Let's upgrade MAX to buses. Yes, we actually would improve MAX by converting it from light-rail transit (LRT) to bus rapid transit (BRT). We'd get faster and more frequent trips with far fewer major outages and delays. TriMet could save tens of millions of dollars every year, be able to provide more capacity, and have a far more resilient system facing our next earthquake.
Properly designed BRT works just like LRT, but with rubber tires. Riders pay before boarding and use any door, stops are fewer and farther between than with regular transit, alignments exclude other traffic, and it gets signal priority at intersections. These all make BRT faster, more reliable, and cheaper to operate per-ride than regular buses.
Some advantages of BRT over LRT are obvious: Buses are not finicky about hot days. They can operate off BRT alignments to bypass problems or provide transfer-free travel to outlying communities. They're not subject to special LRT speed restrictions. And their smaller vehicles enable higher frequency service.
But can they really save operating expenses? Although TriMet's published MAX operations cost is lower than that for regular bus service, it's much higher, perhaps 50 percent or more, than BRT. After almost 29 years, MAX ridership is still too low to get potential LRT cost advantages. If we stopped LRT expansion after the Westside MAX was completed, costs might be competitive.
They're not, and the new Orange Line probably won't help. Its projected first-year ridership of only 17,000 daily rides is still roughly four times existing TriMet ridership between Milwaukie and downtown Portland. It doesn't look good. LRT's operating costs could be double that of BRT's once transit vehicles have autonomous vehicle (AV) technology and no longer need human operators. That's because driver expenses amount to roughly 60 percent of TriMet's bus operations costs, but only about 20 percent of LRT's with its high fixed costs. Once AV systems are considered safer than human drivers, TriMet will need to adopt the technology for liability reasons, if nothing else.
The highest rated BRT systems are in Latin America and China. This country's are second-rate at best. BRT is frequently seen here as the poor man's LRT and, like the Powell-Division project, usually considered only when support is inadequate for high-cost LRT. The resulting BRTs often end up being done on the cheap, resulting in service which is little better than well-designed frequent bus lines. Converting MAX would be different. Its alignment and stations provide a framework for state-of-the-art BRT.
Make no mistake: Converting MAX to BRT won't be cheap. For example, we'd need new buses with doors on both sides to serve existing stations. That alone could easily come to well over $100 million. TriMet needs to face LRT's realities and begin the upgrade process now. We've almost certainly lost the advantage of today's historically low interest rates.
Isn't it about time for TriMet to embrace better service at lower cost?