Green Transit

I was pondering recently, even with all the fussing the naysayers have about transit, what was accomplished when TriMet finished the Green Line connecting another couple of neighborhoods to the light rail system plus multiple park and rides.

The first thing was the system picked up another 17-18k riders per day. The riders on this line were almost entirely new at first. At least 10-15k of them. The busiest bus line in the city, the #72 plying up and down 82nd Avenue, saw almost zero change to the ridership. Being only about 1-6 blocks at various points from the light rail one might have thought some of the riders would have switched modes. The simple explanation is that the #72 serves a specific constituency and the light rail serves another constituency.

There is however one huge difference. After a period of 18-20 years Trimet will have spent – including infrastructure – less on the light rail service than on the bus service on 82nd Avenue while getting a growing ridership on the green line that will even surpass those estimates.

What does that mean?

It means Trimet will have more money to spend, operationally and for infrastructure, on other parts of the system.

Fast forward to my current city I’m living in. The light rail that Sound Transit is building is almost 10x the cost of what Portland is building. Primarily because Seattle’s Sound Transit is getting the light rail built in raised and subterranean infrastructure. This type of infrastructure is inordinately expensive. A cost, that at this point is unneeded.

Recently Federal Way requested that Sound Transit make sure the promise of light rail doesn’t disappear from the future. Right now, from a money perspective, Sound Transit has basically told the city it won’t be getting light rail. I see two massive problems here.

1. There isn’t money for the current plan to get light rail into Federal Way. That’s the plain and simple reality of the matter.
2. Sound Transit and most of the area Governments are inflexible on building light rail more cost consciously.

Now these are the two problems at the surface. Looking a little deeper, just below the surface, one will immediately notice the real problems. Both of which I’ve raised here at Transit Sleuth a number of times over the years.

The first problem is that the Government assumes the economy will do X and has almost no plans to mitigate when Y happens. Our currency is hosed, so an individual citizen of Seattle can safely assume that all plans moving forward that aren’t already under contraction and paid for are on the chopping block. Yes, EVERYTHING. Increasing funds and taxes won’t particularly help either until some politician in the White House gets the balls to do something about our currency and valuation against the global markets. Right now we’re sunk. That’s the summary position of problem #1.

Problem number two is a different beast. With the money that is allocated so far Sound Transit could do a lot of infrastructure investment. They could, in all honesty, get to Federal Way. The problem lies in Federal and State Regulation that causes Sound Transit to be rather inflexible in how or what they can do with that infrastructure money. This inflexibility we as citizens we do want and don’t want.

Either way, I digress, I hope that Seattle and Sound Transit can find a better way to get real infrastructure with high quality transit built. Right now the ambitions look good, but more reality needs brought to focus. This massive high cost light rail infrastructure probably is not the best way to go about getting higher capacity and higher quality transit to the Seattle area.

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5 Comments

  1. “After a period of 18-20 years Trimet will have spent – including infrastructure – less on the light rail service than on the bus service on 82nd Avenue”

    Such a figure also doesn’t factor in the costs borne by the city to repair the streets due to wear from the buses, costs due to increased asthma rates, etc. It would be interesting to hear what the true savings is.

    Reply

  2. I’m not sure that’s an accurate statement.

    The 72 bus is consistently TriMet’s “money-maker” – it has the absolute lowest costs of operation of ANY TriMet service, including every MAX line. The Green Line is hardly running at the cost-efficiency of the Blue Line (the most cost-effective MAX line), so right off the bat the Green Line is at an operating deficit.

    Secondly, TriMet spends virtually zero on bus infrastructure. Already, the oldest New Flyers are hitting 12 years old and are fully depreciated; yet there is no plan to replace those buses. So TriMet is budgeting for depreciation expense that isn’t being incurred.

    Over an 18-20 year period, in order for the Green Line to surpass the cost efficiency of the 72 line, the following has to happen:

    1. TriMet has to spend over $575 million, plus bond interest, on bus improvements on 82nd Avenue. This is simply not going to happen.

    2. TriMet has to massively increase Green Line ridership and dramatically drop line 72 ridership in order for the Green Line to operationally become more efficient than the bus. However, TriMet currently runs the 72 bus at a very short headway (as little as 7 minutes) so TriMet could cut quite a few trips, and still maintain a low cost per boarding ride.

    3. TriMet will have to continue its bus disinvestment policy in order to artificially increase the operating cost of the bus. To TriMet’s favor (barely), it is in the process of acquiring four hybrid buses to be used solely on the 72 route. But TriMet typically doesn’t stick its oldest buses on the 72 route.

    And finally, to point out Max’s comments – it’s highly doubtful that there is any impact of asthma rates by buses; and 82nd Avenue is a state highway (Cascade Highway North, Oregon Highway 68) and therefore the funding source for maintenance is the state gas tax, NOT Portland taxpayers.

    Reply

    1. Just to state, there are plenty of studies that point to combustion based/compression based engines that spit out all sorts of nasty things into the air causing Asthma, other major health issues, and DEATH. The buses simply should be replaced with Trolley Buses.

      As for the infrastructure cost Erik, I’m not looking at just what Trimet pays, but what the city and people of the area do. Just because the authority is split from the DOT doesn’t mean the buses just cost what Trimet pays for them. Even then, Trimet really only pays operational costs in many scenarios. With that being the case, the light rail ends up leaving more money left after carrying X people than doing the same with buses.

      Except you have a good point about the #72. It often brings in a net operational profit, not overall profit, but on operational costs. Which means it still costs the taxpayers a ton of money to continuously fix 82nd and the stop areas, to buy new buses (if they ever do, I’m with you that they do need to get those old ones replaced, but it is an ongoing problem here in Seattle too – it’s not unique to Portland)

      But I digress, my point is in comparison to Seattle paying an amount for infrastructure that will take over 50 years to reap a net operational benefit to society. With the Blue Line, Yellow Line, Red Line, and Green Line at least the City of Portland can get to a rosy financial outlook from the investments around and benefits to society in about 20 years. This is a reasonable amount of time to see a system built and reap benefits in the same generation, in Seattle that just isn’t going to happen.

      Reply

  3. Erik –
    “The Green Line is hardly running at the cost-efficiency of the Blue Line (the most cost-effective MAX line), so right off the bat the Green Line is at an operating deficit.”

    I don’t see how the success/failure of the green line has any relation to the success/failure of the blue line.

    “yet there is no plan to replace those buses.”
    That’s simply not true, and you know it. But if you want to question whether or not they follow the plan, feel free.

    “And finally, to point out Max’s comments – it’s highly doubtful that there is any impact of asthma rates by buses”

    Where is the study that says that?

    “82nd Avenue is a state highway (Cascade Highway North, Oregon Highway 68) and therefore the funding source for maintenance is the state gas tax, NOT Portland taxpayers.”

    Who do you think purchases that gas? My point is simple – If we’re going to include infrastructure costs for the MAX, then we also need to calculate/include full infrastructure costs for the bus. We should also calculate the full impact of each – including environmental impact, land use impact, etc. That would be a true apples-to-apples comparison. I don’t see anyone doing that math.

    Reply

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