Breaking down the economics of bus vs MAX

There’s been a bunch of stuff in the comments of the SW Corridor: Transportation Bundles article about the relative (operational) efficiencies of bus versus light rail. The discussion mirrors a debate that occurs in the wider community. Two dueling theories are commonly articulated:

  • That MAX is more efficient, operationally, than bus–that in busy corridors, it can move far more people than can the equivalent number of busses, and requires a lot less subsidy. TriMet frequently articulates this position in its public messaging.
  • That MAX is economically inefficient–an unwise investment at best, and a rip-off at worst; diverting resources from (and starving) the bus system, and a major contributor to the agency’s budget problems. Many agency critics make this charge–ranging from conservative/libertarians broadly opposed to any capital investment in transit, to poverty advocates on the left, to “good government” types suspicious of any large capital expenditure, to many in ATU757, to riders of “marginal” bus routes whose service is imperilled by the agency’s budget woes.

Who’s right? As usual, things are a bit more complicated than a bumper-sticker slogan can capture. After the jump, we get into the numbers. I’m only focusing (for the most part) on operational expenses–the question of capital costs are ignored. The article also focuses on bus service vs light rail–the Streetcar, WES, and LIFT are discussed, but in far less details.

The raw data
A few resources which are the primary sources for this article; all are published by (or based on data published by) TriMet.

There are several different ways to approach the numbers; we consider each in turn:

The big picture: Looking at the budget (pp20-22), we find that TriMet has allocated $314M for its Operations Division, by far the biggest chunk of its total operating budget of $473M. (Other expense items include $16.5M for non-grant-funded capital projects, $47.8M for pensions/OPEB, $48.2M for debt service, and $47M for various administrative functions). Of that $314 M, we find the following:

  • $157.1M for bus service ($100.9M for operations, and $56.8M for maintenance)
  • $52.5M for MAX ($16.4M for operations, $15.7M for ROW maintenance, and $20.4M for equipment maintenance
  • $9.3M for Streetcar expenses, including both TriMet’s subsidy and pass-through funding from the City of Portlandsubsidies to the Portland Streetcar
  • $47.5M for Accessible Transportation programs ($31.M for LIFT and $16.4M for TriMet’s Medical Transportation Program)
  • $6.4M for WES
  • $14.3M for facilities
  • $24.5M for dispatch, supervisors, planning, and other support.

Total ridership on TriMet (excluding Streetcar) in FY2012 was as follows: There were a total of 102.2 million boarding rides on the system–42.2M on MAX, 59.6M on bus, and 481k on WES. (For those unfamiliar with terminology, a “boarding ride” is counted whenever someone steps on a transit vehicle–a journey with two transfers counts as three boarding rides). 41.3% boardings were on MAX, 58.3% on bus, and 0.41% on WES.

Total passenger revenue in FY2012 was–coincidentally–$102.2 million, giving an average system-wide revenue per boarding ride of $1.00. This figure is noticeably less than the full-price fare, due to various factors like discounts, transfers, Free Rail Zone (which was still active during FY12), and fare evasion. TriMet had a total Farebox Recovery Ratio (FRR) of 27.8%, vs total system cost. Mode-specific FRRs were: MAX, 44.2%, Bus, 24.8%, WES 6.9%, LIFT 4.8%.

The details: The Service and Ridership table above gives lots of interesting data, including historical data for the past fourteen service years. Complete data is at the link above, and some of the more interesting stuff (for this discussion) has been summarized here. The table below excludes WES and LIFT (they’re expensive, no surprise), and only includes every third year, to increase the chances it looks nice on your device. Apologies for the crude formatting.







