What to Do About 217?

Portland State University
Center for Transportation Studies
Winter 2010 Transportation Seminar Series

Speaker: Randy McCourt, President, DKS Associates

Topic: Innovative Solutions for OR 217

When: Friday, February 19, 2010, 12:00 – 1:00pm

Where: PSU Urban Center Building, SW 6th and Mill, Room 204

16 responses to “What to Do About 217?”

  1. Why not just widen the poor thing and let people save time and money on a better commute?

    Especially after WES has proven to be an un-believably expensive waste of money and commuter’s time. In the area of $100 per boarding (including construction) compared to about $0.20 per passenger-mile for driving (using national car-occupancy average)


  2. jk: Especially after WES has proven to be an un-believably expensive waste of money and commuter’s time. In the area of $100 per boarding (including construction) compared to about $0.20 per passenger-mile for driving (using national car-occupancy average)

    Out of curiosity, when you factor construction into the cost of a boarding ride, how far out did you capitalize? Was it 30 years? Or more?

  3. Well I can’t address the money angle, but WES is absolutely NOT a waste of THIS commuter’s time.

    Including walk time to/from stations, WES saves me at least ten minutes getting home. Going to work is pretty much a wash, since there’s a wait between MAX and WES. But my comparison is based on smooth freeway sailing — the more traffic gets glitched, the more time I save.

    But even without the time savings, and even with a quick walk in the rain, being out of the freeway rat race has been worthwhile. For folks with parking issues, I’d imagine the benefit would be greater.

    Personally speaking, the cost is a break-even based on gasoline alone. I haven’t tried to factor in car maintenance, insurance, etc, but I’ll have a car no matter what so that’s not as relevant. Regionally speaking, I’m sure WES is expensive, but what wouldn’t be as compared to a 30-ish year-old freeway.

    WES definitely seems under-utilized, however I only see the earliest trains. It’s just a year old though, and a few times lately most of the seats on my train have been filled. These things are probably built with an eye to the long term. Like any other public infrastructure project, I certainly wouldn’t expect it to be at capacity, much less breaking even, at year one.

  4. The biggest problem with 217 isn’t that it’s narrow; the biggest problem with 217 is that its ramps are all too close together. It’s got like 10 interchanges in a 7 mile stretch–which is why you’ve seen interesting suggestions from ODOT and such about closing down most (or all) of the ramps during rush hour.

    Of course, there really isn’t any good alternate route (talking of roads only at this point), given that 217 runs diagonally, and the street grid is woefully disconnected. Hall Boulevard is the only thing resembling a parallel route, and its not designed for tons of commuters.

    The problem with WES (ignoring cost for now) is that what is needed here isn’t a commuter line, but real mass transit. (A peak-hour commuter service might be a useful augment; but commuter rail only works well if it either covers long distances, or is served well by transit or park-and-rides on its few stops). A more specific issue is that the route of WES–a still active freight line–misses many important destinations in the corridor, which are located away from the freight trains. Southern downtown Beaverton, Washington Square, Bridgeport/Durham, much of developed southern Tualatin, and Wilsonville Town Center all are located away from the rails; these are places where trains should be stopping.

  5. The problem with WES is that the underlying philosophy is flawed. There is a reason that there are so very few WES-type intersuburban commuter rail operations, even in areas of the country with much higher rail line density than we have here. When backers were touting that WES would be an almost unique service, you’d think that somebody with a little bit of influence would have asked why.

  6. Look. The obvious solution is to increase service on the line and push the freight traffic into less desirable hours. If it ran more frequently everyone would be happy and use it more. End of story.

  7. My favorite “long term” solution would be construction of a new rail branch (for freight) between Sherwood and Hillsboro, roughly parallel to River Road. Right now, there are few (if any) customers along the WES line itself–the main hub of activity is the industrial area in Beaverton located in the vicinity of Allen and Western, and the switching yard near Beaverton TC (and Merlo). Other than that, the tracks are mainly seeing through trains.

    One major thing that would benefit WES would be becoming FRA-exempt. You could use a one-man crew, and could replace the current tanks with something that gets better gas mileage. And a River Road branch would better serve quite a few agricultural customers along its route.

  8. Sorry, but the idea of extending WES service is exactly the wrong way to go.

    The hourly operating costs are several times that of MAX. Even if we filled every seat and had dozens of standees on every run, WES would still be an expensive boondoggle on a total cost per ride basis.

    A second problem is that while WES has competitive trip times during commute hours, its 33 mph average speeds including stops makes a lot less sense to people who can easily beat that the rest of the day and get door-to-door single vehicle service, too.

    The underlying reality is that of expensive commuter rail serving relatively low density communities. Very few people have the luxury of living and working within short walks of WES stations.

