Is Portland Light Rail a Success?

Paul Weyrich is a conservative’s conservative. His Free Congress Foundation supports fiscal responsibility, opposes activist judges, and has made the “traditional family” a major “policy issue.”

Weyrich also loves trains. The Free Congress Foundation also sponsors the New Electric Railway Journal, which promotes light-rail transit and streetcars. I’m a rail nut too, and so are Bob Poole, Joseph Vranich, and a lot of other people who are skeptical of federal funding for rail transit. Weyrich, however, supports such funding.

Far be it from me to question whether there is a conflict between Weyrich’s desire for a smaller federal government and his desire for huge federal subsidies for light-rail transit. After all, I once approvingly quoted a letter from the Federal Highway Administration, which led the Congress for the New Urbanism to call me a “neolibertarian”, apparently willing to support any big-government program that suits me.

What really counts for me is whether rail transit works by some reasonable definition. Does it cost-effectively provide mobility, reduce congestion, and protect the environment? My recent report debunking Portland said Portland’s “MAX” light rail isn’t working. Weyrich says that it is.

Let’s look at his points one by one.

1. Thanks to light rail, “quality development is taking place in Portland.” In fact, there is no evidence that rail transit is leading to any new development in Portland. At best, it may lead to some development in one part of Portland that would have taken place in another part of the Portland area. But even that development does not seem to take place unless it is supported by subsidies on top of the subsidies to rail transit. My Cato paper showed that Portland has given out close to $2 billion of such subsidies. Before it was giving out those subsidies, not a single transit-oriented development was built along the light-rail line.

2. “No one in Portland officialdom seeks to force people from their automobiles.” It is true that Portland police are so far not dragging people from their cars and stuffing them into light-rail trains (though that may only be because Portland cut police budgets to keep up the subsidies for rail). But Portland has a deliberate policy of increasing congestion along all rail corridors to gridlock levels (what traffic engineers call “level of service F”) because, as one Portland planner said, relieving congestion “would eliminate transit ridership.”

3. “The idea in Portland is to offer commuters a choice. . . . Most libertarians would leave the resident with only his automobile.” Other possible choices include dirigibles, horses and buggies, and shooting people out of cannons. Does Mr. Weyrich advocate federal subsidies for those choices too? When it comes down to it, they are not really any more ridiculous than the 1930s technology called light rail. Libertarians who have studied transportation know that there are lots of transit alternatives that do not require huge subsidies to transit bureaucracies.

4. “Many (Portlanders) use their public transportation system.” My Cato report showed that in 1980, before Portland began building light rail, 9.8 percent of commuters rode transit to work. Today, thanks to the high cost of rail, which forced Portland to raise bus fares and cut back on bus service, only 7.6 percent of commuters take transit to work. Apparently, to Mr. Weyrich, the fact that people use it at all makes it a success. My standard for success is somewhat higher.

5. “Those Oregonians who prefer the suburbs and work downtown take MAX.” Which Oregonians is he talking about? The Portland Business Alliance’s census of downtown employers found that only 14 percent of downtown commuters take light rail; more than half take cars. Only 11 percent of Portland-area jobs are located in downtown, and light rail hardly serves commuters to the rest of the region.

6. “The most common complaint about transit systems is that they are crowded during rush hours but empty the remainder of the day. Not so with MAX.” Just how often does Weyrich, a DC-area resident, ride it? TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, reports that its light-rail cars carry an average of 27 people, only a little more than the national average (for light rail) of 25. Portland’s cars have 64 or more seats and can supposedly carry another 100 people standing, so they can hardly be crowded throughout the day.

7. “Americans greatly prefer trains to buses.” We certainly enjoy watching trains. But there is little evidence that more people will ride trains than buses operating on similar schedules. The real problem is that the trains are so expensive that cities that build trains end up cutting bus service. As one result, cities that had rail transit in the 1990s ended up losing transit commuters, while cities that had only bus transit ended up gaining transit commtues. Even if there are a few Americans snobbish enough to ride a train but not a bus, do they somehow deserve the huge subsidies that trains require?

8. “The streetcar has attracted more than $3 billion in new and rehabbed development.” Did Mr. Weyrich even read the report he claims to be answering? I showed that the developments along the streetcar line received well over $665 million in subsidies. Subsidies to developments along the light-rail lines have been much more.

9. “Mr. O’Toole believes that light rail and streetcars are too slow. The speed Mr. O’Toole cites includes station stops.” How can anyone ignore station stops?

10. “A typical MAX train will carry almost five times the number of passengers as a bus.” Technically true; the average Portland bus carries 10 people; the “typical MAX train” has two cars with 27 people. (Though lots of MAX trains have only one car; none have more than two.) But this ignores the fact that almost all of the buses in TriMet’s inventory could easily carry the 54 people on a “typical” light-rail train.

11. “The purpose of the streetcar is to act as a circulator. The speed is irrelevant.” Speed is never irrelevant. The Portland Business Alliance survey found that only 1 percent of downtown workers take the downtown streetcar to work. It sounds to me like it is the streetcar that is irrelevant.

12. “Portland ranks 13th in transit ridership in a city that ranks 25th in population.” Just think how much transit ridership would be if they had never built light rail and transit was still carrying 9.8 percent of commuters to work!

