Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Federal Gravy Train

Noticed that my town of Portland rounded up some big federal dollars for extensions of the MAX line, the urban mass transit light rail.  There are already lines running long routes east and west from downtown to the suburbs, as well as a line running north to the river and a spur line to the airport.

City planners and light rail enthusiasts have been wanting another line to the south/east part of the metro area, known as Clackamas, for some time now.  The line wouldn’t be that hard to build, as the right of way was cleared long ago as part of the I-205 right of way.  But, as with all things, since there are so much tax dollars at stake, the inevitable questions come up:  Is it worth spending all that money for so little benefit?  Wouldn’t the money be better spent on highway and street improvements?  Isn’t light rail, in this age of cars, just window dressing? 

It’s true that the initial ridership will look nothing like what the planners tout in the public square.  The number of peoples riding the Airport line and North line are nothing like what people expected they would be.  The Airport line isn’t that big of a deal, as much of the money came from investors who bought cheep land around the Airport, thinking they would cash in on selling the land around the new train stops on the way (which didn’t happen; those stops are like ghost towns).

So detractors would point to low ridership, low benefit.  However, even detractors notice that the current east and west lines are very well used.  I ride the train in most days, and it’s always standing room only for about 2 or 3 hours around rush hour.  The rest of the day the seating is always pretty limited.

But even a few years after MAX was first completed, the ridership was pretty low.  I remember the public complaints about public benefit and waste of government money when plans were being made to ask for government funds, and build, the north and Airport legs of the rail.  They pointed to the low number of riders on the original blue line. 

So it’s apparent that the popularity of the rail has accumulated over time.  Perhaps it will with the north and airport lines as well.  You could make an argument that we need the initial flood of tax dollars to build the rail, but once built it will eventually prove its worth.

But should that really justify the expenditure?  It’s still tax dollars being provided for what is basically a local, even a semi-private, venture (if you concede that transit should be paying for itself via usage).  Ridership will eventually come around.  The train will become popular around each leg.  But, is it the best use of public funds?  Is it the best way to remedy traffic congestion?

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