The Biased FTA Won’t Give Portland Its Streetcar Subsidies

Pity the poor city of Portland. It wants to build more streetcar lines, and its Godfather Earl created a special slush fund small starts program in the recent transportation bill for such new rail lines.

Only now the evil Federal Transit Administration (no doubt goaded by the evil Bush Administration) says that it will only give out small starts grants if cities can show that streetcars are more efficient than buses. Waahhh!

Portland’s streetcar passes through the Pearl District, which received hundreds of millions of dollars of federal and local subsidies thanks to Portland’s former godfather, Neil Goldschmidt.
Flickr photo by NeiTech.

This isn’t really news. When the Federal Transit Administration published its rules for small starts, other cities that wanted streetcars realized that the rules favored things that, you know, actually moved people, so they all dropped out of the competition. Portland was the only city that submitted a streetcar proposal, and now (unless Godfather Earl can somehow intervene) it looks certain to be rejected.

Of course, the headlines — “Federal rules prefer buses” — have it wrong. The FTA does not prefer buses, it prefers cost effectiveness. Why spend a hundred million dollars on a streetcar line when you can start up equal or better service with buses for two or three million? But, for some reason, the Oregonian and other streetcar advocates think that disseminators of federal tax funds should “give preference” to slow, inflexible, expensive rail lines over buses.

Other cities, including Kansas City, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Springfield, Oregon, are using small-starts funds to extend bus-rapid transit service. Kansas City’s 13-mile Troost Corridor, for example, is expected to cost $31 million. That’s less than one mile of a double-track streetcar line. Bus-rapid transit operating costs are probably lower and ridership gains higher than for streetcars. Too bad the FTA is “biased” in favor of buses!

Streetcar advocates often say that 7-mile-per-hour streetcars aren’t about transportation, they are about economic development. But they expect the Department of Transportation to pay for them out of highway user fees. Why didn’t they ask the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the money?

Of course, the Antiplanner doesn’t believe that streetcars catalyze economic development. Instead, they merely catalyze more tax subsidies for economic development. Portland spent $90 million on a streetcar line and $665 million on subsidies to development — then credited the development to the streetcar line. Yeah, right.

Meanwhile, a Portland newspaper writer complains that taking transit on the nine-mile trip from his home to work takes 2 hours and 22 minutes. What he doesn’t say is that this is because a key link between his home and work, the 1925 Sellwood Bridge, is crumbling away and has been closed to buses since 2001. Portland transit and Portland auto drivers must both suffer because Portland places a higher priority on building streetcar and light-rail lines than replacing old bridges.


18 thoughts on “The Biased FTA Won’t Give Portland Its Streetcar Subsidies

  1. JimKarlock

    You left out the part about streetcars INCREASING congestion. Here is the proof:

    The Oregonian: If the Eastside Streetcar is built, about 4,537 housing units would be added along the route, compared with 1,105 without it,… Residents in such dense neighborhoods travel an average of 9.8 miles a day by car, less than half the 21.8 miles a day for Portland-area suburbanites. By driving less, they reduce roadway congestion, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
    JK: Wrong.
    The correct math is:
    Low density……1,105 x 21.8 = 24,089 new car-miles per day IN THE AREA UNDER DISCUSSION.
    High Density….4,537 x 9.8 = 44,462 new car-miles per day, about double the total new driving IN THE SAME AREA
    That is an example of how high density causes congestion.
    Also see:

    Any Comments from the planner’s?


  2. Francis King

    I’m a transport planner rather than an urban planner.

    Mr. Karlock’s calculations are correct. The problems are:

    1) Once you go for urban sprawl, you’re stuck with it. This includes high levels of car ownership, fossil fuel consumption (I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if security issues trump global warming concerns), problems with putting in transit (so congestion occurs in areas which are high density already), and (in densely packed countries like the UK and Holland) damage to the countryside. Not everyone is going to want to live in high density housing, but then again there is a market for higher density areas. Once the houses are built, it will be very difficult to increase the density, if people don’t want it anymore. Urban sprawl is therefore a gamble, not a dead cert.

    2) Most of the problems with high density are down to trying to built old-fashioned communities, but with lots of cars. If you’re going high-density, get rid of the cars. Make it a positive thing, rather than a sacrifice for the common good. Try for bicycles, golf carts, boardwalks, modern transit, this sort of thing. Be adventurous. Places that have done these things tend to be very popular – Venice, Mackinac Island, Amsterdam, etc. If you look at old (~1900) photographs of high density housing in Europe, there were no cars.

    Venice, which is at a very high density, has all of the canals that it used to have, except one. Mussolini decided that the future was cars, and ordered that the canals in Venice should be filled in. After filling the first one, they realised how supid it was, and stopped.

  3. D4P

    Residents in such dense neighborhoods travel an average of 9.8 miles a day by car

    Does this mean:

    1. “residents in such dense neighborhoods with a streetcar like the one proposed”
    2. “residents in such dense neighborhoods without a streetcar like the one proposed”
    3. “residents in such dense neighborhoods that may or may not have a streetcar like the one proposed”

  4. Royko

    You just explained the the documented decline in on-time reliability for Houston METREAUX!

    First, since the METRORail boondoggle tram has no set schedule, they have a 100% on-time record; whereas, the METREAUX bus “On-Time” performance has collapsed!

    On METREAUX’s web site, the Monthly report for BUSES in October 2005 (page 12) showed an on-time performance of 82.6% (goal 85%), the on-time performance was not reported in October 2006 (page12), and the October 2007 Monthly report (page 11) for BUSES had an on-time performance at 57% which is a -31% DECLINE in just TWO YEARS!!!

