Commentary

Debunking Portland: The Public Transit Myth

The mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a cadre of other top officials recently flew to Portland, Oregon, my hometown, to learn the wonders of the region’s rail transit system. Portland’s Mayor Tom Potter no doubt told them light rail was “a cornerstone of the city’s success.” Potter or former Portland city Commissioner Charles Hales probably bragged that the city’s streetcar line “has sparked more than $2 billion in new developments.”

Unless they had gone out of their way on their junket, the visiting dignitaries were unlikely to hear the other side of the story: Portland’s public transit has done nothing to relieve the region’s growing congestion; its high cost has sparked a taxpayer revolt; the developments along the rail lines were themselves heavily subsidized; and those subsidies led a crafty cabal of ex-politicians and developers to milk the system for their own gain.

How do Portland-area residents feel about local light-rail projects? They voted against raising taxes to build more light-rail in 1998. In 2002, they voted against a ballot measure increasing neighborhood densities — as transit-oriented developments do. In 2004, they supported a property-rights measure that challenged the very foundations of Oregon’s land-use planning system. Planners have ignored all these votes and are building light rail with tax-increment financing and other hidden tax increases.

Portlanders were especially upset when local papers revealed in 2004 that the region’s planning had been manipulated by a “light-rail mafia,” led by former Portland Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, that directed rail construction contracts and developer subsidies to an inside group of contractors and builders. Meanwhile, budgets for schools, fire, police, and public health have all been cut, as property taxes that would normally go to those services have been diverted to subsidies for rail transit and high-density developments.

Portland officials spend more than half the region’s transportation funds on transit, but that doesn’t mean Portlanders ride it. In fact, since Portland began building rail transit in the 1980s, transit’s market share of commuting has actually declined from 9.8 percent to 7.6 percent, mainly because the high cost of rail in a few corridors forced the transit agency to reduce bus service in some parts of the region and prevented improvements in others.

Remember last year’s high gas prices that led some transit agencies to record 15 to 20 percent gains in ridership? Oregon had some of the highest gas prices in the nation, yet Portland transit ridership only grew by 0.1 percent. So much for Portland being “the city that loves transit.”

Light rail and streetcars may be cute, but they are S-L-O-W. Portland’s fastest light-rail line averages 22 miles per hour. Portland’s streetcar goes about 7 miles per hour. I am waiting to see a developer advertise, “If you lived here and rode transit home from work, you’d still be sitting on the train.”

The developments supposedly stimulated by new light-rail and streetcar lines? They were built only after the region started handing out billions of dollars in subsidies after the transit lines were built.

When Portland opened its first light-rail line in 1986, the city immediately zoned the land near light-rail stations for high-density developments. A decade later, not a single transit-oriented development had been built in these areas.

To generate such developments, then-city Commissioner Charles Hales urged the city to offer property tax waivers, grants, and other subsidies to developers. “It is a myth to think that the market will take care of development along transit corridors,” said Hales.

To date, Portland’s subsidies have exceeded $1.5 billion, and its suburbs and other agencies in the region have provided even more. Hales neglects to mention this today because he now works for a consulting firm selling streetcars to other cities.

Among the subsidies, the city has sold parks, school playgrounds, and other lands at below-market prices to developers on the condition that they replace those open spaces with transit-oriented developments. So much for livability.

Portland has also learned that the so-called transit-oriented developments work only if they have plenty of parking. Though often located a few steps from light-rail stations, most of the people living in these developments still drive for most of their travel. That simply adds congestion to already crowded streets.

The question for Portland today is how voters can stop the light-rail mafia before it does any more damage. The question for officials visiting from Milwaukee and other cities is how they can avoid making the same mistakes as Portland. The answer is to look at Portland only as an example of how not to plan.

Randal O’Toole, who has spent most of his life in Portland, is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of the recent paper, “Debunking Portland: The City That Doesn’t Work.” He currently lives in Bandon, Oregon.