Hillsboro’s highly touted Intermodal Transit Facility may actually be discouraging MAX use at an adjacent light rail station, according to a recent Metro audit.

The downtown facility combines a parking garage with electric vehicle charging stations, a bicycle storage and repair shop and retail space at the Tuality Hospital/Southeast Eighth Avenue in Hillsboro. It is along the Westside MAX line near Tuality Hospital and Pacific University’s College of Health Professions.

Hillsboro officials have repeatedly cited the facility as part of the city’s commitment to sustainability. But a recent Metro study of three MAX stations in the region found that ridership increased slower there than at the other two. According to the audit, the convenient parking may help explain why.

Although the audit noted that the station area is well designed, it added: “The neighborhood around the Tuality Hospital MAX Station also contained a few examples of factors that can discourage transit ridership. The city of Hillsboro assembled $11 million in public funds to help build a $16 million multi-story parking garage with commercial space near the station. Planning criteria say access to convenient and inexpensive parking can be a disincentive for people to choose transit when it is near their destinations.”

Hillsboro Economic Development Director Mark Clemons disagreed with that assessment, however. He said the facility replaced a series of service parking lots and allowed the construction of two buildings by Pacific University. Students are charged a fee to park there, which encourages transit use.

“The Intermodal Transit Facility is essential to an economic development project that benefits Hillsboro and increases light rail ridership,” said Clemons.

The other two stations were North Killingsworth in Portland, which is along the Interstate MAX line, and East 162nd Avenue, which is along the Eastside MAX line between Portland and Gresham.

“Although we only looked at three stations, the audit suggests there are inequities in the region when it comes to public investments around MAX stations,” said Metro Auditor Suzanne Flynn.

The study was released as regional planners are preparing to approve further review of the next high-capacity transit corridor in the region, a new line between Portland and Tualatin that could cost up to $3.1 billion. Metro is leading the planning or the project, known as the Southwest Corridor. An advisory committee will decide next month whether to link Portland and Tualatin with a light rail line, a bus rapid-transit line or some combination of the two.

Frequent riders

The audit urged Metro to review how previously built stations are being used, however. In addition to investment and ridership disparities, it found that most frequent riders at the stations were not influenced by other public efforts to increase transit ridership. In fact, the audit found, different factors were more likely to influence their decisions to ride public transit.

“This is the first time anyone at Metro has looked retroactively at how these policies have worked out. We are recommending that Metro do more of this instead of only predicting the results its policies will have in the future,” Flynn said.

The report, titled “Tracking Transportation Project Outcomes: Light rail case studies suggest path to improved planning,” is a follow-up to a 2010 audit that found Metro lacked the information to determine whether the transportation policies it approves are actually helping to achieve its regional growth management goals.

The new analysis found that although the regional light rail system is owned and operated by TriMet, it is a key component of Metro’s regional growth management plan, which is intended to reduce fuel consumption, air pollution, drive-alone trips and distances traveled by cars. It cost about $3 billion in today’s dollars to construct the MAX lines that currently operate in all three counties, and more to operate them every year.

In its written response, Metro said it agreed that the results of its transportation policies have been inconsistent within the region and should be retroactively studied. The response, written by Metro COO Martha Bennett and Planning and Development Director Robin McArthur, noted that the Southwest Corridor project is proactively involving the communities along the proposed line to better site the stations and increase their development potential.