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Press Release: Light Rail and Streetcar Fail to Provide “High-Capacity” Service, Study Shows

study released today by Cascade Policy Institute shows that TriMet’s so-called “High-Capacity Transit” system – comprised of light rail, the Portland Streetcar and commuter rail – is incapable of actually moving large numbers of people when needed. Moreover, most of the time there is no demand for high-capacity transit because the region’s population is too dispersed, and people prefer to travel by modes other than passenger rail.

The study, Light Rail, Streetcars & the Myth of “High Capacity Transit,  measured actual trip choices made during 2010 at five big events when presumably “high-capacity” transit would be in demand: the Portland Green Building home show held in March at the Multnomah County Expo Center; the opening night show of the Cirque du Soleil in April; the final playoff game of the year for the Portland Trail Blazers in May; “Black Friday” at the Cascade Station shopping center in November; and December 21st at the Gresham Civic Station shopping center in December. The results were:

  • Light rail use at the Green Home Show averaged 20% of all passenger-trips;
  • Streetcar use at the Cirque du Soleil opening show was 8%;
  • Light rail use at the Blazer game was 21%;
  • Rail use at Cascade Station averaged 2% over a two-day period in November; and
  • Light rail at Gresham Civic Station carried 2% of all passenger-trips for the morning commute period and 2% of all passenger-trips for the mid-day shopping period.

In total, 47,666 passenger-trips were observed or estimated, and rail only garnered 11% of the market share, as summarized below.

Summary Totals
All passenger-trips to all events, by mode choice

 

Green
home
show
Circus Blazers Cascade
Station
Gresham
Station
Totals Market
share
(%)
Rail 516 110 4,238 333 120 5,317 11%
Auto 2,106 1,245 14,636 (est) 17,570 5,101 40,658 85%
Other 0 0 1,626(est) 5 55 1,686 4%
Total 2,622 1,355 20,500 17,908 5,276 47,666 100%

Note: For the Blazer game, only light-rail trips were observed; other mode totals were estimated.

In all cases except for the Blazer game, actual seating capacity of the trains was never an issue because so few customers chose to ride, even when on-site parking was quite expensive. In the one case where high-capacity transit would have been very helpful – the Blazer playoff game – the light rail system was overwhelmed by crowds and could only muster 21% of market share despite the use of four different MAX lines – the Yellow, Green, Blue and Red lines.

The reason for the modest transit totals is that light rail is inherently a low-capacity system, because there are only two rail cars per train. The system cannot use more than two cars because trains travel on surface streets in downtown Portland. If trains had 8-9 cars, as is common with the New York City subway or other heavy rail systems, the trains would be blocking downtown intersections for minutes at a time.

Also, trains generally cannot run at greater frequencies than every three minutes due to operational and safety requirements. In most cases, trains only run every 12-15 minutes, or less often. These constraints limit passenger-throughput compared to a bus transit system where vehicles can travel with minimal spacing requirements.

Cascade President John A. Charles, Jr. conducted the research with the help of several assistants. He stated, “The field research shows that continued use of the phrase ‘high-capacity transit’ by local planners to describe the regional rail program is Orwellian. Light rail is actually a low-capacity system, and the streetcar is simply irrelevant. TriMet’s buses carries two-thirds of all regional transit trips on a daily basis, and that’s the service that should be recognized as high-capacity transit. Unfortunately, bus service is being sacrificed by TriMet in order to build costly new rail lines that carry relatively few people.”

 

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John Charles talks light rail on Fox Business's Tom Sullivan Show

Watch John Charles discuss the cost of light rail and the bankrupting state of Portland public transit.

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John tells TriMet Board, “Milwaukie Light Rail: You Will Own the Problem”

John A. Charles, Jr.Cascade Commentary

TriMet Board Meeting is currently considering Resolution 10-11-57 which would be a thumbs up to move forward with the Milwaukie Light Rail project as planned. John Charles provided the below testimony in response to this resolution. This resolution is scheduled for Wednesday.

****

Members of the Board:

Resolution 10-11-57 must be considered within the context of TriMet’s current financial crisis.

There are two major cost drivers for TriMet: employee compensation and capital projects. Most of you can say that the payroll costs you now face were negotiated years ago and you have simply inherited the problem. However, if you approve this resolution and commit yourselves to new light rail service at a construction cost of $210 million per mile, you will own the problem.  And I see no way of solving your financial crisis if you have unsustainable costs in both operations and capital expansion.

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Excessive Cost of the Milwaukie Light Rail Line

John A. Charles, Jr.
Cascade Commentary

By John Charles

Testimony before the Metro Council Regarding the Milwaukie Light Rail Line Resolution No. 10-4133

Metro proposes to allocate $144.8 million of flexible funding to one corridor in SE Portland  to move a handful of people who could be served just as well by Bus Rapid Transit at less than .2% of the capital cost, and the staff concludes that there is no opposition “known at this time.” Only in the Orwellian world of regional transportation decision-making could two public votes AGAINST the South/North LRT project be re-defined out of existence 12 years later.

