In 2007, the New York Times called Portland “the city that loves mass transit.” The Antiplanner took issue with that claim then, and it is even less appropriate now. APTA’s latest ridership report reveals Portland’s transit agency, TriMet, carried 1.6 percent fewer trips in 2016 than in 2015. The American Community Survey says that the share of commuters taking transit to work fell from 8.1 percent in 2014 to 7.9 percent in 2015.
In reality, as the Antiplanner wrote in 2007, Portland is “the city whose officials love to spend money on transit.” That also remains unchanged, as TriMet is preparing a regional transit strategy that calls for more streetcars, more light-rail lines, and exclusive busways. To top it off, TriMet wants to build a light-rail subway through downtown, which will probably cost almost as much as all of Portland’s previous light-rail construction combined.
The region has already spent between $4 billion and $5 billion on light rail. Before commencing construction on the city’s first light-rail line, 9.9 percent of commuters took transit to work. Since it is now down to 7.9 percent, rail clearly has not boosted transit ridership. According to a report released last October, one-third of the region’s capital spending on transportation is going for transit, yet transit carries just 2.5 percent of the region’s motorized passenger miles (and virtually no freight).
Cascade Policy Institute director John Charles points out that TriMet’s inflation adjusted budget has increased by 72 percent since 1998, not counting the $3.6 billion spent on new rail lines, yet transit’s share of commuting declined. “Just 5% of all commuters in Southwest Portland took transit to work in 2016,” says Charles, yet TriMet wants to spend $2.4 billion on a light-rail line through that part of the city. “Cannibalizing current bus service with costly new trains” is hardly a sound transportation policy, he advises, yet Portland remains wedded to that policy.
Of course, nothing in any of Portland’s transit strategy documents hints at the impending arrival of driverless cars. Who cares if demand is falling today and is likely to fall even faster in the future? The real point of transit is to spend money (especially federal money) and to give the city an excuse to subsidize developers to build high-density housing near transit stations.