Upper Left Coast

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

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Expand MAX use? How?

With all the talk about gas prices and higher mass transit use, I got to thinking about a recent opportunity to observe the MAX system as an outsider, and what it showed about the reality of increasing light rail ridership.

On the Fourth of July, my family took advantage of the weekend evening to head downtown for the Blues Festival fireworks show. It was the first-ever glimpse of big fireworks for my 6-year-old, and -- if you ignore the drunks dropping f-bombs a few yards from my kids -- we had a grand time.

When it was finished, we climbed into our car for the ride home, knowing full well it would take longer than the usual 15-minute commute to Beaverton. As we passed the MAX stop at Third and Morrison, a lone Tri-Met official was desperately trying to push the throng of people away from the platform edge, lest they lose their toes and other lower extremities when the impending train pulled up. There was not much room for them to move away from the edge, as the platform was packed wall-to-wall with people making their way from Waterfront Park.

We continued to drive up Morrison, and saw similar crowds at Fifth and at Pioneer Square. It wasn't until the Galleria that the crowds thinned, but those people were likely stuck at the Galleria stop for a while -- all the riders from previous stops were filling a succession of MAX trains, leaving no space for riders farther up the tracks. And that was with trains coming much more frequently than during your average rush hour. When we got home 40 minutes later, I'm willing to bet there was still a sizable contingent of riders waiting for space on a train.

Now, granted, the fireworks were a special occasion that brought out a lot of additional riders. But every time I hear some politician proclaim mass transit as the salvation of our oil-price woes, or read about another scheme to spend billions on light rail extensions, I think about that night on the Fourth of July. A night in which the number of riders far exceeded the mass transit capacity.

You can add light rail to Vancouver, Milwaukie or Lake Oswego if you want, but none of the people trying to find space on MAX that night were trying to get to any of those locations. So expanding the routes will not give you the ability to service more commuters per location, only more locations.

Remember that MAX is eternally limited to two cars per train, so there is no additional capacity. If that's the case, who's going to put up with that sort of cattle-herding to take mass transit? You can spend all you want on MAX, but there's a lid on the number of riders that can use a MAX train (and if you've seen a MAX train at rush hour, you know that lid is almost closed).

If gas prices are going up without ceasing in the near future, surely more people will consider mass transit as a more cost-effective means of commuting. But unless Tri-Met plans to put a train on the tracks every 30 seconds or so (which seems to me an invitation for train accidents) the detriments appear to far outweigh the benefits.



  • At 7/21/2008 10:24 AM, Blogger MAX Redline said…

    Remember that MAX is eternally limited to two cars per train

    Exactly, and therein lies the rub: light rail was "planned" for only two cars because that's all that can fit inside the bounds of a city block in downtown Portland.

    One consistent problem that the "brain trust" has had involves their insistence that light rail and buses must run into downtown Portland - a problem which they've just compounded by running rail along SW 5th and 6th streets from Union Station to PSU.

    If they didn't insist upon running trains into downtown, they could conceivably add cars; increasing capacity. Portland's city blocks are considerably smaller than is standard in other cities, and by "planning" for trains to run through downtown Portland, the brain trust has locked the area into a system that cannot add capacity.

  • At 7/23/2008 9:31 AM, Anonymous S.M. said…

    I agree - MAX capacity downtown needs to be expanded.

    Hopefully it will in the coming years, but at least for now a few days a year of crush capacity is not the worst thing in the world - people can grab a drink at a sidewalk cafe and wait out the crowds for an hour or so. And it's far better than if they had all taken cars... downtown would have been clogged all night.

  • At 7/23/2008 1:30 PM, Blogger MAX Redline said…


    (Is that shorthand for Sado-Masochist?)

    Light rail capacity cannot be increased. Period. Physical constraints rule that out; it's the way the "system" was "planned".

    Portland's short city blocks can accommodate no more than two cars. They can't use double-deckers, because clearances and weight restrictions make that impossible.

    And your "solution" is to grab a drink and wiat for an hour or so?

    I don't know about you, but my time's more valuable than that.

  • At 7/23/2008 4:36 PM, Blogger Ken said…

    Thanks Max. You beat me.

    SM -- the other point is that right now it might be "a few days a year of crush capacity," but if you take MAX at rush hour, it's rapidly approaching that kind of use every day. There isn't much more space, regardless of the fact that the Rex Burkholder class would like nothing better than to force all of us out of our cars and create hundreds of "crush capacity" days each year. They don't think about the fact that their beloved mass transit can't handle that kind of use (because of the afore-mentioned 2-car limit), nor would a huge number of people put with being told to "grab a drink at a sidewalk cafe and wait" to get home to their families every night.

  • At 7/27/2008 11:53 AM, Anonymous S.M. said…

    Light rail capacity can't be increased? That's rediculous - of course it can. You may have meant to say that it can't be increased without substantial construction, but that's a completely different argument.

    Within a few years there will be another Max crossing of the Willamette, and next year there will be another set of tracks downtown.

    Right now, I see the biggest limitations to the Max system being the Steel Bridge (where the Yellow, Green, Blue, and Red lines all have to cross on the same tracks), and the two-car train maximum that you both describe. Adding a subway under downtown from Goose Hollow to the Rose Quarter would alleviate both of those problems.

    Clearly it's not the proper time for that, but as you have both stated light rail's advantages over cars keeps making it more and more popular. Soon I think such a subway will be cost-effective.

  • At 7/29/2008 11:14 AM, Blogger Ken said…

    SM -- you misunderstand my point, so let me pose a hypothetical to explain:

    Let's say 30,000 people live in Beaverton and Hillsboro and use westside light rail for commuting. Let's say another 40,000 live in Northeast Portland and Gresham and use eastside light rail for commuting. Those lines cannot be expanded. The trains can never have more than two cars because of the size of Portland's city blocks, and Tri-Met must leave six minutes between each car for safety, so they cannot add much in the way of additional trains.

    If you add light rail to Vancouver and Milwaukie, you will expand the pool of people who can ride light rail, but those 70,000 people on the east and west sides of town are not helped in the least. They still have the same number of seats on the same number of trains. If gas price increases force more people to consider mass transit, it will mean forcing more people into the same available capacity.

    And that will mean telling people to chill out and get a drink instead of trying to get home to their families.

    As for your "simple" solution of a subway under downtown: North-South light rail cost about $100 million per mile. I've seen subway cost estimates of roughly $400 million per mile, but even that's arguable -- Boston's Big Dig cost almost $15 billion, or almost $2 billion per mile. That was almost quadruple the initial cost estimates. So building a subway under downtown Portland and the Willamette River would clearly be a multi-billion-dollar project.

    Considering that U.S. transportation officials think they need $140 billion just to repair the nation's most deficient bridges, I'm not sure where you think you'll find a few billion bucks for a Portland subway.

    Finally, I don't see anywhere in Max's comments or mine where we "stated light rail's advantages over cars." Please point that out to me.


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