Lightrail in Portland Is Successful, Notwithstanding CATO Criticism & FTA Lack of Support

Paul Weyrich

10/16/2007 10:29:46 AM - Paul Weyrich

Randall O’Toole, of the CATO Institute, is a native Oregonian, resident in Brandon, who has lived most of his life in the Portland area. He is the author of “Debunking Portland [-] The City That Doesn’t Work,” published in the CATO Institute’s POLICY ANALYSIS series on July 9, 2007, and of a paper entitled “Debunking Portland: The Public Transit Myth” (August 28, 2007). Let me state for the record that I am an admirer of Mr. O’Toole and often applaud his work. However, I believe Mr. O’Toole examined the wrong premises and then came to a series of unsupported conclusions.

As a result of the Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) inter-urban system and the downtown Portland Streetcar, quality development is not only taking place in Portland, Oregon but also in communities such as Gresham and Hillsboro. Let us be clear. No one in Portland officialdom seeks to force people from their automobiles. Rather the idea in Portland is to offer commuters a choice. It is amusing to me that Mr. O’Toole is a strong proponent of school choice. Yet most libertarians would leave the resident with only his automobile.

The great thing about Portland is that residents are offered a choice. Many use their public transportation system. Whereas some large cities are losing population, Portland actually has witnessed people moving into the city. Some walk to work or on good days bicycle. An increasing number take the Portland Streetcar. It has been extended a number of times to the point at which it has reached its full length. Portland is planning another streetcar line to service the opposite side of the downtown area.

Those Oregonians who prefer the suburbs and work downtown take MAX. The most common complaint about transit systems is that they are crowded during rush hours but empty the remainder of the day. Not so with MAX. You can witness full, sometimes even crowded, trains midday and depending upon the event some evenings.

Mr. O’Toole and other critics of Portland always suggest that the transit system can be run more cheaply with buses. Putting aside the fact that Americans greatly prefer trains to buses, the streetcar has done something which I guarantee no bus system would do. The streetcar, with its permanence of routing, has attracted almost $3 billion in new and rehabbed development. It has turned what was acknowledged as a shabby, rundown and declining area into a vibrant remarkable area where people are returning to live. Such development is able to be taxed, thus paying for the operation of the streetcar.

Personnel from 80 cities across the nation and around the world have come to inspect the Portland Streetcar. But for the inherent bias against streetcars at the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), many cities would be building lines similar to Portland by now. Regardless of who wins the Presidency in November 2008 the next FTA Administration is bound to be more favorable to streetcars.

Mr. O’Toole, among his many criticisms of Portland, believes that light rail and streetcars are too slow. The speed Mr. O’Toole cites for MAX includes station stops. A typical MAX train will carry almost five times the number of passengers as a bus. Were those bus seats filled to capacity it would require time to load and unload the vehicle.

The purpose of the streetcar is to act as a circulator. The speed is irrelevant. Both streetcar and light-rail development have stimulated some $6 billion in adjacent development. As Portland’s reply to Mr. O’Toole suggests, this new development long-term is of great benefit to the City, such as wages, taxes and the contributions of these residents. The Texas Transportation Institute notes that Portland ranks 13th in transit ridership in a city which ranks 25th in population. Another source identifies 100 million hours of time saved annually. That amounts to $1.5 billion annually for the Portland region, assuming a $15 per hour value.

Regardless of one’s views about global warming, an interesting article in the quarterly report of CEOs for Cities, entitled “Portland’s Green Dividend,” suggests Portland saves $2.6 billion in savings annually in transportation costs alone. The calculation is as follows: The median commute in the 33 most populous cities is 24.3 miles per day. In Portland, thanks to its excellent transit system, is 20.3 average commute miles per day. There is 2.9 billion in miles saved compared to the median. The $15 per hour value is the time commuting; hence the $2.6 billion figure. Joseph Cortright, Vice President of Impresa, Inc., who authored the paper states, “Four miles per day may not seem like much but do the math.”

According to Portland Oregonian reporter Dylan Riverta, a clash in Washington, D.C. is occurring between cities such as Portland with their transit programs and the FTA position articulated by Mr. O’Toole. Which will prevail? In the long run, I believe it will be cities such as Portland. The facts are clear and compelling as long as the premises to an evaluation factually are accurate and proportional.