Portland’s Transit Halcyon Days?

For more than a quarter century, the leaders in the Oregon portion of the Portland metropolitan area have sought to transfer demand for urban travel from automobiles to transit. Six rail lines have been built, five of which are light rail and bus service has been expanded. If their vision were legitimate, transit’s market share should have risen substantially and automobile travel should have declined. Neither happened.

The results have been modest, to say the least. Since 1980, before the first rail line was opened, transit’s share of work trip travel in the metropolitan area has declined by one-quarter, from 8.4 percent to 6.3 percent. Overall, the share of travel by car remains about the same as before the first light rail line opened (based upon data from the Texas Transportation Institute and the Federal Transit Administration).

Transit access to destinations outside downtown Portland remains scant. Despite the huge expenditures on transit, only 8 percent of the jobs in the metropolitan area can be reached by the average employee in 45 minutes, despite the fact that nearly 85 percent of workers are within walking distance of the transit stops or stations. Portland’s transit access is better than the national major metropolitan average of six percent. But Portland trails a number of other metropolitan areas and is well behind the best, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which has a transit access figure of only 14 percent. This makes a mockery of the “transit access” measure used by many planning agencies. Being close to a transit stop or station is of little help if service to the desired destination is not available or takes too much time.

According to the latest American Community Survey data, the average work trip by people driving alone in Portland is 23.6 minutes, while the average transit commute trip is 43.8 minutes.

Further, Portland transit users could face draconian service reductions. Tri-Met, which operates light rail and most Oregon services, has warned that it may be required eventually to cut 70 percent of its service. This results from the failure to control labor costs, particularly pension costs, which is detailed in an Oregonian article. John Charles, president of the Cascade Policy Institute found that $1.63 all the benefits were being paid out for every dollar of wages, a claim confirmed by PolitiFact. The concern extends to the state capital, where the legislature has overwhelmingly approved a bill requiring an audit of Tri-Met by the Secretary of State.

Tri-Met continues to expand light rail, but with some “pushback.” An under-construction line to Milwaukie evoked such controversy in Clackamas County, that voters elected an anti-light rail majority to the county commission. Voters have banned light rail expenditures without a public vote in the suburban municipalities of Tigard and King City. Clark County (Washington), voters rejected funding for a light rail connection to the Portland system. This opposition was at the heart of defunding a replacement Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River. The project recently closed after spending $175 million (see Project Closing Notice).

With the investment and expansions, these should have been the halcyon days of transit in Portland. The future could be even more challenging.

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