Why light rail is wrong for Clark County

The Reflector published my letter here.

  • Feb 4, 2019

A while back The Reflector asked readers the following: “Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this month said that if a new Interstate 5 bridge is to be built, Southwest Washington needs to compromise with Oregon by allowing it to feature light rail — otherwise it won’t get done. Do you believe this is a fair compromise to finally get the project moving?”

Who will light rail serve? Will it reduce traffic congestion?

The CRC demonstrated the planned new bridge with light rail would reduce the morning southbound commute time by one minute. That was because Oregon refuses to add new through lanes to I-5 at the Rose Quarter. Furthermore, roughly $2,000 per year in tolls would be required to pay back borrowed money. Southwest Washington residents would pay up to 60 percent of those tolls.

Every past new light rail line saw a reduction in bus service by TriMet. They simply reduced or eliminated bus service to force people to use the more expensive light rail transit.

C-Tran currently offers seven separate “express” bus lines into Portland. They travel both the I-5 and the I-205 corridors. In 2017, only 1,437 people used these express buses on an average day. That’s a rounding error of the 310,000 vehicles WSDOT reports cross the Columbia River daily. Furthermore, since the light rail would only travel the I-5, it would attract a small, unknown portion of the 1,437 people.

John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute reports TriMet’s light rail carries just under one percent of the region’s daily trips. Furthermore, all mass transit carries less than 5 percent of trips. As the recent PEMCO survey reported, 94 percent of people prefer to use their privately owned vehicles.

The MAX yellow line travels at an average speed of 18 mph. There are nine stops between Delta Park and the Rose Quarter in addition to congested downtown Portland streets. Current C-Tran express buses are faster for commuters than riding light rail.

The TriMet Milwaukie MAX extension cost $200 million per mile. The Tigard/Tualatin proposal will be $240 million per mile. Compare that with a $500,000 bus. A bus has “flexible” routing, when there are traffic accidents, weather, or other problems. Trains can’t divert.

Contrary to what Governor Inslee says, light rail is not required to get federal money. The CRC had $830 million federal “transit dollars” plus $400 million non-transit federal dollars. The “transit” could be buses. Our Congresswoman can fight for non-transit funds.

If we want to solve the nation’s 12th worst traffic congestion, we need more bridges and new transportation corridors. It’s been almost 40 years since the I-205 bridge and transportation corridor opened. Regional population has doubled. That’s the problem. In the words of citizen Steven Wallace (to the Bi-state Transportation Committee): “we need lanes, not trains.”



CTran staff provided me the 1,437 passengers riding any of the seven “Express” bus lines into Portland on an average day. Here a graphic from the Columbian of earlier years and the trend.

Historical data on vehicles crossing the Columbia River.

Here is historical CTran ridership numbers courtesy of the Washington Policy Center.

Here is a graphic from the Columbian, regarding the PEMCO survey showing 94% of people prefer their privately owned vehicle, and 74% found it to be the most convenient.

John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute said the following about TriMet ridership in a Feb. 2018 post.

TriMet’s ridership is in a steady decline. It peaked in fiscal year 2012 and ridership has dropped in each of the last three years. Only 2.4% of total travel in the Portland region takes place on transit, making it irrelevant or even a nuisance to most taxpayers.

Light rail has lower ridership today than before the Orange line to Milwaukie was built. During FY 2017, boarding rides per-hour on MAX reached the lowest level since light rail opened in 1986.

The estimated to cost of TriMet’s proposed Tigard/Tualatin light rail extension is $2.6 billion to $2.9 billion according to this Oregonian news report. It will be a 12 mile extension with 13 proposed stops.


For more information and perspective on the Dec. Bistate Bridge Replacement Committee meeting, read here.

Bi-State I-5 Bridge Replacement Committee


The many, many flaws in the CRC, including the ONE MINUTE improvement in the morning, southbound commute and many of the financial flaws, is published in this excellent Willamette Week article — here.

A Bridge Too False

Turns out most of the case for the $3.6 billion Columbia River Crossing Isn’t true.