    Worse, the November report for BUSES which was posted a few weeks ago shows the on-time performance for November 2007 (page 11) has declined further, DOWN to a pitiful 51%!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    It was my contention that METRO is trying to make as many folks miserable so they will not oppose the METRO Grandiose Urban Rail Empire being forced on all of us.

    I was partially correct! The main reason likely is to dupe the FTA into concluding that unsafe, unreliable, and underutilized urban rail appears, after subterfuge, to be more efficient than buses.

  5. Dan

    I agree with the premises of FK in #2 above. If I may expand on those arguments therein a bit:

    The issue remains the separation of live-work space. As long as this remains (and as long as human population keeps increasing), one must have some form of transport. Wherever you put people, they will need to travel to work and to obtain food and other necessities.

    What should be also included when one talks about density is the number of trips per day (TPD) per person, which is what transportation planners talk about in addition to VMT. In neighborhoods with proximate services, the VMT and TPD per person are lower as some vehicle trips are replaced by non-motorized trips.

    What remains is where folks choose to live. Some folks choose to live in high-density areas. Why are some here arguing against that exercise of individual choice? Is it because those choices impinge upon others? Why, then do some reject the same argumentation when the choices of a few would impinge upon the majority? Let us be consistent.


  6. prk166

    DS —> I don’t recall seeing anyone here arguing that people should have the choice to live in a high density area. I sure as hell wouldn’t argue against my choice do so. I have seen arguments against subsidizing that choice. If anything, any backlash against density here tends to be a reaction against those who insist that because they feel urban sprawl is bad that they will force upon everyone else that belief.

  7. Lorianne

    I don’t recall seeing anyone here arguing that people should have the choice to live in a high density area.

    I assume you mean shouldn’t have that choice. And yes, some here are argueing against choice when they favor post-WWII zoning which DID and DOES restrict the choice to develop higher density and mixed use zoning.

    To be consistent, they would have to admit that older forms of zoning are just as restrictive of choice as newer forms would be … if they were applied exclusively.

    They generally won’t admit that.

    I have seen arguments against subsidizing that choice.

    True, but again, to be consistent, people who favor older post-WWII zoning would have to admit that that type of development was subsidized (on a massive scale) as well.

    They generally won’t admit that.

  8. rangerx

    Nor will they admit that the amount of subsidies for automobiles dwarfs the amount of subsidies going into public transportation. How much federal money would go into rebuilding or building a new Sellwood Bridge? What percentage do car owners pay for the actual cost of owning a car? It’s highly subsidized, too.

  9. Dan

    any backlash against density here tends to be a reaction against those who insist that because they feel urban sprawl is bad that they will force upon everyone else that belief.

    I hear that a lot, but I don’t see that on the ground at all.

    In fact, I’ve heard of exactly zero places where they’ve outlawed Murrican Dream-type McSuburbs and replaced their 3.5 DU/ac zoning with Smart-growth-type mandates for 8.0 DU/ac.

    So let us not purposely confuse approved projects with “forcing these developments upon everyone”, and instead view what’s happening in reality, which is: restrictive Euclidean zoning is being replaced with more flexible market-based land use controls. And an increasing number of rational agents are choosing anything but Murrican Dream-type McSuburbs and rejecting their monoculture in favor of walkable places with things to do. Much to the chagrin of some.


  10. Unowho

    C’mon AP, let ’em have their streetcars. Why? Because (1) they’re cute, (2) as stated by Mr. or Ms. King above, they don’t use fossil fuels as cars do (well, coal is a fossil fuel, but who cares if a few hillbillies die of mercury poisoning), and (3) the more public transit, the better. Could you imagine how bad commuting times would be in Portland (or its Gaia sister, San Francisco) if it wasn’t for the perfectly-planned and brilliantly-executed PT system? Why, commuting times would be as bad as those PT-poor hellholes in the South and Southwest

  11. foxmarks

    While we’re looking into Trips per Day, maybe we should look at Subsidy per Trip. How much is the transit rider grabbing out of someone else’s pocket every time he boards?

    I’m pretty sure I’ve read the Antiplanner (and others) argue against all zoning.

    Francis King assumes *sprawl* is something to be *stuck with*. Over what time period? I suggest that in a century, density will come to areas now derided as *sprawling*.

    Make it a positive thing, rather than a sacrifice for the common good.

    That’s a wonderful sentiment. There’s room for Venice and Mackinac, and room for McSuburbs. Francis King leads me to wonder why people (planners) seem to insist that all places become similar? Chandler, AZ is not Venice, IT nor Cambridge, MA. Celebrate the differences.

  12. Francis King

    foxmarks wrote:

    “Francis King assumes *sprawl* is something to be *stuck with*. Over what time period? I suggest that in a century, density will come to areas now derided as *sprawling*”.

    Maybe. But if the reason is new housing, then there are two options. Increase the density, or more sprawl. Increasing the density is going to be unpopular, except with those house owners who make money out of it. There is going to be a lot of difference between a purpose-built high-density lot, and a bodged densification. Without a large plot, purpose-built is going to be difficult, and will there ever be enough agreement to make a large plot out of individual houses?

  13. Francis King

    al m wrote:

    “We Portlander’s demand CUTE transit!”

    Central Urban Transit Experience. Hmmm. Better than South Lake Union’s version.

  14. Pingback: The Meck Deck » Blog Archive » Your $400m. Streetcar. Ta-da!

  15. Pingback: New FTA Head » The Antiplanner

  16. Pingback: LaHood Eliminates Cost-Efficiency Rule » The Antiplanner

Leave a Reply