13. “The median commute in the 33 most populous cities is 24.3 miles per day. In Portland, thanks to its excellent transit system, is 20.3 average commute miles per day.” Commute lengths correlate with a region’s size; bigger regions have longer average commutes. Since Portland, as Weyrich says, is only the 25th largest urban area, you would expect its commute to be less than the average of the top 33 regions. When transit carries only 7.6 percent of commuters, it is not going to have much of an effect on average commute lengths.

Portland transit carries only 2.2 percent of the region’s passenger travel — a percentage that, like the share of commuting, has declined since before the region began building rail transit. Even if 2.2 percent were an increase above previous rates, it is too small to have an impact on congestion, development, or anything else that would justify huge subsidies. Despite this, the Portland area is spending around half of its transportation capital funds on transit, mostly rail transit.

Portland’s light rail has not reduced congestion. It has not gotten a significant number of people out of their cars. It has not provided mobility that couldn’t have been provided by buses at a far lower cost.

Rail transit has not generated any new development — all the developments that are claimed for it were actually the result of huge subsidies. Before the subsidies began, the city admitted that not a single transit-oriented development was built along the rail lines.

Nor is rail safer than buses — data show that light rail kills about three times as many people, per passenger mile carried, as buses. Light rail also suffers much more crime, both in Portland and elsewhere. As previously noted here, one policeman described MAX as “a living nightmare,” adding that, “I would not ride it at night — and I”m armed all the time.”

Weyrich thinks Portland’s rail is successful because people are riding it. Not more people than would ride transit without it, just that people ride it. For that Portland has received more than a billion dollars in federal subsidies. As much as I like trains, I can’t agree that those subsidies are a good thing.


7 thoughts on “Is Portland Light Rail a Success?

  1. JimKarlock

    Weyrich thinks Portland’s rail is successful because people are riding it.
    jk: Typical planner thinking. As John Charles related one planner’s line: The project was a success the day it opened. (because it opened)

    In the fantasy world of planners, success has nothing to do with being useful, only with having spent the money on political allies.


  2. StevePlunk

    As an Oregonian living in Medford I often wonder how much time and resources Oregon Dept. of Transportation wastes on Portland light rail. I realize gas tax (and weight mile tax)are limited to roads but there are ways to shift resources and play the gray areas to benefit light rail.

    Does the Antiplanner think this is a valid concern?

  3. The Antiplanner Post author


    ODOT spends no gas taxes on light rail. But now the state is spending some of its lottery dollars on transportation, and a huge amount of those dollars are going to build the Clackamas light-rail line.

    ODOT does spend gas taxes on state highways, and I would not be surprised of some of those taxes are going for “arterial traffic calming,” which reduces road capacities, in the Portland area. Portland is applying arterial traffic calming measures to such state highways as Sandy and Barbur Boulevards.

  4. Bobby Clark

    Excellent piece. I should think there might be some tourism benefits to the lightrail to the airport and the downtown streetcars. But for me a longtime resident of the city of Portland, streetcars are an obstacle. They take up road space, the grooves are a hazard to my biking, they are slow and appear to take away from bus service. Even with regard to tourism, I took some of my rural Tennesse relatives on the Max to show them a bit of the city and they weren’t impressed by the profanity, panhandling, etc. attracted by the Max. So, I think you even have to be selective on what tourists you invite to ride the Max.

  5. lefty

    Interesting article, I would like to point out one flaw and comment on a few other points. With respects to Point #6 I believe Weyrich’s comment meant to point out that Portland’s light rail has a much more consistent volume of usage throughout the day, rather than being used primarily during rush hour periods.

    As for the efficiency of the light rail system, I agree that it is not as successful as many planners and proponents of the system suggest. Many people seem to see trains as more efficient than buses and also as a “cooler” method of transport. Trains potentially carry more people than buses, but that potential does not outweigh the severe negatives. One issues is the added hazard on the road to cyclist (which Portland is supposed to be incredibly fond of). Secondly, there is the issue of idiot drivers. I have seen the Streetcar shut down or unable to move a number of times because someone pulled too far forward at an intersection or parked too far away from the curb, consequently blocking the streetcar’s path. Buses do not encounter such issues, since the bus driver can adapt to changes in the route, they can move around obstacles , make slight adaptations to avoid closed streets, etc . . . The biggest question is how do you get people to ride buses and eliminate the stigma of ‘only poor people ride buses.’

    I greatly appreciate your comment #9. Food for thought: It takes me 15 minutes to ride my bike from my home to PSU, it takes about 20-30 minutes INCLUDING walking to ride the bus there (barring any delays), and including walking it takes me 30-45 minutes to ride the streetcar there. Efficient? I think not.

    I do not believe that the light rail system is a complete failure and does have some major benefits. When I needed to commute to Beaverton for awhile, it was highly efficient for more to ride my bike to PGE park, hop on the Max and get off in Beaverton and ride my bike to my destination. I will say that riding the Max with a bicycle is much easier than the bus, but hey that’s just my opinion.

  6. the highwayman

    JimKarlock Says:
    Weyrich thinks Portland’s rail is successful because people are riding it.
    jk: Typical planner thinking. As John Charles related one planner’s line: The project was a success the day it opened. (because it opened)

    In the fantasy world of planners, success has nothing to do with being useful, only with having spent the money on political allies.

    THWM: Though there are plenty of highway projects that seem to have been done just so some politico could cut a ribbon.

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