Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx came to Portland, Oregon last week to tell TriMet, the region’s transit agency, not to apologize for spending $204 million per mile on its latest light-rail line. Although that is eight times as much (after adjusting for inflation) as the region’s first light-rail line, Foxx noted that regions “need to have bold visions” and that, as a model for the rest of the country, Portland was “building for today and for the future.”
Residents of Austin, Durham, St. Petersburg, and many other cities are being told they need to emulate Portland by building their own expensive light-rail lines. Here are ten reasons why they should reject Portland as a model for their own transit and transportation systems.
1. Portland appears to be in a race with Seattle to build the nation’s most-expensive light-rail line. Opening in 1986, Portland’s first light-rail line cost about $25 million per mile (all dollars adjusted for inflation). Its second line, which opened in 1998, cost about $75 million per mile. In 2009, Seattle opened a 14-mile line that cost $185 million per mile. Not to be outdone, Portland is completing a new line (the one that Secretary Foxx said not to apologize for) at a cost of $204 million per mile. Seattle is currently working on a 3.3-mile line that will cost at least $625 million per mile. But Portland is talking about a new line with a tunnel that could cost $2 billion or more. None of these recent lines will carry significantly more passengers than Portland’s original $25-million-per-mile line–and many will carry less. The reason for these high-cost systems is that urban areas are competing to get “their share” of federal rail transit dollars.
2. Transit riders don’t benefit from all that spending. The Portland area has enjoyed significant population and job growth since 2008, yet despite opening a new light-rail line and a commuter-rail line, system ridership has been flat. This is partly because, in order to pay for rail construction, TriMet has raised fares and made severe cuts in bus service. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (table B08301), between 2008 and 2013 the Portland urban area gained 130,000 new residents and 21,500 new jobs, but the number of commuters taking transit to work declined by more than 1,000. This isn’t a new trend: in 1980, before building any light rail, 9.9 percent of Portland-area commuters took buses to work. By 2013, with five light-rail lines, a commuter-rail line, and a streetcar line, just 7.3 percent of commuters took transit to work.
3. Portland streets are falling apart. In order to help fund light rail and streetcar lines, the city of Portland is neglecting its street network. More than half the streets in the city are in poor or very poor condition (see p. 32), and the city is spending less than 13 percent as much as needed to keep the streets from declining still further (p. 34). Meanwhile, the city wants to build 140 miles of streetcar lines which–at the average cost of the most recent line built–would cost more than repaving all 4,842 miles of streets in the city. Since many people can walk faster than Portland’s streetcars, building new streetcar lines does nothing to improve the region’s transportation.
4. Portland’s light-rail lines are also falling apart. Rail advocates never mention that rail lines wear out and must be completely replaced after about 30 years. Transit agencies rarely budget for this, and TriMet is no exception. A recent audit by Oregon’s Secretary of State found that TriMet was doing only about half the maintenance work needed to keep its tracks, some of which are 28 years old, in a state of good repair. As a result, the system is suffering frequent breakdowns. After three service interruptions in three days recently, TriMet tweeted an apology to its customers–only to suffer another breakdown just 22 minutes later.
5. Portland’s transit-oriented developments require huge subsidies. One of the most powerful arguments Portland officials make in support of light rail and streetcars is that they generate billions of dollars worth of economic development. The reality is quite different. After opening Portland’s first light-rail line in 1986, Portland rezoned vacant land along the line for high-density, mixed-use transit-oriented development. Ten years later, Portland planners sadly told the city council that not one single transit-oriented development had been built, and all that land was still vacant. The city therefore decided to subsidize new development with tax breaks, tax-increment financing, below-market land sales, and other incentives for developers.
Since then, the city has given more than $1.3 billion in subsidies to developers along its rail lines (see indebtedness on p. 16), and even more subsidies have been provided by Portland’s suburbs. More than $430 million of these subsidies went to developments along Portland’s first streetcar line, while a portion of the streetcar route that received no subsidies also saw almost no new development. Officials never mention the subsidies when they show off developments to out-of-town guests, so taxpayers in other cities need to be aware that, if they approve light rail, they will have to subsidize not just the trains but the redevelopment.
