“Bait & Switch” Transit Planning In Oregon—Part Two
Another Unfortunate Legacy of Neil Goldschmidt and a Quick Way To End It
By Robert Behnke

In the late 1970s, after Neil Goldschmidt had achieved political power in Oregon, he and his followers started generating, promoting and approving transit plans that contained cost and benefit projections that were too good to be true. Their apparent goal was to give “Big Box” (i.e. fixed-route bus and rail) transit the leading role in the future transportation systems in the state’s cities and counties—no matter what independent transportation researchers, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and, later, voters in Oregon were saying about the folly of this approach.

It is now time for taxpayers and their elected officials to critically review what was promised and what was delivered on as many of these transit plans as possible, and to take the steps necessary to clean up corrupt transit planning operations found at any level of government. Part one of this two-part article provided information about some of these bait-and-switch transit plans and the magnitude of the errors in the ultra-optimistic cost and benefit projections prepared by ODOT, Metro, Tri-Met, and a few cities and counties in Oregon during the past 25 years.

Let’s now review some statements that prominent transportation researchers and USDOT have made about the cost-effectiveness of both fixed-route and flexible-route transit services in the low-density communities where most Americans, most Oregonians and most Portlanders now live and work:

Traditional (fixed-route bus and rail) transit systems worked well in the days when most homes and jobs were located in central cities, when a large proportion of the urban population lived within walking distance of bus (and rail) routes, and when travel destinations were focused sharply on the downtown. Today, we are confronted with radically different circumstances. In most contemporary communities, trip origins and destinations are widely dispersed, the largest residential and employment centers are found in the suburbs, and travel patterns resemble Brownian motion…(Conventional fixed-route bus and rail transit systems) were never designed to cope with the disbursed living and travel patterns that have developed in the United States since World War II. — C. Kenneth Orski, a former associate administrator of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA), now known as the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and editor and publisher of “Innovation Briefs”

Don’t build new light-rail lines long distances out into the suburbs (e.g. Gresham, Hillsboro) for commuters…They tend to be very expensive, because the loads tend to be highly peaked and highly directional. — USDOT

Fixed-route (bus and rail) transit service involves the operation of high-occupancy vehicles over predetermined routes according to a published schedule…In low-density areas conventional fixed-route (bus and rail) transit is prohibitively expensive and cost 1inefficient…In these lower-density areas, flexibility-routed transit offers a more cost- effective transportation alternative to the single occupant automobile. — USDOT

Despite the confidence we all had in the initial idea of a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system and in its urbanization and transportation effects, we were wrong. It has not worked as we expected…[Other suburb-intensive cities in the West—like Portland] are now in a position to experiment with more appropriate technology. Instead of mainline rail systems, they ought to be exploring small-vehicle, short-headway, transit systems that can compete with the private car by approximating door-to-door, random-access services. That’s the right direction in which to search for the Western commuter’s alternative to the private car. — Melvin Webber, professor emeritus of City and Regional Planning at UC-Berkeley. Webber started off as an advocate of new rail transit systems and participated in the design of BART. He changed his mind after he managed a critical review of BART’s cost and effectiveness.

Until recently, few employees of government agencies ever dared oppose any transit project that Goldschmidt, his clients or his followers supported. It appears that transit planners who wanted to continue to live and work for government agencies in Oregon had to follow three basic rules when it came to rail projects favored by Followers of Neil’s Ideology (FONIs):

1. Sink the first stake as quickly as possible.
2. If asked to provide ridership estimates, aim high.
3. If asked to provide cost estimates, aim low.

As a result, Oregon has produced some of the most biased transit studies and some of the most egregious transit plans and projections in U.S. history. These studies, plans and projections have abused taxpayers and amazed independent transportation researchers throughout the U.S. for many years.

Portland’s aerial tram project shows just how well the FONI’s bait-and-switch strategy has worked in Oregon. The trusting Portland City Council, which had little or no background in analysis of trams or other transit systems, swallowed the optimistic projections presented in the original plan and then gave the tram’s project managers approval to sink the first stake by spending taxpayer dollars on the construction.

