Transit Map Anagrammed
Portland MAX Map Anagrammed Originally uploaded by Major Clanger.

Whatever you think of the system itself, it is obvious Portland has had huge success building light rail. In 25 years, they’ve managed to build 84 stations and lay 52 miles of track with a relatively small tax base. What may be a fairly under appreciated fact is that Portland residents have paid a small fraction of the cost of their light rail system. All told, Portland has spent just under $600 million on the six completed projects in their area, with the feds chipping in $1.7 billion, or nearly 74%. How has Portland been able to gain so much advantage from the Federal Transit Administration?

Line Cost Fed Portion
Eastside Blue line $214 million 83%
Westside Blue line $963 million 73%
Green line $575.7 million 72%
Yellow Line $350 million 74%
WES Commuter Rail $161 million 71%
Red Line $125 million 0% (public-private partnership)

Above: Cost and Federal Contributions to Portland-area rail transit lines. Below: the Cost and Federal Contributions for Seattle-area rail transit lines.

Line Cost Fed Portion
Central Link $2.4 billion 20.8%
University Link $1.9 billion 42.8%

First, the Federal grant process favors cheaper rail projects. Federal funding for transit capital projects comes from two pools: New Starts (projects over $250 million in cost) and small starts (those under). Until very recently, New Starts grants came in specific sizes; for example, in 2002 those sizes were $300 million, $500 million and $700 million. Portland planned all of their lines aiming for a Federal match right at those limits. The size limits have gone away, but since grant applications are competing for a fairly small pool of money with applications from other regions, there still are effective if not official size limits.

Before 2005, the New Starts formula heavily favored cheaper regions over more expensive ones. “Cost Effectiveness” (defined in appendix C here) constituted 50% of a project’s rating, and the higher the rating, the larger the grant. So Portland looked better when applying for Federal Transit money than Seattle did, and Seattle looked better than San Francisco. This seems a little bit backwards – don’t the more expensive places need more money? – but good on Portland for winning by playing the rules.

Finally, the Federal grant process greatly favored projects with large development potential. Land Use was the other 50% of the New Starts rating, and it was skewed toward new development and away from existing land use. A plan for laying track down through a farm would have received a higher land use rating than building a subway through an already developed section of a large city.

Luckily for Seattle (and San Francisco for that matter), these rules have changed substantially in recent years. Land Use counts for 20% of the project’s rating now, with economic development (ie, TOD) counting for another 20%. Cost effectiveness is just 20% now, but any project that doesn’t receive at least a “medium” rating for cost effectiveness will not be considered – so it now skews against only the most overpriced options. Established regions’ chances are buoyed by the new Operating Efficiencies and Mobility Improvements criteria, which work against more greenfield development. The full details of these measurements are explained here.

Criterion Pre-2005 Post-2005
Mobility Improvements 0% 20%
Cost Effectiveness 50% 20%*
Land Use 50%** 20%
Economic Development 0%** 20%
Environmental Benefits 0% 10%
Operating Efficiencies 0% 10%
*Any project with a cost effectiveness rating less than “medium” – the middle of five rankings – is never awarded a grant
** Prior to 2005, Land Use and Economic Development were lumped into one category that in practice skewed more toward new development

Today, Portland can no longer rely so heavily on federal funding for further expansion. Last year the feds reduced their contribution to the Orange Line construction, forcing regional leaders to scramble to secure other funds. Still, Portland has built so many lines that they’ve picked most of the low-hanging fruit, and have moved to build more ambitious projects that involve complex river crossings and expansion into new districts. Thanks in part to transit oriented development spurred by so many lines, their construction costs have risen as well, to the point where they are completing more or less on the same footing Seattle is. Still, the next time you hear “Portland has it way more together on transit than Seattle”, you will at least know it’s not because they’ve paid more for it.

147 Replies to “Portland’s Federally Funded Rail System”

  1. I won’t bore anyone this morning with my continued emphasis on cost-effectiveness of projects, and performance evaluation in the bigger ‘Federal Arena’, but Seattle is not as unique as they sometimes think they are, therefore deserving of special rules and consideration.
    Andrews post is spot on.

    1. The real trouble is where could you actually build cheap LRT in the Seattle city limits? I see Interbay, Aurora, possibly East Lake, but in the near-city there really aren’t that many “ways out” that could be done cheaply.

      I think the Federal rules were wisely re-done. San Francisco was able to secure money for its T-Line South of Downtown – which goes through underdeveloped neighborhoods – but couldn’t get any money for the Central Subway which goes through some of the very most dense neighborhoods in the country for only what’s really a bargain, $1.5 billion.

      1. I’d add Eastlake, Western, Alaskan Way, Dearborn, and any number of ways into SODO to that list.

        Also, isn’t it cheating to say “In 2011 there are few places to run surface rail” when discussing a Portland system that opened in in the 1980s? I bet in 1980 there were tons of places to route surface rail.

      2. “I bet in 1980 there were tons of places to route surface rail.”

        Not in Seattle; everything was already built up. What has happened since then is that larger buildings have replaced smaller buildings. Only Rainier Valley and perhaps Lake City had so many disused parcels that you could put surface rail without disrupting the neighbors.

