The Millennials favorite city, Portland, is showing just how well light rail works in reducing congestion. Which is to say, it’s not working at all.
According to a new report from the Oregon Department of Transportation, between 2013 and 2015 the population of the Portland area grew by 3.0 percent, but the daily miles of driving grew by 5.5 percent. Since the number of freeway lane miles grew by only 1.0 percent, the number of hours roads are congested grew by 13.6 percent and the number of hours people are stuck in traffic grew by 22.6 percent. Many roads are now congested for six hours a day.
I’m not sure where those new freeway lane miles are supposed to be unless they resulted from expanding the region’s urban-growth boundary. Except for reconstruction of part of state highway 217–which wasn’t counted in the above numbers–there hasn’t been any new freeway additions in Portland since the 1970s. Instead, the region has been putting all of its spare dollars into light rail and streetcars.
Congestion is a pain, but Portland’s MAX light rail isn’t working much better. “A persistent network issue shut down the MAX system Tuesday morning,” reports the Oregonian. That was caused by a failing communications system, but the trains are suffering from more problems than that.
Light rail was supposed to be “all-weather transportation,” which turns out to be true so long as “all weather” means “all temperatures between 32 and 90 degrees.” When temperatures fall below 32, the overhead wires ice up and trains lose power. When they rise above 90, as they are now, the overhead wires sag, and trains have to slow to no more than 40 mph to prevent the wires from breaking. At 100 degrees (which it was yesterday), they have to slow to no more than 35 mph.
TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, offered free rides on the light rail on Wednesday and Thursday. However, this was less as an apology to the riders for slow trains than it was because the system’s ticket machines also stopped working in the heat.
It’s too bad there is no technology capable of moving large numbers of people in hot weather without worrying about overhead wires, and without worrying about one stopped vehicle blocking every other vehicle in the system. Oh wait, there is: it’s called buses. While they don’t relieve congestion any better than light rail, they cost a lot less. If Portland had relied on buses rather than rail, it would have had about $5 billion it could have spent on improving the region’s roadway system to relieve congestion for buses, cars, and trucks alike.