Bus Sys Costs






Bus Op Costs






Bus Veh Miles






Bus Veh Hrs






Bus Rev Hours






Bus Boarding Rides






Bus Revenue/Ride






Bus In-Svc %






Bus Op Cost/Hr






Bus Sys Cost/Hr






Bus Op Cost/Ride






Bus Sys Cost/Ride






Bus Subsidy/Ride






Bus Rides/Veh Hr






Bus FRR (System)






Bus Break-even Rides/Hr







MAX Sys Costs






Max Op Costs






MAX Veh Miles






MAX Veh Hours






MAX Rev Hours






MAX Boarding Rides






MAX Revenue/Ride






MAX In-Svc %






MAX Op Cost/Hr






MAX Sys Cost/Hr






MAX Op Cost/Ride






MAX Sys Cost/Ride






MAX Subsidy/Ride






MAX Rides/Veh Hr






MAX FRR (System)






MAX Break-even Rides/Hr







Additional breakdowns on per-service subsidy are also made available by TriMet. In particular, the operating subsidy on the following modes/routes in FY12 was as follows:

  • Blue Line: $0.55
  • Red Line: $0.90
  • Green Line: $0.92
  • Yellow Line: $1.32
  • NS Streetcar: $1.32
  • Frequent bus: $1.54
  • “Standard” bus: $2.73.
  • WES: $18.55
  • LIFT: $27.93

The figures in the Service and Ridership table don’t line up exactly with line items in the published budget, as many budget items are allocated between bus, MAX, and other modes; and still others are not assigned to any particular mode’s cost center at all.

More details on the cost breakdown. Portland Afoot gives the following breakdown for the per-vehicle-hour costs of operating both bus and MAX. The figures cited here also don’t line up exactly with any of the numbers published for a given year (they may be budgeted figures rather than actuals), but they are sufficiently close that we will repeat them here. According to Portland Afoot, a bus costs $120.95 per hour to operate, as follows:

  • $9.84 for fuel and tires
  • $59.24 for driver labor ($29.29 wages, $30.95 benefits)
  • $20.25 for maintenance and supplies (excluding tires)
  • $8.73 for non-vehicle maintenance (I assume primarily stops, shelters, signage, etc).
  • $26.78 for administration and “other”.

For MAX (total $328.11):

  • $13.21 for electricity
  • $77.66 for driver labor ($33.79 for wages, $43.87 for benefits)
  • $61.21 for vehicle maintenance
  • $73.86 for non-vehicle maintenance (tracks, wires, signalling, stations)
  • $178.35 for administration and other (including “other wages”).

Rail’s direct vehicle costs (energy, consumables, labor, and maintenance) are more than that of bus($152 vs $89), but rail has significantly higher non-vehicle and administrative costs. Much of this is due to the need to maintain rail’s extensive physical plant–tracks, power lines and power systems, stations, etc.; as well as to operate the various train control systems, which have no analog on the bus. (Busses travel on public rights of way maintained by the state or by municipal governments; it should be noted that TriMet pays no weight-mile tax to help maintain the roads, despite the fact that busses–with very large axle loads–are among the worst offenders out there at chewing up asphalt). Many of these expenses, however, depend more on the amount of tracks installed, as opposed to the number of trains running–as a result, cutting (or increasing) rail service has less of an effect on TriMet’s bottom line than you might expect.

Some analysis

From a per-rider perspective, MAX looks great: The per-rider subsidy last fiscal year was almost a third on MAX vs the bus ($0.67 vs $1.96), and the farebox recovery ratio almost 20% higher (44% vs 25%). From a per-vehicle-hour perspective, on the other hand, MAX looks terrible: It costs nearly three times as much ($269 vs $98) to keep a MAX train on the tracks as it does to keep a bus on the road.

What is going on?

A key parameter that explains the difference, is ridership: MAX gets over four times the ridership per vehicle hour compared to the bus system. There are many possible reasons for this, pro and con:

