Rapid Transit line would have been far cheaper and probably work just as well (at least, if Portland would get with it and invest in their buses again, and buy some articulated models). But it doesn’t have the cache of light rail.

    Heavy rail (true rapid transit) works well in the biggest cities, in the most dense areas, but Portland is not, and will never, ever be, the type of place that would benefit from it, nor could it ever afford it. We couldn’t even handle managing a project of that scale without massive overruns and corruption. However, it wouldn’t have been that hard to have LRT that at least ran grade-separated most of its way, and ran at reasonable speeds with fewer stops. Longer trains wouldn’t work downtown without a tunnel, but could elsewhere if passenger demand were ever high enough (it’s not).

    What we need is a REAL, comprehensive and holistic plan to handle our growth that includes buses and alternate modes of transit, and yes, wider roads and some desperately needed new freeways. More LRT is not the answer!! They never have eliminated any measurable amount of traffic.

    But knowing Metro, we’ll lose another major road (Barbur) that will turn into a one-lane, slow traffic nightmare that will no longer work as an alternative to I-5 when it’s jammed up.

    Way to go guys for screwing up our transportation system!