Election: "Stop Portland Creep" Resonates in Suburbs

Election results from all three of Portland, Oregon's largest suburban counties indicate a reaction against what has been called "Portland Creep," the expansion of the expansive light rail system without voter approval and the imposition of restrictive densification measures by Metro, the regional land-use agency.

Portlanders in the three largest Oregon counties (Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas) have previously voted against financing light rail extensions, however the transit agency has found ways to continue the expansion and now operates five lines, with a sixth under construction. While urban rail aficionados tout the success of the Portland system, transit use by commuters has fallen significantly in relative terms from before the opening of the first light rail line. At the same time, working at home, which does not need billions in taxpayer subsidies, has caught up to and passed transit (Figure).

The electoral events of the past 60 days could severely limit future expansion.

Clackamas County: Chicanery and its Price

In a September 2012 election, voters in Clackamas County approved a measure by a 60% - 40% majority requiring that any commitment of funding to rail would require a vote of the people. Perhaps fearing a negative result in the election, the pro-rail Clackamas County commission hastily approved $20 million to support the under construction Portland to Milwaukie (Clackamas County) light rail line.

Things were to become substantially more difficult for light rail in the November election. In Clackamas County, the two incumbent commissioners on the ballot, both of whom voted for the $20 million bond issue, lost their seats. Voters rewarded their chicanery by replacing them with anti-rail commissioners, leaving the Clackamas County commission with a 3 to 2 anti-rail majority. The Oregonian characterized the election as "a referendum on light rail."

John Ludlow, who defeated Clackamas County commission chair Charlotte Lehan by a 52% to 48% margin, told The Oregonian:

"I think the biggest boost my campaign got was when those commissioners agreed to pay that $20 million to TriMet" for Portland-Milwaukie light rail four days before the September election. I think that put Tootie and me over the top." 

"Tootie" is Tootie Smith, a former state legislator who unseated commissioner Jamie Damon in the same election by a similar margin.

Washington County, Oregon: Taxpayers Take Control

Meanwhile, light rail has run into substantial difficulty in suburban Washington County. In September, voters in King City approved a measure to require all light rail funding to be approved by the voters. In the more recent November election, voters in Tigard, the 6th largest city (50,000 population) in the metropolitan area, voted 81%-19% to subject all light rail expenditures to a vote of the people.

Clark County, Washington: Voters Say No

Portland's transit agency also had its eye on expanding light rail service across the state line and the Columbia River to Vancouver, in Clark County, Washington. The plan was to build a new "Interstate Bridge" (Interstate 5) across the river, which would include light rail. The voters of Clark County were asked in a referendum to approve funding for the light rail system and turned it down soundly according to the Columbian, by a 56% – 44% margin.

But there was more. For some time, citizen activist and business leader David Madore has been working to stop both tolls on the new bridge and light rail service. Madore was elected to the board of commissioners of Clark County at the same time that the light rail referendum was being defeated. Madore, like the two other Clark County commissioners, also hold seats on the transit agency board.

Tri-Met's Death Spiral?

Further, Tri-Met's dire financial situation could be another barrier to future expansion. As John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute has shown, Tri-Met's fringe-benefit bill is astronomically high, at $1.63 for each $1.00 in wages. This is more than five times the average for public employers, according to US Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis data. Charles refers to Tri-Met as being in a "death spiral" and says that:  

"The agency is steadily devolving from a transit district to a retirement and health-care center, with unsustainable fringe benefit costs that now far exceed the mere cost of wages."

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The plan was to build a new Interstate Bridge across the river, which would include light rail. The voters of Clark County were asked in a referendum to approve funding for the light rail system...

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what about biking in Portland

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I have heard claims that now Portland has the highest bicycle commute share in the US. Is this true and how would this look on the above graph.

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Columbia River Crossing and telecommuting

Good of Wendell Cox to keep a spotlight on attempts to expand the reach of Portland's light rail.

The tangled relationship of Tri-Met light rail with the needs of cars and trucks to cross the Columbia River via the Interstate Highway System deserves attention as well. This is a case of urban parochial interests interfering with West Coast inter-state commerce, for example, the thick red line between Oregon and Washington on this map: http://www.ops.fhwa.dot.gov/freight/freight_analysis/nat_freight_stats/i...

Expanding on a brief mention in the essay above, a group of elected leaders in Vancouver, Washington is now formally urging that the States of Washington and Oregon remove light rail from the design of the proposed new I-5 bridge. See http://www.columbian.com/news/2012/nov/08/southwest-washington-lawmakers... These leaders are going to have to battle other electeds in two State Capitals and the U.S. Senate who seem to have caved in to light rail mania.

Changing topics, an error in Wendell's interesting report is the direct comparison he made in the chart of an urban area's light rail and work-at-home market shares. Light rail is a mode of travel, and working at home is a reason for not traveling. Implying that working at home, or telecommuting, is a commute travel mode is a common error, mixing up apples and rocks.

In general, telecommuting is growing as a practice all over the developed world, independent of the various modes of travel available. It works well in some job categories and industries, and not so well in others.

The Portland-Vancouver (OR-WA) work-at-home market share for not traveling undoubtedly includes employed people who are not traveling to job/boss/client location places in Washington State, California, Colorado, and even in regions of Oregon where light rail is never going to be an option.

And even for people living or working near light rail stations, the decision to work at home is related to a far larger set of socio-economic factors than the travel mode choices to various places of employment. Light rail should be compared to other modes of travel, not the options for non-travel.