Tech will make light rail lines obsolete
It's too late for Southwest Corridor light rail.
A century ago, relatively few people owned cars, most roads were unpaved, and rail transit made money. Now our rail transit systems are money pits. Unlike WES and streetcar, light rail actually could cost less per ride than available alternatives; it just doesn't have enough riders. MAX data shows that peak loads don't even reach 20 percent of capacity on average, despite the crowding during commutes or for special events. They need to average around 45 percent at some point on each line to compete with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) built to MAX standards. Compared to BRT, we're losing roughly $40 million annually on light rail operating costs alone.
Things are about to change again.
Companies are spending billions to revolutionize transport. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) promise to save tens of thousands of lives annually and upend costs. Without cabbies, many self-driving taxi rides should have lower fares than our heavily subsidized transit, especially on trips which are short, involve two or more traveling together, or are taken off-peak. Expect transit ridership to plummet. Likewise, AV technologies will save much more on buses than on rail because the former's driver expenses are proportionately much greater. MAX will lose any potential cost advantage to BRT. We really need to walk away from more light rail.
Will TriMet survive? It has lots of debt and unmet obligations. It's become complacent behind a Maginot Line of friendly state legislators, who've been adept at raising TriMet taxes without voter referral. The district continues sinking resources into underperforming rail systems with high fixed costs and recurring capital expenses. And unlike ODOT and Portland, TriMet has done nothing publicly to prepare for AVs. TriMet just doesn't require another costly outdated rail venture.
Many riders would be better served by inexpensive bus improvements than by the proposed $2.5 billion light rail project. For example, TriMet plans to extend the hours of the route 96 Tualatin to Portland express. Those traveling outside of commute hours (i.e. most riders) should save up to 25 minutes each way compared to light rail with its forced transfer at Bridgeport Village. Similarly, off-peak Sherwood, King City and western Tigard riders would also save at least some time compared to MAX by extending route 94 into evenings and weekends.
Minor improvements won't quicken peak commutes much. If we really want top notch bus service, we'd have to spend about as much money building BRT as light rail. That would include station bypass capability and exclusive bus lanes for the entire alignment. Compared to MAX, we could gain faster trips through express service, higher frequency, lower operating costs, more reliability, higher capacity (passengers per hour), and the ability to go off alignment to serve nearby communities or to sidestep problems which stop trains on their tracks.
TriMet is considering a bond measure hiking vehicle fees and property taxes for about $750 million of the project. Since that polls poorly, they may package it with another $950 million in unrelated voter-friendly local transportation goodies. Sorry, TriMet: This turkey is decades past its pull date. Cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie won't change that.
R. A. Fontes is a resident of Lake Oswego.