Category Archives: Media

MAX Yellow Line – 15 years later – broken promises

The Cascade Policy Center’s great report on the Yellow Line

As metro area citizens are faced with the renewed effort to replace the Interstate Bridge, most of us believe it is a resurrection of the Columbia River Crossing (CRC). As an Oregon Supreme Court Justice correctly stated, it was “a light rail project in search of a bridge”.

In the current discussion, both Oregon Governor Kate Brown and Washington Governor Jay Inslee have demanded, “no light rail, no bridge“. That just echos what happened in the CRC, as Oregon’s Governor Kitzhaber issued the original “no light rail, no bridge” demand, which Jay Inslee promptly repeated.

Is there a need for light rail, or ANY form of mass transit on a replacement Interstate Bridge?

The Cascade Policy Institute recently published this “looking back 15 years at the MAX Yellow Line” report. Here’s their web link to the article.


The MAX Yellow Line: A Look Back After 15 Years

Cascade Policy Institute September 12, 2019

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet’s MAX Yellow Line first opened 15 years ago in May 2004. The Yellow Line’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) made a myriad of predictions for the year 2020, which makes now the perfect time to reflect on what officials promised and what taxpayers and transit riders have since received.

Yellow Line History

The Yellow Line originated in 1988 as a 21-mile project connecting Vancouver, Washington with Downtown Portland and Clackamas Town Center. This plan was scrapped after Clark County voters defeated a proposal to raise $236.5 million in 1995 and Oregon voters turned down a $475 million regional ballot measure in 1998.

Not to be deterred by a lack of voter support, officials developed a shorter alternative in 1999 that would run from the Expo Center to Downtown Portland along Interstate Avenue. This alternative cost $350 million, 74% of which came from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

The construction of the new alternative was not put to a public vote. Portland officials instead expanded an urban renewal district to include the Interstate Avenue Corridor. Doing so allowed them to appropriate $30 million in tax increment funds to finance the rail that otherwise would have gone to other tax-collecting jurisdictions, including Multnomah County. The county commissioners opposed expansion of the urban renewal district, but the Portland City Council approved it anyway.

Looking back after fifteen years, we find that key promises made in the FEIS were never kept:

1.  Frequency of Service

What We Were PromisedTriMet promised FTA in their Full-Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) that peak-hour trains would arrive every ten minutes and off-peak trains every 15 minutes. The promised service according to the FEIS was supposed to reach eight trains during peak hours in 2020.

What We Received: Instead of having 10-15-minute headways between trains, the Yellow Line runs every 15 minutes during peak-periods and every 30 minutes during other parts of the day.

2.  Travel Times

What We Were Promised: TriMet predicted travel times to be 24 minutes from Downtown Portland to the Expo Center and 19 minutes from Downtown Portland to N Lombard.[1] Light rail speeds were projected to reach 15.3 miles per hour (mph), and bus speeds were projected to be 13.2 mph in 2005.[2]

What We Received: Actual travel times are slower than predicted. It takes 35 minutes to take light rail from Downtown Portland to the Expo Center and 28 minutes from Downtown Portland to N Lombard, even though light rail has its own exclusive right of way. Actual travel times are 45.8% greater to the Expo Center and 47.4% greater to N Lombard. Actual light rail speeds in the corridor only hit 14.1 mph in 2005 while bus speeds averaged 16.1 mph—significantly faster than predicted.

3.  High ridership

What We Were Promised: The FEIS forecasted ridership in the corridor to dramatically increase with the building of the Yellow Line. By 2020 the line’s ridership was expected to have 18,100 average weekday riders.

What We Received: At no point since the Yellow Line opened has ridership met projected levels. In April 2019 ridership only reached 13,270, 26.7% less than projected. This number will not meet 2020 projected levels based upon the negative trend observed over the past three years. From March 2016 to March 2019 ridership levels decreased by 3.6%.

