My View: MAX - If you build it, they may not come
Metro-area voters will be asked to approve a multi-billion transportation bond in 2020, including a $975 million downpayment for a new Southwest Corridor light-rail line. What is the return on our investment in MAX so far?
Officials have been cagey about this, preferring to talk about how the region's growth requires a bigger transit investment and how more trains will combat climate change.
TriMet charged me $56 for ridership figures for all MAX lines for the past five years. Here's what they reveal: Total ridership has remained constant. The Blue Line's ridership is about 46% of the total, and it has been declining. The Blue and Red lines are combined over most of their length and taken together are 64% of total ridership. The other lines contribute very little. The Yellow Line's ridership also has decreased, and the Green, Red and Orange lines have remained flat. The Yellow Line accounts for 11% of total ridership, Green for 16% and Orange only 9%. Even though the Orange Line was opened four years ago, its addition has failed to increase overall ridership on the system.
The figures tell a story the public needs to hear: Even with rapid population growth in our region, adding capacity hasn't increased ridership. The Southwest Corridor line is likely to produce the same result, while pouring taxpayer money down the drain to build it.
The climate change argument doesn't pencil out. Metro predicts the new line will have an estimated 39,100 daily boardings. That's a laughably optimistic 37% of the entire system's rides for the past year, more than double the Green Line's ridership, which today falls short of predictions by 18%.
If true, it would amount to 3.6% of the region's total commute trips by car. A more realistic estimate is 3% of car commutes, but it would steal from existing bus service that's already more efficient than car travel.
If we spent the estimated $2.75 billion final cost of the MAX line to install heat pumps for households using natural gas heat, it would fund conversion of half a million homes, reducing carbon emissions by 9.1% of what we generate from driving in the metro area today, a goal we can't achieve with any known upgrades to our transportation system. It also would begin reducing emissions right away, unlike the MAX line, which won't open until 2027.
We've spent $3.7 billion on MAX. We have only a finite amount of money and a very short time to make progress on climate change. The Southwest Corridor line is an egregious waste in this regard. Instead of spending tax dollars building more lines that don't increase ridership, we should spend it on solutions with proven benefit to the climate such as heat pump conversions.
Any transit improvements need to make the lines we already have more desirable and increase the return on what we've already invested. Some that have been proposed are to put MAX underground to increase speed, safety and reliability, build more park-and-rides, improve bus service to the stations, electrify the bus fleet, provide more bus shelters for protection from the weather and make them more comfortable, and possibly make taking MAX free. If there's one thing we should have learned by now from the dollars spent so far, it's that "If you build it, they will come" doesn't work.
Chris Carvalho is a resident of Aloha.
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