“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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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