6. Portland’s transit-oriented developments aren’t really transit oriented. Since Portland began offering subsidies, developers have built scores of four- and five-story apartment buildings, often with ground-floor shops. Though planners call these “transit-oriented developments,” they aren’t really any more transit-oriented than anything else in Portland. Research (100-MB PowerPoint presentation) by the Cascade Policy Institute has shown that the people who live in most of these developments are just as likely to drive, and just as unlikely to take transit, as anyone else in the region.
Moreover, planners often limit parking near the mixed-use developments, yet businesses can’t survive just on customers who walk or take transit. As a result, many storefronts have remained vacant and developers ended up converting some to apartments.
7. Portland’s unfunded pension and heath-care obligations threaten to shut down transit service. Many public agencies have unfunded pension and health-care obligations, but Portland and TriMet have taken unfunding to extremes. According to a survey by Pew Charitable Trusts, Portland has funded only half of its pension obligations, making it worse off than any state and all but three of the nation’s 61 largest cities. It has also funded just 4 percent of its health-care obligations.
TriMet is no better, having funded 59 percent of its worker pension obligations but 0 percent of its much-larger health-care obligations (p. 51). It’s total unfunded obligations amount to more than 300 percent of its annual operating budget, more than any other major transit agency. The situation is so bad that TriMet’s general manager, Neil McFarlane, warns that the agency will have to cut all rail and bus service by 70 percent by 2025 unless unions renegotiate benefits packages–which they refuse to do. But McFarlane still wants to build at least three more billion-dollar light-rail lines.
8. Portland schools and other urban services are suffering. Tax-increment financing, which Portland has used both to help build rail transit and to subsidize development along those transit lines, effectively takes money that would otherwise go to schools and other property-tax-supported entities to spend on urban planners’ rail fantasies. One result is that Portland schools are some of the worst in the nation. Only two out of three high school students in the city of Portland graduate within four years, which puts Portland lower than most other school districts in a state that has the fourth-lowest high-school graduation rates in the nation.
Schools are not the only services suffering from budget cuts. Portland used to have a nationally known community policing program as well as a variety of mental health programs that were cut in 2001 so the city could continue to subsidize developers. The elimination of these programs contributed to the death of James Chasse, a mentally-ill man who was beaten to death by police who thought he was on drugs when instead he was merely–justifiably as it turned out–afraid of the police.
9. Portland really is where young people go to retire. Portland planners argued that all the rail lines and high-density developments they were subsidizing would attract a creative class of people to the city whose high earnings (and the resulting taxes) would make all the spending worthwhile. Instead, as Oregon economist Randall Pozdena notes, Portland has attracted “a lot of young, enthusiastic people who aren’t particularly well trained and who aren’t bringing a lot of human capital to the region.” Or, as the IFC television satire Portlandia says, Portland is where “young people go to retire.”
This turns out to be more than just a joke. More than 22 percent of residents of Multnomah County (which is mainly Portland) are on food stamps, compared with 15 percent nationwide. According to a study by the Portland Business Alliance, Portland per capita incomes have declined by 10 percent, relative to the national average, and almost all of this decline was due to people in the 25-34-year-old age class, who are working fewer hours for lower pay than their counterparts elsewhere.
10. Portland-area voters hate the model. Portland-area voters supported light rail in 1992, but since then they have increasing turned against it. In 1998, they voted against funding lines to north Portland and Milwaukee, but TriMet built them anyway. In 2010, TriMet put a measure on the ballot to raise taxes to buy new buses, but voters rightly saw this as a way of freeing up funds to build more rail and turned the measure down. Voters in Lake Oswego and other Portland-area suburbs have elected anti-rail city councils while voters in Tigard, Tualatin, and other suburbs have voted to forbid their cities from participating in any light-rail plans without a vote of the people. Yet the region’s planners are proposing to build rail lines to those areas anyway.
Skyrocketing rail costs, anemic transit ridership, neglected infrastructure, budget cuts to essential city services, pension and health-care shortfalls, and growing voter animosity show that Portland really is a model for the nation–a model for how not to design a transit and transportation system.