TriMet's MAX light-rail system has two huge weaknesses. All trains use the 117-year-old Steel Bridge and only two cars in a train.
TriMet is pushing for two tunnels under the Willamette River and downtown Portland. It's one of four options under consideration, but by far the most expensive. A TriMet staffer indicated the $2 billion price would be significantly higher.
Saving time is the pitch. Current MAX trains cross the Steel Bridge every 90 seconds during rush hour, 40 trains per hour. TriMet can't expand service and meet their 2040 expected demand of 64 hourly trains using the Steel Bridge.
One rightly should question the underlying assumptions: Do we need 60% more MAX trains crossing the river?
TriMet bus passenger boardings peaked in 2009 and are down 14%, a decline of more than 9 million boardings by 2018. Light-rail ridership peaked in 2012 with 35.2 million originating riders, losing 11% or 4.2 million originating riders by 2018.
More importantly, the decline in MAX ridership has occurred in spite of TriMet starting the Green Line in Sept 2009 and the Orange Line in Sept 2015. Today, ridership numbers are below the Sept 2009 level according to a Federal Transit Administration graphic.
The bottom line: Will there be a need for 60% more trains crossing the Willamette River in 2040, given that MAX ridership has declined by over 10% in the last half-decade? Probably not.
TriMet says the tunnels will save "about 15 minutes." How do the tunnels save time? By eliminating a dozen downtown Portland stops! MAX passengers with downtown destinations between Lloyd Center and Goose Hollow will have to get off "express" trains, transferring to "local" trains using the Steel Bridge.
Is TriMet being truthful to taxpayers about all their future plans? The tunnels following existing MAX routes suggest future plans will add stops (and travel time) at downtown locations. How much more will that cost?
If TriMet originally had created a subway, or an elevated rail system like Chicago, they would not be limited to just two cars in a train. They could expand capacity by adding more cars to each train. Now that roughly $5 billion has been expended on light rail, they hope citizens won't mind doubling down. So $2 billion or more for two light-rail tunnels under the Willamette, and $2.9 billion for the Tigard/Tualatin light-rail expansion.
Taxpayers should put this in context. Last fall PEMCO, an insurance company, reported 94% of Northwest citizens want to use their privately owned vehicles.
An April Oregon Transportation Commission survey found 51% of citizens want to "expand and improve interstates and interstate bridges." Another 14% want expanded arterials.
Metro's 2019 poll showed people's top priority is roads and highways. The Portland Tribune summarized: "On its own, improving public transit is a lower priority than making road improvements and the more overarching goal of easing traffic — voters still overwhelmingly rely on driving alone to get around," reads the poll's conclusions.
Citizens want point-to-point service in either privately owned vehicles or Lyft/Uber vehicles. Regional transportation planners have failed to change citizens' behavior with mass transit service, which continues its decline nationally.
Use the $2 billion MAX tunnel money to expand metro area roads and freeways; use it to build new transportation corridors including new bridges across the Columbia River. It's been 40 years since a new transportation corridor was built: Interstate 205. Serve the people and their transportation needs and desires.
John Ley is a resident of Camas, Washington.
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