The House Republican transportation bill ends gas tax subsidies of transit and requires that any new rail projects receiving “New Starts” grants meet strict financial tests and not simply be awarded on the basis of some vague concept such as “livability.” In response, Secretary of Livability Ray LaHood says it is vital to keep funding transit out of gas taxes. As an example, he cites the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line, which he says is “an integral part of rebuilding the nation’s economy.”
Really? This 7.3-mile line line is expected to cost $1.5 billion and carry just 9,300 new riders (that is, people who weren’t previously riding the bus) each weekday. Since most people ride round trip, that 4,650 round-trip riders a day. The high cost is enough money to buy each of those new round-trip riders a new Toyota Prius every year for the 30-year life of the project.
This will be the most expensive, and one of the least-used, light-rail lines in Portland. The light-rail will be slower than many of the buses in the corridor–buses that will be cancelled when the rail line opens.
Since Portlanders voted in 1998 not to raise their property taxes to pay for it, the region’s transit agency, TriMet, is scrambling for funds to build the project. Not coincidentally, TriMet is suffering from a “budget crisis” that is forcing it to increase fares and make huge cuts in bus service.
Milwaukie residents, who have voted against light rail almost every time it has been on the ballot, are petitioning to put a measure on the ballot forbidding their city from contributing any money to the project. Residents of Clackamas County (the county Milwaukie is located in), who have a similar voting history, have a similar petition. While TriMet is only asking for $5 million from the city and $25 million from the county, the line’s finances are so shaky that passage of these measures could kill it.
TriMet is counting on the feds to cover half the cost of the line, or about $750 million. This line is only an integral part of rebuilding the economy if you believe the economy benefits by replacing faster, cheaper transportation with slower, more expensive service. If the next transportation bill does not fully fund New Starts, that money is not likely to be forthcoming. That will be a good thing for Portland taxpayers, who will have a lower tax burden and better transit service as a result.