  • Capacity: A 2-car LRT can carry 4-5 times as many passengers as a 40′ bus (and about 3 times as many passengers as a 20m articulated bus or a Streetcar). There are many times during the service day that vehicles are full, and passing up passengers as a result. The bus “break-even rides/hour”, which gives the number of hourly boardings required to break even, is greater than the capacity of a bus, whereas all 357 hourly boardings required for MAX to break even, actually could ride together on a MAX train.
  • Corridor strength: MAX has generally been deployed on corridors with either excellent existing ridership, or good untapped potential; there are no “social service” routes on the MAX system. Many bus lines, on the other hand, are “coverage” routes with low ridership ’round the clock; these drag down the numbers of the bus system tremendously. Unfortunately, I don’t have more detailed data on TriMet’s frequent service bus routes–though some of them come close to MAX in terms of financial performance (and may even exceed the lower-performing MAX lines).
  • Service quality: It’s long been claimed by rail supporters, that rail is more attractive (to riders) than bus. There are many anecdotes of yuppies who won’t be caught dead on a bus but will happily ride a train. While TriMet’s data doesn’t contradict this (rail ridership is much higher), it doesn’t say anything about why–there are many factors at play. In addition to the allure of steel wheels, there’s the issue of frequency, speed, and reliability; somewhat better amenities (particularly at stations–though nobody will confuse a MAX train with an Amtrak sleeping car, or even WES). There are many ways in which MAX is a better product for the transit rider than local bus service–assuming, of course, that it goes where you need. Of course, many of MAX’s desirable attributes have nothing to do with bus-vs-rail; a good-quality BRT line could conceivably offer similar operating parameter. OTOH, the N/S streetcar is an excellent performer despite being slow and unreliable–that said, it’s got a lower fare and runs in a dense urban neighborhood. (The CL streetcar, on the other hand…)
  • MAX-centric service configuration: One common complaint about MAX is that many suburban transit trips require a transfer to MAX to get downtown, whereas prior to the service being installed, one could ride a bus all the way in. No bus that serves Hillsboro or Aloha, for instance, reaches downtown; the only transfer-free service between Tualatin and Portland runs during peaks. When MLR completes, many Clackamas County bus riders will likewise get to transfer to MAX in Milwaukie, as many of the current busses that run from downtown to Milwaukie TC will likely be curtailed in favor of LRT. Certainly the 33 will terminate in Milwaukie; though I expect the 70 to keep running. While TriMet has a nice grid system in Portland itself, out in the ‘burbs it uses more of a hub-and-spoke system; this is particularly an issue in suburbs with rail. (Of course, riders in Tigard see the same issue with forced transfers to the 12…)
  • Transit-oriented development: While the impact of this is perhaps exaggerated by those touting its benefits (as well as by anti-urbanists panicking about “Portland creep”, as though Oak Grove is going to somehow turn into the Pearl District), much upzoning has occurred around the MAX line–and many developers, homeowners, and renters consider proximity thereto to be a valuable amenity. Out in Washington County, now that the housing collapse is apparently over, oodles of new construction are occurring along SW Baseline, all of it within walking distance of a MAX station. (Much of it is single-family housing, but packed in like sardines single-family housing). Where development has occurred, development patters along MAX tend to be denser that development patterns in transit-poor neighborhoods; increased density drives ridership.

The wide gulf between “standard” bus and frequent bus is further evidence that ridership is indeed a big part of the story; there is little technical difference between the two types of service. (Non-frequent routes are more likely to get older busses, and frequent routes on busy corridors more likely to experience overloaded conditions). One might naively think that frequent bus would be less efficient, given that there are more runs and thus more expense occurred, but that’s not the case–good quality service is more likely to attract ridership; and that principle applies to rail just as much as to better bus service. Of course, there has to be sufficient potential ridership along a route for this to apply; turning the 84 into Frequent Service wouldn’t make it into an efficient, high-ridership run.

Of course, none of this answers the questions as to whether continued investment in MAX remains a good idea. Capital dollars are getting scarce; likely putting the breaks on future projects beyond MLR and/or the CRC. And with labor expenses continuing to grow (largely due to increasing health-care costs–it’s not as though operators and retirees are getting richer; it’s that a specific benefit is gotten considerably more expensive), operational squeezes will likely continue. While rail is cost-effective in the corridors it serves, it can’t be deployed everywhere, and in places where it is deployed, TriMet is committed to provide a certain level of service as a condition of funding grants. This commitment, along with rail’s higher fixed cost base, and greater pressure to cut low-margin routes during a budget crisis, does tend to concentrate most of the weight of the budget axe on the bus system.

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