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!

4 Comments

4 Responses to Framing Our Transit Debates

  1. Wells
    November 9, 2010 at 9:44 am Link

    Light rail in the Portland area (including Vancouver) is an essential transit component for guiding growth, development and building district economies. Express bus service does not offer that benefit; just the opposite. If Vancouver is ever to become something other than a sleepy bedroom community of commuters, MAX has got to reach downtown Vancouver and then Vancouver Mall. The same principle of using light rail to guide growth and development applies to most bedroom communities in the Portland region and literally all major metropolitan regions nationwide. The national economy is suffering because we spend too much time and resources on travel and transport.

  2. EngineerScotty
    November 9, 2010 at 9:58 am Link

    It’s interesting that investment in LRT is compared to freeway investment of generations past. I’ve seen that comparison used to argue both sides.

    * LRT opponents note that the freeway/road network IS a complete network, and enjoys extensive network effects, while claiming that this is not true for LRT (something which I’ll agree with–more on that in a bit); and conclude that therefore we shouldn’t bother building a second network and should instead spend resources on the network we have.

    * LRT supporters often cry foul, and I’ve seen some advance a “technology equity” argument–essentially, since we’ve spent X billion (inflation-adjusted) dollars building freeway, fairness demands an equivalent investment in light rail, to bring it up to parity.

    I consider both of these to be weak arguments–both of them attempt to constrain the actions of the future by invoking the past. While the past cannot be ignored, our future needs are what should guide us. If we assume a world in which gas is significantly more expensive, and the environmental effects of burning fossil fuels become more severe, then building rapid transit–especially the kind which runs off electricity–makes more sense, regardless of what infrastructure we have today.

    And in some cases, we can repurpose our existing infrastructure. Quite a few segments of MAX are examples of this–the Yellow Line along Interstate and the Blue Line along Burnside were both built by converting traffic lanes to railbeds; there are plenty of places in town where we can likely improve transit outcomes (at far lesser cost) by painting “bus only” onto the asphalt.

  3. R A Fontes
    November 9, 2010 at 10:56 am Link

    I would take one of Scotty’s arguments to its logical extension and offer that our approaches to transit planning seem to be efforts to meet the needs of the 20th century.

    It’s important to acknowledge that transit has been on life support for over 50 years and would have been on it longer if it weren’t for the depression and WWII. We continue to support it as long as we perceive needs that wouldn’t be fulfilled otherwise. It’s reasonable to imagine a future with both diminished demand and realistic alternatives to transit.

    Less need is coming about through population aging and technological change. It could also be lessened by housing pattern changes which make communities more self-contained, at least in the specific actions of residents in meeting their daily needs. The internet eliminates increasing millions of trips for work, entertainment, banking, shopping, medical care, etc., etc. One delivery truck making one trip can replace hundreds of trips by individual consumers.

    It would be both naive and arrogant to insist that technology won’t offer viable transportation alternatives to transit-as-we-know-it in the not too distant future. I’m betting on autonomous jitneys, but there are a lot of possibilities for otherwise tweaking or even replacing existing systems.

    I believe that the future for fixed guideway systems is extremely limited, and paradoxically, lies at the two extremes of transit services: fareless circulators and high-velocity limited-stop services which offer door-to-door trip-time and convenience advantages over other transport throughout the day.

    The problem with most LRT and so-called rapid streetcar is that they fall in the uncomfortable middle. Their utility is marginal and therefore could be rendered useless by relatively small societal and technological changes.

  4. Wells
    November 9, 2010 at 3:53 pm Link

    The distance one can travel comfortably on light rail is more than twice that of a bus ride. Traffic has reached gridlock in many places and will only get worse. It’s too late to dedicate road lanes to BRT. Grade-separated LRT is ideal for comfort and for guiding development which can reduce the need for cross-county travel while creating transit access to far-flung locales.

    Transportation technology is basic and limited. There’s no magic fix-all solution, no computer-driven taxis, no highways that manage traffic. We’ll have to live within our means and make do driving less, walking more, bicycling and taking transit. It’s pretty simple and straightforward though automobile-related business interests will have a cow. Globalization? Forget it.

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