The analytical argument against this project is actually much stronger now than it was in 1998 when it was voted down. We know more about alternatives, and about the true costs of rail. Continued rail expansion inevitably cannibalizes service elsewhere, as shown by the fact that TriMet has had a 38% increase in funding over the past five years while service has dropped by 10%.

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The politics of light rail pork

Steve BucksteinAlthough the phrase “light rail” wasn’t even mentioned in the hearing, it seemed to be the elephant in the room today when the Subcommittee on Transportation and Economic Development of the Joint Ways and Means Committee met to move forward a $100 lottery bond measure to fund transportation projects throughout Oregon.

As introduced in the House, HB 2278 would have required that at least 15 percent of the funding be allocated to each of five regions described in the bill. But when the bill reached this committee, the 15 percent number had somehow been reduced to (more…)

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The Market has Spoken: Light Rail Can’t Compete

John A. Charles, Jr.QuickPoint!

The most recent downtown employer survey by the Portland Business Alliance contains important news for taxpayers. It shows that light rail’s market share for downtown commuters dropped by 30% over the past five years. Considering that TriMet actually opened two new rail lines during that period, this is a stunning decline in ridership.

In 2001, 20% of downtown employees traveled to work by light rail. By 2005 that had dropped to (more…)

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Failing Grade for PSU and Light Rail

John A. Charles, Jr.QuickPoint!

On Thursday, July 8, a Metro committee will finalize the funding plan for TriMet’s $494 million “South Corridor” light rail expansion project. It will run to Clackamas County and through the Portland bus mall. The committee is counting on Portland State University to contribute approximately $5 million.

Unfortunately, putting light rail on the (more…)

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The Mythical World of Transit-Oriented Development: Light Rail and the Orenco Neighborhood, Hillsboro, Oregon

John A. Charles, Jr.

Executive Summary

During the past decade, Portland-area planners have embraced Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) as the dominant land use/transportation strategy. They assert that TOD, especially based on light rail, will reduce traffic congestion, increase transit use, improve air quality, and attract private investment.

Dozens of TODs have been constructed in the Portland region since 1990, with several winning national acclaim. Most have received public subsidies, on the assumption that the public benefits of TOD outweigh the costs. However, little is known about how transit-oriented projects actually perform once they are built, in terms of transit use and auto dependency. The purpose of this analysis—the first in a series of Portland, Oregon TOD case studies—is to begin filling in that gap by analyzing one of the most well-known TODs in the country, Orenco Station. (more…)

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Energy-Efficiency Myths of Commuter Rail

Advocates of rail transit tend to argue that we need trains because they are more energy-efficient than buses or cars. Unfortunately, that’s only true in some cases.

According to a new report by the Federal Railroad Administration, the average energy consumed by all commuter rail systems in America during 2011 was 2,923 British Thermal Units (BTUs) per passenger-mile. But the commuter line operated by TriMet (WES) was close to the bottom: WES consumed 5,961 BTU per passenger-mile, more than twice the national average.

Not only is WES inefficient compared with its peer group, but it is wasteful compared with other modes of travel. The national average for all transit buses was 4,240 BTU per passenger-mile; for all light-duty cars, the average was 3,364.

Based on these numbers, the environment would be better off if WES were terminated and riders simply got in their cars.

Nonetheless, TriMet management is “all-in” on more commuter rail. In its proposed FY 15 budget, the agency plans to purchase two additional rail vehicles at a total cost of $8.5 million. None of those costs will be paid by the privileged few who ride WES; debt service will be paid by taxpayers for the next 20 years.

It’s a cliché but still true: In government, nothing succeeds like failure.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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TriMet Finally Admits Rail Problems

Last week I wrote about the problems TriMet is having with its constantly failing rail system. On Wednesday, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane announced that the agency is hiring an outside firm to review light rail maintenance needs. The contract will cost a maximum of $245,000.

This is an important acknowledgment by TriMet that the vaunted regional rail system is suffering from chronic breakdowns that will require ever-increasing levels of maintenance.

The ownership problems associated with rail transit are well known within the industry. Indeed, four years ago the head of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Peter Rogoff, gave a speech on this topic to a room full of transit executives. Mr. Rogoff reminded people that rail systems have significant long-term costs. FTA had recently concluded that there were more than $78 billion in deferred maintenance costs for public transit agencies in the U.S., and three-fourths of those costs were associated with rail systems.

TriMet management is having to face up to this reality. The supposed “operating advantages” of hauling rail cars disappear when the lifecycle costs of rail system ownership are taken into account. Bus transit doesn’t face these problems. The cost of a bus is only one-tenth the cost of a rail car; it can be sent to many locations rather than a few dozen; and the ubiquitous road system is paid for by millions of motorists, not the transit agency. This keeps the maintenance costs of bus transit to a manageable level.

Unfortunately, TriMet is in a financial free-fall, and absorbing substantial costs for depreciation and maintenance of light rail will worsen the fall for a long time to come.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. 

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