Opinion: The I-5 Bridge Replacement Project’s administrators are misleading state legislators about light rail

The Cascade Policy Institute disputes information provided by the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program team.
File photo

The Cascade Policy Institute disputes information provided by the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program team

Micah Perry
Cascade Policy Institute

PORTLAND, Ore. – On Friday (May 20), state legislators from Washington and Oregon will gather virtually for an informational meeting about plans for the I-5 Bridge Replacement Program (IBR). During the meeting, the project’s administrators are scheduled to speak and respond to questions raised at an earlier May 6 meeting.

According to the slide deck for the presentation, project leadership will discuss ridership on TriMet’s Yellow Line in order to justify the inclusion of light rail in the current plans. However, the information provided in the presentation’s slides is misleading and fails to tell the full story of light rail’s failures. It also reveals just how poorly transportation planners are able to predict transit ridership.

IBR’s administrators claim that projected ridership numbers have been met or nearly met for four out of the five MAX lines. While ridership may have approached short-term estimates after each light rail line first opened, TriMet’s longer-term forecasts have been wildly off, especially since overall MAX ridership peaked in 2012. Even TriMet’s short-term estimates can easily be wrong, though, as the Yellow Line’s first year ridership was 16% lower than expected.

TriMet’s Yellow Line has consistently underperformed in frequency of service, travel times, and especially ridership, as demonstrated in a 2019 report from Cascade Policy Institute, which was released on the Yellow Line’s 15th anniversary.

While the pandemic has significantly decreased ridership levels on all public transit, the Yellow Line was well short of its projected ridership even before the lockdowns. The IBRP administrators’ presentation conveniently leaves out this fact.  

Cascade’s report showed that, as of April 2019, ridership was 27 percent lower than TriMet’s 2020 projections and had been falling for three consecutive years. Right before the pandemic, in February 2020, ridership remained at approximately the same level as the year prior, with 13,890 weekday riders. This was well below the 18,100 riders TriMet had promised by 2020 when it began constructing the Yellow Line.

State legislators on the Bi-state Legislative Committee should question any promises made by transportation officials about light rail, and especially the Yellow Line. They should also push back against the inclusion of light rail in IBR’s plans, and instead urge administrators to consider alternatives for connecting Vancouver to downtown Portland, like rapid bus transit.

The Yellow Line’s history has too many broken promises to ignore, and transportation planners have time and again shown that their projections for light rail can’t be relied upon. Extending light rail past the Expo Center and into Vancouver would be a costly mistake.

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s free-market public policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.


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    So far, in May 2022 in the Portland Metro area, a pedestrian was killed by a light rail train, and another was hit and was sent to the hospital with life threatening injuries.

    At the last bi-state meeting, the IBR team did not have prepared the capital costs of light rail, which as vastly higher than busses. These costs should be disclosed, how many $???,???,??? per mile are the capital costs to build light rail, which serves only about 1.7% of trips across the bridge and Zero freight?
    Vs. Buses in a shared lane with other vehicles including freight
    What are the costs of:
    Light rail tracks, How many miles are proposed and what is the cost per mile?
    Power needed for the overhead lines, and the overhead lines that freeze in winter and overheat in summer, shutting down the MAX light rail.
    Light rail trains
    Multiple Light rail stations 80′ in the air in Vancouver, WA
    Multiple light rail stations in Oregon to extend the MAX yellow line
    (so far, the graphics about the elevated freeway in Vancouver seem to be missing from the IBR presentations)
    Light rail operations and maintenance costs?

    Over a decade ago, light rail hogged about a quarter of the budget for 1.7% of commuters and zero freight. This time, IBR seems to be with-holding the financial information about the $ cost of of light rail.

    Given the fact that IBR is plowing thru $$$ MILLIONS of taxpayer funds, the full information presented to legislatures and the public should be far more accurate and complete. The materials seem more like a slick marketing campaign, not full disclosure of the relevant data required to make wise decisions for OR and WA on cost effective options to serve all traffic, including freight..

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    “light rail” was ripped up from most cities after WWII. It was for good reason! Rail transit is expensive, slow, and inflexible. There are, perhaps, only 4 or 5 cities in the U.S. where rail “mass transit” is viable — and these are all metro areas that multiple times the size of the Portland Metro Area (ranked about the 25th in the U.S.)

    The whole Interstate Bridge Replacement project is almost worthless. So long as Portland does not make any serious effort to increase the traffic throughput south of the bridge, a higher capacity bridge will simply “move around” the traffic jam. For example, the “Rose Quarter” segment of the freeway is limited to two lanes — the same as when the freeway was originally built 40+ years ago.

    Frankly, the better ‘solution” would be to build the west side bypass as conceptualized back in the 1980s that would create a “mirror image” of the I-205 link (that’s now above capacity in many segments).

    Unfortunately, there is a large number of planners and politicians who would rather deny reality and try to force “solutions” on the population that represent their “vision” of some future utopia. (Unfortunately, the definition of “utopia” is “no where.”)

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      Railroad tracks in city streets and the trains who run over pedestrians and run into cars is not very safe. Maybe that is why the tracks end up being pulled up or paved over. Yet new tracks continue to be laid down. See:
      Film of removing trolley tracks, Congress Street Portland

      “(Sept. 23, 2021) The decades of potholes caused by buried streetcar tracks on N Lombard Street in St. Johns will soon come to an end, when the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) starts construction on the N Lombard Main Street Repair Project through the heart of Portland’s northern business district.”
      full article St. Johns main street upgrades kick off next week with $5M in improvements


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