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TriMet's payroll tax has been increasing since 2005 and will continue to go up every year until 2024. There is no issue with revenue; rather, the issue lies with light rail.

CASCADE POLICY INSTITUTE - Rachel Dawson is a Research Associate at the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon's free market public policy research organization. TriMet's MAX Yellow Line first opened 15 years ago in May 2004. The Yellow Line's Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) made a myriad of predictions for the year 2020, which makes now the perfect time to reflect on what officials promised and what taxpayers and transit riders since have received.

The Yellow Line originated in 1988 as a 21-mile project connecting Vancouver, Washington, with downtown Portland and Clackamas Town Center. This plan was scrapped after Clark County voters defeated a proposal to raise $236.5 million in 1995 and Oregon voters turned down a $475 million regional ballot measure in 1998.

Not to be deterred by a lack of voter support, officials developed a shorter alternative in 1999 that would run from the Expo Center to downtown Portland along Interstate Avenue. This alternative cost $350 million, 74% of which came from the Federal Transit Administration.

The construction of the new alternative was not put to a public vote. Portland officials instead expanded an urban renewal district to include the Interstate Avenue Corridor. Doing so allowed them to appropriate $30 million in tax increment funds to finance the rail that otherwise would have gone to other tax-collecting jurisdictions, including Multnomah County.

The county commissioners opposed expansion of the urban renewal district, but the Portland City Council approved it anyway.

Looking back after 15 years, we find that key promises made in the FEIS were never kept:

• Frequency of service — TriMet promised the Federal Transit Administration in their Full-Funding Grant Agreement that peak-hour trains would arrive every 10 minutes and off-peak trains every 15 minutes. The promised service according to the FEIS was supposed to reach eight trains during peak hours in 2020.

However, instead of having 10- to 15-minute headways between trains, the Yellow Line runs every 15 minutes during peak periods and every 30 minutes during other parts of the day.

• Travel times — TriMet predicted travel times to be 24 minutes from downtown Portland to the Expo Center and 19 minutes from downtown Portland to North Lombard Avenue. Light-rail speeds were projected to reach 15.3 mph, and bus speeds were projected to be 13.2 mph in 2005.

In reality, travel times are slower than predicted. It takes 35 minutes to take light rail from downtown Portland to the Expo Center and 28 minutes from downtown Portland to Lombard, even though light rail has its own exclusive right of way.

• Ridership — The FEIS forecast ridership in the corridor to increase with the building of the Yellow Line. By 2020 the line's ridership was expected to have 18,100 average weekday riders.

At no point since the Yellow Line opened has ridership met projected levels. In April 2019, ridership only reached 13,270, 26.7% less than projected. This number will not meet 2020 projected levels based upon the negative trend observed over the past three years. From March 2016 to March 2019 ridership levels decreased by 3.6%.

TriMet may argue that service levels are below forecasted levels due to a lack of funds. However, TriMet's revenue increase in recent years tells otherwise. Between 1998 and 2018, passenger fares increased by 116% and tax revenue increased by 64%. TriMet's payroll tax has been increasing since 2005 and will continue to go up every year until 2024. There is no issue with revenue; rather, the issue lies with light rail.

Moving forward, Metro and TriMet should focus on creating a more reliable bus network that runs on an already built road system. Doing so will benefit riders and taxpayers alike.

Rachel Dawson is a policy analyst at the Cascade Policy Institute.


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