Framing Our Transit Debates

Our block group map is filling in! I thought that was a good opportunity to reflect on the way our debates around transit service get framed.

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As the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail line struggles to close its funding gap, the political debate (at least in transportation geek circles) continues to boil. The debate tends to get expressed in a couple of forms:

  1. This is a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a transit line
  2. Light rail is being built at the expense of bus riders

I’d like to suggest that neither of these represents a useful policy debate, but that in fact there are a number of policy debates underneath that are useful to talk about, so I’d like to outline a few:

  • What kind of region do we want to live in for our future?

    Often folks like me get tagged with pejoratives like ‘railfan’. In fact, what I believe most of my fellow travelers are working towards is a vision of a region that is significantly less auto-dependent. That in turn requires capacity for large amounts of mobility in non-auto forms, and Light Rail is the current delivery technology for that mobility (it could be done with BRT – but I don’t think the LRT versus BRT debate is the rail versus bus debate we’re having right now). There’s no question this exercise is expensive, but in real dollar terms it’s not out of scale with our freeway investments (now or in the past).

  • Do we have the right funding mix for alternatives to the automobile?

    Personally I think the answer here is definitely not. If we did, we’d be building out our bicycle network much more quickly and finding a way to get the gaps in our sidewalk system filled. Maybe we can get a Federal Bicycle Administration or a Federal Sidewalk Administration on a par with the Federal Transit Administration (or even better the Federal Highway Administration). But even so, that doesn’t make building LRT a bad idea.

  • Are we allocating our transit revenues appropriately?

    This is the one I’ve been banging on, suggesting that in an era where we have real shortages in operating revenue, we should not be diverting funding that could be used for operations to capital. But while I feel strongly about this, I could argue the other side too: only about 5% of revenue that could be used for operations is going towards capital. And other regions have to deal with this policy decision all the time: Salt Lake City has one tax base (I forget if it’s a sales tax or a property tax) for transit and they have to decide how to split it between operations and expansion. We’re someone unique in having local match for capital come mainly from sources that are not dedicated to transit.

  • And finally, what I think is the REAL equity question, and the one that our transit equity project is trying to help inform: is it good policy to focus the overwhelming portion of new available service hours in one new corridor every 5-6 years, versus spreading it through the system?

    That’s really the issue, it’s not train versus bus. Essentially TriMet saves up all its growth in available service hours and spends it in one big blow-out a couple of times per decade. I think a policy debate around that pattern would be a very good thing!

So here’s to a debate on the real issues. Fire!

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