In only three years, the total cost of the tram’s construction jumped 380 percent, from $15 million to $57 million, and the city’s share jumped 425 percent, from $2 million to $8.5 million. City council members now claim that if they had been warned that the early cost projections they were given for the tram were guesses, they would never have authorized the start of construction in 2003 and put the city over a barrel in future negotiations about the tram. However, it is difficult to take this claim seriously for two reasons.

First, council members know the estimates they were given about the annual costs of operating and maintaining the tram, including the cost of providing security for it and its passengers, were also guesses. Although operations and maintenance of the tram will probably cost taxpayers much more than its construction—particularly if the tram becomes popular with sightseers on nice days and with thrillseekers on stormy days— Portland’s City Council has made little effort to get better information on these costs before agreeing to continue building the tram. It appears they are waiting for the tram construction to be completed, and the city is over a barrel once again, before they address this issue.

Second, if council members or Portland’s newspapers were seriously concerned about the bad cost estimates they received on the tram, they would be calling for an investigation to find out exactly how this fiasco happened and what they should do to prevent taxpayers from being victimized by another multi-million dollar, bait-and-switch transit project in the future. Instead, most of the city council and the media now act as if the too-good-to- be-true cost estimates they received were unfortunate, once-in-a-lifetime mistakes by people of good will.

Unless we stop approving transportation plans and authorizing project managers to spend tax dollars without an independent assessment of their cost and benefit projections, decision makers on new transit projects in Oregon will continue to waste millions of dollars. The current review process spends most of the available time and money collecting non-expert, irrelevant, time consuming, and redundant testimony at FONI- controlled public meetings. Although this process is legal, it is simply not an efficient or effective way to examine transit cost and ridership projections.

For every major transit project, the lead government agency on the project should seek out vocal opponents of the project. Agencies should provide time for public testimony and public debate between the proponents and the opponents of the project on costs, ridership and other benefit projections, and they should include sufficient funds in the project’s costs for recording this debate for the public record.

Since data are now available and Goldschmidt has withdrawn from public life in Oregon, the time is right to critically review what was promised and what was delivered on all major transit projects completed in Oregon since 1980. The time is also right to critically review the cost and ridership projections made in any transit plan completed since 1980 that involves more than 100,000 Oregonians. This is the first step in identifying corrupt, bait-and-switch transit planning operations at every level of government in the state. How else will we know if we are headed in the right or wrong direction, or if our transit plans will take us where we need to go?

“A Critical Review of Transit Planning and Transit Operations in Oregon” conference should be organized with a variety of experts for a realistic discussion focused on: (a) past ridership, financial and traffic congestion trends (e.g. transit rides and taxpayer subsidies per capita, average fares, average subsidies per passenger trip, and traffic congestion costs per capita) in Portland and other Oregon cities over the past 25-30 years; 3(b) what was promised and what was delivered on major transit projects completed in Oregon since 1980; (c) what can be done to make transit more attractive to both users and taxpayers in the future, particularly in neighborhoods or communities where most people live in single-family detached homes or other low-rise buildings; and (d) how to recognize when FONIs and other zealots are making false claims about fixed-route transit systems. Goldschmidt’s followers must be invited to defend their records and to express their views. Such a conference would be valuable to those concerned about traffic congestion, gasoline consumption, air pollution, parking, or mobility problems.

It is difficult to know whether to blame the politicians who promoted or approved a major transit project or to blame the transit planners when a project fails to meet the cost or benefit projections they originally made for it. But the public needs better accountability in the future to stop wasting millions of taxpayer dollars a year on bait-and-switch transit plans.

Before funding is authorized on major new transit projects in Oregon, the lead agency director and the lead transit planner should be required to sign a statement that the cost and benefit projections in the plan are reasonable and were made using the best planning tools and assumptions available.

BrainstormNW - August 2006

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