Lower than promised ridership isn’t unique to the Yellow Line; every TriMet rail forecast has been wrong, and always wrong on the high side.

Light Rail Is Not Superior to Bus Transit

The Yellow Line was expected to provide superior service compared to the no-build bus alternative. This forecast hasn’t panned out. The Yellow Line replaced Line #5, which if it were still operating, would have seven-minute headways between Vancouver and Downtown Portland. C-Tran express service was forecasted to have three-minute headways.[3]

Light rail does not reach any more people or businesses than Line #5 did. In fact, Line #5 had more stops along Interstate Avenue, meaning some riders now have a longer walking commute to the MAX stations.

TriMet bus service from Vancouver to Downtown Portland continues to be an option even after the Yellow Line’s construction. Line #6 was changed to pick up the link between Jantzen Beach and the Yellow Line’s Delta Park stop that Line #5 had previously serviced. It then continues down MLK Boulevard to the Portland City Center.

In Spring 2019, Line #6 saw 665 average weekday on/offs at Jantzen Beach and only 190 total on/offs at Delta Park. This means that the vast majority of Vancouver commuters on Line #6 opt to stay on the bus to Portland instead of transferring to the Yellow Line.

Given the Yellow Line’s history, we can expect the prospective SW Corridor light rail project to increase traffic, have fewer trains than promised, and have lower ridership than predicted. If ridership levels are 26.7% below forecast 15 years into service, why should the SW Corridor ridership estimate of 43,000 daily boardings be taken seriously? The FTA should not offer TriMet additional light rail funding in the future if TriMet is unable to honor its past promises.

TriMet may argue that service levels are below EIS forecasted levels due to a lack of funds. However, TriMet’s revenue increase in recent years tells otherwise. Between 1998 and 2018, passenger fares increased by 116% and tax revenue increased by 64%. TriMet’s payroll tax has been increasing since 2005 and will continue to go up every year until 2024. There is no issue with revenue; rather, the issue lies with light rail.

Moving forward, Metro and TriMet should focus on creating a more reliable bus network that runs on an already built road system. Doing so will benefit riders and taxpayers alike.


[1] Federal Transportation Authority, Interstate MAX Before and After Study, 2005, 2-5.

[2] Id, 2-10.

[3] North Corridor Instate MAX Light Rail Project, Final Environmental Impact Statement Executive Summary, October 1999, S-17.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Click here for PDF version:

19-19-The MAX Yellow Line-A_Look_Back_After_15_YearsPDF


For added perspective, here is a graphic showing MAX light rail ridership from 2001 to 2016.

More importantly, CTran offers the only bus service across the Columbia River into Portland. They offer SEVEN different “express” bus lines, using either the I-5 corridor or the I-205 corridor. How is CTran’s ridership into Portland fairing? Badly.

Here’s a Columbian graphic showing the decline in cross-state express bus ridership.

The Bi-state C-Tran ridership has continued to drop the last two years. In the fall of 2018, CTran told me they had just 1,422 express bus riders on an average day. That’s on SEVEN different bus lines; which means an average of just over 200 riders per day per express bus line.

When compared to the 310,000 vehicles crossing the Columbia River on the two bridges on an average day, that means 0.45% or less than half of one percent use the bus.

All this comes as TriMet ridership peaked a decade ago.

And CTran ridership has experienced a similar decline.

It’s been almost 40 years since the Portland metro region added new vehicle capacity and a new transportation corridor — I-205. Regional population has doubled. We need new transportation corridors. We need more than two bridges across the Columbia River.

Talking Transportation

Oregon Voter Digest discusses regional transportation issues

On Sunday, Sept. 8th, Bruce Broussard invited me on his Oregon Voter Digest show to discuss regional transportation issues. We covered a wide array of topics related to transportation. These included traffic congestion, TOLLING, the CRC, the replace the Interstate Bridge discussion, mass transit, TriMet, and transportation bottlenecks.

