On “Railfans”, the CRC and Institutional Momentum

One of our readers likes to use the term “railfans” to describe the coalition of interests that keeps our Light Rail and Streetcar system developing.

A slightly less malevolent term that is sometimes used is “Light Rail Mafia”.

I suppose as a member of the Streetcar Board and someone who while serving on various advisory committees at Metro has consistently advocated expanding the rail system, I’m a member of the group.

Now the conspiracy theorists sometimes suggest we’re doing this to line our own pockets. I don’t accept that explanation. Certainly in my case, as an unpaid volunteer, I’m not making any money (but I do think I’m improving my livability).

If there is a Light Rail Mafia, it’s motivated by a genuine conviction that we’re pursuing the best policy interests of the region.

But having good motives doesn’t always make us right. There is no question that our institutions develop patterns of behavior and competencies that have a momentum of their own, which can sometimes color decision making.

An example would be the initial dismissal of Streetcar as a viable transit option. It took ten years for the City of Portland to get the first Streetcar alignment from concept to implementation. Part of this was simply the idea being new, but part was definitely ingrained attitudes among transit planners, some of whom called it dismissively a “donkey trolley.”

They’ve come around, but it took a lot of persistence.

I think it’s fair to ask the same question about current decisions. For example, we have not seriously evaluated trolleybuses. I know many of us (myself included) believe they will not generate the same development benefits that rail does, but it’s also a fair criticism that we haven’t done a deep analysis of this.

We’ve spent a lot of energy here lately on the CRC discussion. I think the same mechanics are at work. We have assembled a large professional team that has deep experience building big capital projects. It should not be shocking that their answer is a large bridge. I don’t think this is a conspiracy, or dishonest. I think they are sincere in their belief that they are professionally advancing the best policy options.

But that doesn’t make them right, and it especially doesn’t mean we should accept their judgements uncritically. The role of citizens in these processes is to ask the inconvenient questions and challenge staff and policy makers about whether there isn’t a better way.

As a junior policy maker myself, I’m happy for all of you to keep challenging me!

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