Saturday, December 4, 2010

A train with a big hill to climb

Who doesn't like the idea of commuting by rail? Doing so holds down vehicle emissions, congestion and operating costs while contributing to a picturesque community experience.

Those are some of the reasons why Portland is so heavily invested in MAX and the downtown streetcar. It's why planners and visionaries come here to see how the city is knit together. Portland loves rail.

But that doesn't mean that every proposal on two tracks should be pursued. Take the proposed Lake Oswego-Portland rail transit line that Metro has been studying. Please.

When Metro's consultants sketched out the costs of several options -- building and operating a rail line, enhancing bus service or doing nothing -- the contrast was stark. Constructing the streetcar line is estimated to cost seven to nine times the cost of enhanced bus service, which is estimated at about $51.1 million. And even with a hefty federal contribution to the streetcar project, state and local agencies would have to contribute something between $32.9 million and $59.9 million more to build the rail line than to enhance the bus service.

It's true that throwing buses onto an already clogged freeway does little to ease congestion. But it's also true that the minuscule ridership estimates -- 3,200 to 3,400 daily -- in this proposal don't come even close to justifying the expense.

It's going to take more than a Little Engine That Could to climb that mountain. We're in a recession. Crucial services are being cut. Given this climate, who can, in good conscience, support issuing bonds or allocating operating funds to construct such a system? This would be the heaviest of lifts.

To be sure, there is considerable logic to the idea of a Lake Oswego-Portland rail connection of some kind. The most obvious one is that much of the right-of-way for a streetcar is already in public hands, thanks partly to the purchase of a 6.3-mile section from Southern Pacific by a consortium of public agencies, including the Oregon Department of Transportation and TriMet.

The city of Lake Oswego operates a seasonal trolley along the line, to the annoyance of some residents along the route. And Oregon 43 is narrow, winding and sometimes congested. So it makes perfect sense to think about relieving pressure on the road while leveraging the nearby right of way.

But the just-released draft environmental impact statement from Metro (available at shows just how challenging it will be for rail boosters to persuade residents and legislators to spend public money on this rail system.

The Enhanced Bus alternative involves park-and-ride lots and alterations to bus routes along the corridor. The streetcar alternative would add tracks, trains and park-and-ride lots and would reduce the number of miles that buses travel systemwide. Choosing the streetcar alternative would represent a continuing regional shift in emphasis away from over-the-road transportation and toward mass transit on rails.

But it would cost taxpayers considerably more than any other alternative.

Considering we're emerging from an election in which voters trounced TriMet's proposal to sell bonds to buy more and better buses, it's almost impossible to imagine that an entirely new rail line would enjoy widespread support. People want to see the basics -- employee health costs, for example -- taken care of first, before approving additional equipment and capital projects.

The comment period on the Metro draft environmental impact statement will continue through Jan. 31. But it will be a shock if sentiment favors a project that is vastly more expensive than the alternatives.


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