You can view the entire show here.

Here’s my segment of the show, as Bruce and I talk transportation!

My thanks to Bruce for the opportunity. You can see more on the Oregon Voter Digest Facebook page here.

RTC – thanks for reviewing “Visioning Study” – Now we need action on 3rd & 4th Bridges

My remarks to the Sept. Regional Transportation Council Board

(The video can be viewed here.)

I want to thank the RTC Board for reviewing the 2008 “Visioning Study” last month. Furthermore, I want to thank those Board members who spoke regarding what they would or would not support, in terms of additional bridges and transportation corridors across the Columbia River.

Bart Hanson made it absolutely clear that he would not support one “option” for a bridge to the west of I-5. What I would like to hear, is where he WOULD support placing new bridges and transportation corridors.

The reason the Portland metro area has the nation’s 10th worst traffic congestion, is lack of vehicle capacity. ODOT told citizens during the TOLLING PAC meetings that 80,000 vehicles are presently diverting onto side roads, highlighting the lack of freeway vehicle capacity. The question average citizens want answered is, “how do we solve these traffic congestion problems?”

Recall that the CRC offered only a ONE-minute improvement in the morning, southbound commute; and it had a 10-lane wide bridge!

I want to thank Board member Gary Medvigy for speaking in favor of planning for a new 3rd bridge and transportation corridor now! His unanswered question was: “why can’t we plan for more than one bridge?”

I would like to hear from Chair McInerny-Ogle, where would she support locating a new 3rd bridge and corridor? I would like to hear from the Ports where they would desire a new bridge and corridor.

I would like our small-town representatives to share where and when they believe we should be planning for 3rd and 4th bridges across the river.

I want to thank Washougal Board member Paul Greenlee for his candor. He believes citizens would be better served if we DON’T build new 3rd & 4th bridges and corridors. Keeping people trapped in congestion will encourage them to find jobs on this side of the river, is his view. While I don’t believe that’s the opinion of the majority of Camas or Washougal citizens, I give him credit for candor, & for sharing his opinion and desire for job creation, via gridlock.

It’s often said: “we don’t have enough money to plan for two projects”. Citizen Ed Barnes highlighted the fact that we currently have an unfunded plan for the 179th Street interchange. Clearly, this body has the ability to put forward plans that are not yet funded. You’re taking ACTION on that needed transportation improvement. Why can’t you do the same for 3rd and 4th bridges?

WSDOT at one time owned land at 192nd & SR-14 that would have been perfect for landing an east county bridge. Sadly, it was sold and is being developed by the City of Vancouver today.

Please, tell citizens how you will solve the huge traffic congestion problems. Tell us where and when you support planning for 3rd and 4th bridges! We need more than two ways to cross the Columbia River!


The entire RTC Board meeting can be viewed here, via CVTV.

Use MAX money to expand metro roads

Citizens want point-to-point service in either privately owned vehicles or Lyft/Uber vehicles. Regional transportation planners have failed to change citizens’ behavior with mass transit service, which continues its decline nationally.

The Portland Tribune —  

TriMet’s MAX light-rail system has two huge weaknesses. All trains use the 117-year-old Steel Bridge and only two cars in a train.

TriMet is pushing for two tunnels under the Willamette River and downtown Portland. It’s one of four options under consideration, but by far the most expensive. A TriMet staffer indicated the $2 billion price would be significantly higher.



Saving time is the pitch. Current MAX trains cross the Steel Bridge every 90 seconds during rush hour, 40 trains per hour. TriMet can’t expand service and meet their 2040 expected demand of 64 hourly trains using the Steel Bridge.

One rightly should question the underlying assumptions: Do we need 60% more MAX trains crossing the river?

TriMet bus passenger boardings peaked in 2009 and are down 14%, a decline of more than 9 million boardings by 2018. Light-rail ridership peaked in 2012 with 35.2 million originating riders, losing 11% or 4.2 million originating riders by 2018.

