Upper Left Coast

Thoughts on politics, faith, sports and other random topics from a red state sympathizer in indigo-blue Portland, Oregon.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Are they going to charge $25 per ride?

A short story in the Oregonian this morning notes that the proposed Wilsonville-to-Beaverton commuter rail line will receive $37 million in federal financing. But, for a variety of reasons, that funding should never have happened.

First off, the Office of Management and Budget instructed the Federal Transit Administration not to fund anything that costs more than $20 per rider. The Beaverton-Wilsonville route is estimated at almost $25 per rider. But for whatever reason, the OMB changed its mind, and the rules.

However, that still leaves a big gap in funding. The O and regional transit authority Tri-Met both say it will cost $103.5 million; every other estimate I've seen says it's closer to $120 million. Whatever the case, the remainder will be funded by a mix of federal, state and county dollars. According to Tri-Met, the costs will include $52 million from the feds, $35 million from state lottery bonds, $10 million from the Metro Transportation Improvement Program, and $6.5 million from local cities and Washington County. (Another source I've seen indicates Washington County has pledged $13 million in general funds for construction, but I'll take Tri-Met's numbers for the sake of argument.)

The County will also pay $2.3 million in annual operating costs, which is 53.5 percent of the operating and maintenance costs; TriMet will finance 31 percent through payroll tax revenues, and passenger fares are projected to fund less than 16 percent of those costs.

What's wrong with this? Besides the fact that passenger fares only cover one-sixth of the cost? Many of the riders will be going from Wilsonville to Beaverton, but the city of Wilsonville and Clackamas County, both of which will benefit from this, don't seem to be paying a dime.

This 14.7 mile commuter line is projected to have 2,410 riders a day when it opens in 2008, with 4,650 riders by the year 2020. However, it's not unreasonable to take ridership estimates with a large chunk of salt — in the early 1980s, the area's Metro regional government estimated that MAX Light Rail would have more than 40,000 riders per day, but actual usage was less than half. (The estimates have improved since then.)

But let's assume the numbers are accurate, and look at the costs.

As of 2001, the daily traffic on Highway 217 was estimated at 115,000 vehicles. Twenty percent of that traffic is considered "through-traffic," or vehicles that drive the full length of Highway 217. That's who would be riding the commuter rail line, and that comes out to 23,000 vehicles. So, by 2020, we're losing 4,650 vehicles per day on Highway 217. That assumes that no one from Wilsonville commutes with someone else in the same car, a suspect proposition, but we're giving the benefit of the doubt.

(Of course, who knows what the daily highway traffic will be by 2020. The daily use increased by 5,000 from 1999 to 2001, so it's a safe bet that any decrease in traffic thanks to commuter rail will be more than offset by increases in highway use over the next 15 years.)

If the cost of commuter rail is $103.5 million, that's $7 million per mile. At 2,410 daily riders to start, that's $43,000 per opening-day commuter.

Metro's 2004 estimate of costs for various 217 improvement options runs from $405 to $564 million. The various options would add lanes, improve interchanges, and/or create commuter toll lanes. Highway 217 is 7.5 miles long, so that's a per-mile cost of $54 million to $75.2 million.

That sounds much worse than the commuter rail (consider that the 5.8-mile light-rail line recently completed in North Portland cost $350 million, or $60 million per mile, and was Tri-Met's most expensive per-mile light rail ever).

However, let's do more math: with a per-mile cost of $54 million to $75.2 million for Highway 217 improvements, and 115,000 daily users, that's $3,500 to $4,900 per vehicle. Another way to look at it: less than 12 percent of the cost per user vs. commuter rail, again assuming one passenger per highway vehicle.

I know I've thrown a lot of numbers out, but here's the bottom line. The love affair with light rail and its kin has got to stop. It costs more for the results it produces, it serves an incredibly small segment of the population, and it will do almost nothing to relieve congestion.


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