  9. Right now, operating cost of WES is about 3-4x MAX (~$800 per hour vs ~$220 per hour).

    Among the reasons why are:

    * 2-man crews; a FRA regulation.
    * Heavy, FRA-compliant DMUs that get about 2 miles to the gallon at best–with the stop profile of WES, I’d be surprised if it weren’t considerably lower.
    * Operations subcontracted through P&W. (This has the added side-effect of some capital cost items appearing on the operational books of TriMet. While this is a common benefit to private-sector businesses for outsourcing, it is a liability to public-sector operators, who don’t operate under financial metrics which penalize capital spending, but find operational funds harder to come by).
    * Indemnification required by P&W.

    Commuter rail lines using non-FRA-compliant rolling stock on public rights of way are quite cost-competitive. WES is a uniquely bad situation, in many ways.

    The 33MPH trip speed is not a problem–MAX does about 20MPH through the system (slower compared to most metros) and is highly popular and widely used. Lack of good connectivity at many of its stops is a problem.

  10. WES operational costs have been varying wildly. They were about $1440 in November.

    MAX does get up to 30 MPH on the Goose Hollow to Sunset stretch and would be even faster with the lower station density that WES has.

    Relatively low speeds are not as much of a problem when going to downtown Portland or PDX where parking is expensive, especially when the nearest station is within walking distance of many riders. These don’t apply to the suburbs served by WES.

    Intersuburban transit is a continuing problem for operators around the country. I think solutions will be technological and won’t have much to do with transit systems as we know them.

  11. It’s not unreasonable to increase lane capacity to three each way and to cut down on those on/off ramps every few feet it seems.

  12. I can’t believe with all these comments on WES, nobody’s mentioned what seems to be a huge problem: very little service connects to it. For a commuter in Sherwood trying to get to Wilsonville for work car free they’d have to go north to Tigard to go south to Wilsonville. From West Linn to Wilsonville you’d have to take a 35 to a 36 to a 76 to WES. If you live near and work near a station it has some value, but otherwise you’re going to pretty much have to go out of your way to take it.

    Of course, even if you live near it, you better make sure you don’t have to work late ever. The last train out of Wilsonville leaves before 7 pm, which I’ve definitely worked later than a number of times at a number of jobs.

    Commuter rail in Oregon might work if it connected some major centers over longer distances (Salem to Portland maybe), but Wilsonville to Beaverton is a terrible choice given the lack of transportation options to actually get to the train easily, lack of density nearby, limited times it runs, and overall cost of operations.

    Too bad they didn’t just wait and do it right with MAX instead of wasting so much money on something we’ll likely just replace with MAX eventually.

  13. we’ll likely just replace with MAX eventually.
    JK: One little problem with that:
    As I understand it, if they put the poor thing out of its misery, they have to give the money back!


  14. As I understand it, if they put the poor thing out of its misery, they have to give the money back!

    A way around it would be to operate it as DMU based but LRT like, like the Sprinter that runs from Oceanside to Escondido north of San Diego. Like WES it runs on a freight rail line through suburban areas parallel to a freeway that’s always congested but doesn’t have space to to be expanded.

    With some infill stations, avoiding any mixed operation of the tracks to avoid FRA rules, and all day service the WES would probably be a lot more useful. The Sprinter is 50% longer in the length of areas it serves, but has 300% more stations.

    To be fair the Sprinter also is in a much more densely built area, has direct connections to 3 commuter rail lines and Amtrak at one end, serves shopping centers, beaches and two colleges directly, cost almost three times as much, and its daily ridership still has been short of expectations (~8300 now vs 11000 planned.)

  15. For someone who has switched from driving 217 to riding WES, the 217 problem is solved. But choosing the transit option takes time; its no small deal. And it takes time to get supporting infrastructive like sidewalks built, not to mention denser residential and commercial development around stations that rail transit needs. But note that Wilsonville has many more jobs than residents, and Beaverton Transit Center has MAX trains to Portland & Hillsboro every few minutes in the peaks; these are end-stations that make sense. Still it will take time to make a peak hour only, 30 minute headway product build ridership. Meanwhile on 217, maybe its time to close some on/off ramps and charge tolls, then do the same thing on I-5 across the Columbia.

  16. If I were looking for things to do on OR217, here’s what I would do (this is limited to roadwork improvements only)

    1) Do Phase 2 of the I-5/217 interchange project, separating 217S-I5S traffic from traffic entering the highway from 72nd Avenue.

    2) Close the tight loop ramps from 72nd to 217 NB, and from 217 SB to 72nd. Provide a U-turn signal phase near the Kruse Way/I-5 SB ramp intersection.

    3) Close the onramp from Hall Boulevard to 217 SB.

    4) Close the Denney interchange.

    5) Re-do the interchanges with Canyon, Beaverton/Hillsdale, and Allen to use C/D lanes, getting rid of the very short distance between the Allen and Beaverton-Hillsdale ramps.

    6) Close the Walker Road interchange.

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