More importantly, the decline in MAX ridership has occurred in spite of TriMet starting the Green Line in Sept 2009 and the Orange Line in Sept 2015. Today, ridership numbers are below the Sept 2009 level according to a Federal Transit Administration graphic.

The bottom line: Will there be a need for 60% more trains crossing the Willamette River in 2040, given that MAX ridership has declined by over 10% in the last half-decade? Probably not.

TriMet says the tunnels will save “about 15 minutes.” How do the tunnels save time? By eliminating a dozen downtown Portland stops! MAX passengers with downtown destinations between Lloyd Center and Goose Hollow will have to get off “express” trains, transferring to “local” trains using the Steel Bridge.

Is TriMet being truthful to taxpayers about all their future plans? The tunnels following existing MAX routes suggest future plans will add stops (and travel time) at downtown locations. How much more will that cost?

If TriMet originally had created a subway, or an elevated rail system like Chicago, they would not be limited to just two cars in a train. They could expand capacity by adding more cars to each train. Now that roughly $5 billion has been expended on light rail, they hope citizens won’t mind doubling down. So $2 billion or more for two light-rail tunnels under the Willamette, and $2.9 billion for the Tigard/Tualatin light-rail expansion.

Taxpayers should put this in context. Last fall PEMCO, an insurance company, reported 94% of Northwest citizens want to use their privately owned vehicles.

An April Oregon Transportation Commission survey found 51% of citizens want to “expand and improve interstates and interstate bridges.” Another 14% want expanded arterials.

Metro’s 2019 poll showed people’s top priority is roads and highways. The Portland Tribune summarized: “On its own, improving public transit is a lower priority than making road improvements and the more overarching goal of easing traffic — voters still overwhelmingly rely on driving alone to get around,” reads the poll’s conclusions.

Citizens want point-to-point service in either privately owned vehicles or Lyft/Uber vehicles. Regional transportation planners have failed to change citizens’ behavior with mass transit service, which continues its decline nationally.

Use the $2 billion MAX tunnel money to expand metro area roads and freeways; use it to build new transportation corridors including new bridges across the Columbia River. It’s been 40 years since a new transportation corridor was built: Interstate 205. Serve the people and their transportation needs and desires.

John Ley is a resident of Camas, Washington.



MAX light rail ridership has declined in spite of TriMet adding two new lines.

The proposed route of the TWO light rail only tunnels under the Willamette River and downtown Portland.

The dozen stops TriMet wants the proposed $2 Billion (plus) tunnels to bypass. This photo was taken at a TriMet open house in July.

The PEMCO survey indicated 94% of people prefer to use their privately owned vehicles.

Lars on failing WES & MAX ridership

Lars Larson reads part of my email!

Failing WES ridership caused TriMet to delay light rail trains by TWO minutes. (See Oregonian news story here.)

Lars tees up the topic and then reads part of an email I sent him. Take a listen here. It’s 2 minutes, 10 seconds!


Later in the show. Lars took my phone call. We covered a bit of new territory. I was hoping to share more specifics about the proposed $2 Billion plus MAX light rail tunnel. But Lars took the conversation another way. But thanks for highlighting some of these very important issues, Lars!


From the Oregonian news story:

TriMet is opting to delay departures for the tens of thousands of metro residents who ride light rail on weekdays to accommodate its increasingly shrinking WES ridership, a decision that comes on the heels of a protracted debate about closing four light rail stations in downtown that was pitched to the public as a way to carve precious minutes off a lengthy commute between Goose Hollow and Old Town Chinatown. TriMet instead opted to close two stations permanently and a third on a trial basis. Those changes are expected to save three minutes on commutes through downtown.

From the Clark County Today editorial earlier this month, regarding the $2 Billion MAX tunnel that will ELIMINATE 12 downtown Portland stops. Read the great piece with graphics, here.