Connecting the dots for Willamette Week

I should preface what I write here by noting I like being a regular reader of Willamette Week. I’ve never been one to make blanket diatribes against the media. Willamette Week is a credible source of local news reporting.

In an article this week about TriMet’s $2.8 billion Southwest Corridor Project, however, Rachel Monahan made a false contrast. I’d like to connect the dots between three of her paragraphs:

“Stop repeating the mistake,” says John Charles, president and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute. “Light rail, heavy rail, streetcar—those are all failed strategies. Stop spending money. Anything light rail can do, buses can do better, cheaper and faster.”

Public transit advocates argue from the other direction that the new rail line will be a top-dollar project that doesn’t sufficiently address the needs of riders. They fear TriMet hasn’t focused sufficiently on how to increase its bus service and connect those buses to the new rail line.

The Orange Line doesn’t link to the bus hub in Milwaukie, creating a cumbersome transfer for riders. Former TriMet planner and transit advocate Jim Howell says he worries TriMet is making the same mistake with the Southwest Corridor Project.

John Charles and public transit advocates were not arguing from different directions here. Jim Howell was making the same argument.

Perhaps Monahan took Charles’s suggestion to “stop spending money” to mean he is totally opposed to public transportation, not realizing that like me John Charles has been a lifelong rider of public transit. The context of Charles’s quote was suggesting TriMet should stop spending money on new rail projects. That’s why he went on to say: “Anything light rail can do, buses can do better, cheaper and faster.”

For decades now, the Cascade Policy Institute has been contrasting steel wheels with rubber wheels. This implies that, to the extent we want to spend public dollars on transit, we get more mobility per dollar from buses than trains.

Jim Howell was making that argument by pointing out the limited connectivity of the MAX Orange Line. There were engineering constraints that prevented it from linking to TriMet’s Milwaukie Transit Center. Adding more bus routs would not have been subject to the same spatial limitations as trying to lay tracks across downtown Milwaukie. Again: “Anything light rail can do, buses can do better, cheaper and faster.”

For the Orange Line, TriMet spent significantly more money so that its riders could travel from Portland to Milwaukie more slowly and less reliably than an increased bus frequency or new bus route could have achieved. That’s something both the Cascade Policy Institute and many transit advocates tend to agree on. They see the same problem with the Southwest Corridor. No doubt there are some things Charles and many transit advocates disagree on, but both are heading in the same direction on light rail as they reach the shared conclusion of opposing this latest wasteful project.

I would be remiss if I did not point out one final thing. It has been the Cascade Policy Institute’s years of hard work that has been moving such a broad range of people into that common direction.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is also the author of We were winning when I was there.