“Weak transit hurts working class,” claims an article in the Portland Tribune. “Communities of color, lower-income communities and English language learners have moved farther from city centers due to rising rents, and into high-crash corridors,” reports the article. “These community members are injured and killed in pedestrian crashes at a higher rate than white, higher-income urbanites.”
What the article doesn’t say is that the reason why low-income people were pushed out of their rented, single-family homes near the city center is because Portland’s urban-growth boundary prevented the construction of affordable new single-family homes on the urban fringes. This forced middle-class families to buy single-family homes in the city, evicting the renters.
Those renters then moved into high-density transit-oriented developments built along Portland’s light-rail line. Since those developments tend to be built on busy streets, the streets are more dangerous to pedestrians than the local streets where their former single-family homes are located. Thus, Portland’s transit dreams are the cause, not the solution, to this problem.
The article also quotes a member of the region’s policy advisory committee who said it took him an hour and 45 minutes to get to the committee meeting by transit. He added that it is a “working-class issue” to have access to transit.
Why is this a working-class issue? According to table B08141 of the 2016 American Community Survey, only 3.3 percent of workers in the Portland urban area live in households without cars. Of those, 16.6 percent drive alone to work and another 4.1 percent carpool. Only 41.3 percent take transit. That’s fewer than 14,000 people out of more than 1 million workers. There are a lot more than 14,000 working-class people in Portland, and most of them have found better ways to get around than by transit.
Naturally, no matter what the transportation problem, Portland transportation planners have the same solution they have used for the last fifty years: build a new light-rail line, then put more transit-oriented development along that line. The next line planners at Metro, Portland’s regional transportation agency, is the Southwest line, which would probably go to Tigard and Sherwood.
That’s not going to help the low-income “working-class” people mentioned above at all, as most of them live on Portland’s east side. Nor does Portland have the money for the project, which is expected to cost $2 billion or more than $230 million a mile. Even if the federal government keeps funding light rail, which isn’t certain, Metro would have to go to Portland-area voters in 2018 or 2020 to get the local matching funds, and those voters rejected transit funding the last couple of times it was on the ballot.
Metro has already decided not to put the measure on the ballot in 2018, probably because polling shows it would lose. But they have to get it passed by 2020 to keep to their timeline of finishing the project by 2027.
Currently, Metro is writing an environmental impact statement for the project. The “full range” of alternatives that will be considered include several different routings for the line, but no alternative would use buses instead of rail. This is supposedly because buses don’t have the capacity to move as many people as rail.
That’s, of course, crazy. The XBL lane in the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River, shown above, can move as many as 700 buses per hour. The buses used there are standard motorcoaches with about 55 seats and standing room for another 20. Thus, the capacity of that lane is 52,500 people per hour. In actual practice, the lane typically moves about 30,000 people per hour during the peak hour of the day. This is probably three times as many people as Portland’s busiest light-rail line has ever moved in the busiest hour of its existence.
The real reason why planners want light rail and not buses is because they ruined Portland’s downtown bus mall by putting light rail on it. The downtown bus mall had a very high capacity for moving buses, but when light rail was added, it actually reduced the corridor’s capacity because the buses displaced by the rail could carry more people than the trains could.
Now they have a light-rail line on the mall that simply loops around and goes the other way at the south end. Spending $2 billion or more on a Southwest line gives them an opportunity to send trains another dozen or so miles before turning around, thus not adding more traffic to the mall.
In short, Portland transportation planners have quite deliberately worked themselves into a corner in which the only viable solution is the one that was obsolete decades before Portland built its first rail line.
Needless to say, transit ridership is declining in Portland just as it is almost everywhere else. If they are lucky, they will still have a few riders when they get done building the new line. But they probably don’t particularly care, since the goal is to build it, and then build high-density development along the route, not to actually move people or relieve congestion.