        The suburbs are another thing. East Link is going through the older parts of Bellevue so they were there, but suburban development essentially stopped at Redmond/Overlake/Somerset/Renton Highlands/Benson/Federal Way. Beyond that was small towns and semi-rural development; what’s now called “the exurbs”. So rail lines to Redmond, Renton, and Federal Way would have served essentially all the suburbs.

      3. Mike,

        You are so right on that one. When I first moved to Seattle as a teen in 1981, Wallingford(where we lived), Fremont, Greenlake, University District, all of those were nearly as dense as they are today. It would have been nearly as difficult 30 years ago to lay rail in those neighborhoods as it is now. Taking a school bus to Garfield High School back then, I remember Montlake and the Central District were also already quite dense and built up. So, although it is nice to think that it would have been easier to do it back then, I don’t think it would have. You couldn’t even get people to think about freeway traffic problems back then. They would say, “Why do we have to worry about something that hasn’t happened yet?” when the only Interstate 5 slowdown was just before the Bridge over the canal…

    2. Once U-Link and North Link are completed Link is going to look a lot better from a cost effectiveness standpoint.

      The two biggest risks I see in getting future Federal grants for Link construction are:
      1. FTA grant money is sharply reduced or eliminated entirely in the name of austerity (this could even impact projects which have a FFA in place as Congress could refuse to appropriate the money promised).
      2. The South corridor (airport to North Federal Way) and East Link fail to meet whatever FTA criteria are in place at the time needed to receive Federal Grants. In theory this could be impacted by the actual cost effectiveness of prior link segments, but I suspect these projects will stand or fail on their own merits.

      As long as Federal grant money is available I don’t think North Link or the North Corridor (Northgate to Lynnwood) will have any problem competing for grants.

    3. “Andrews post is spot on.”

      Andrew’s post misses the mark. He ignores the financing costs of “the Seattle way”. There are four decades of ST’s tax streams tied to the long term bonds, resulting in a massive public cost. TriMet doesn’t use any of that. What’s the latest estimate of how much tax ST would haul in for ST2’s bonds? $90 BILLION? The reason TriMet has a good light rail financing plan flows from two factors: appropriate use of federal money, and only taxing businesses modest amounts. The “soak the people” approach used here is abusive and unlike how it’s done anywhere else.

      1. Federal money doesn’t come from the public?

        Some of it comes from taxes, a good portion comes from China, and none of it you or I have any control over.

  2. Portland’s lucky they were able to build the vast majority of MAX at-grade. Link has several areas of elevated track and a few tunnels, with tunnels coming with University Link.

    1. I don’t think luck had much to do with it. Portland area taxpayers supported a strategic decision by their leaders to keep things simple, inexpensive, and play a better grant game than others. Their reward is a system with 3x the mileage of Seattle and 7x the stations, after ST reaches Husky Stadium, with local taxpayers kicking in 1/4 that of Seattle, and letting the Feds pay the rest.
      That’s not luck.
      We ran a very capable ST Director out of town for suggesting alignments like Dearborn, E. Marginal, Eastside BNSF and Eastlake, in favor of very expensive choices like Mt. Baker, and Capital Hill.
      Sometimes you get what you pay for after all.

      1. Agreed, I like the higher-speed mostly grade-separated system better than the slow at grade street-running system, and besides, by 2023 we’ll have almost the same milage as Portland.

      2. “Sometimes you get what you pay for after all.”

        Yes, we’re getting a much better system that connects the largest population centers and most walkable neighborhoods, and thus orients the city toward walking and transit. You can argue that one of these lines may have been better, that it was worth sacrificing Beacon Hill or Capitol Hill, but if you built all those surface lines you’d end up with a system with low ridership.

        Portland does not have hills where the bulk of the population live and are going to. Only one low-density segment is hilly, and they tunnel under it.

        The Banfield part of MAX was an existing freight railway, and 205 was built with space for grade-separated transit. So Portland didn’t have the right-of-way costs Seattle does. The Banfield could be compared to Eastside BNSF but it also suffers the same problem: MAX doesn’t go where the bulk of east Portland’s population is (Burnside, Hawthorne, Powell), and for Clackamas it’s a long detour. (Although not that bad because it’s 55 mph.)

      3. I think you highlight two good points about Portland, one I made and one I didn’t.

        The Banfield part of MAX was an existing freight railway, and 205 was built with space for grade-separated transit. So Portland didn’t have the right-of-way costs Seattle does.

        ODOT designed the highway right of way with transit in mind, try getting WSDOT to do that! Not only that, ODOT actually helped pay for those max lines! Here we’re happy when the state gives up trying to steal ST’s money, forget ever chipping in their own.

        The Banfield could be compared to Eastside BNSF but it also suffers the same problem: MAX doesn’t go where the bulk of east Portland’s population is (Burnside, Hawthorne, Powell)

        Under the old rules, building a rail line on the BNSF ROW could have received a huge FTA grant, especially if it came with an upzone on any of those areas. Today, probably not so much.

      4. If transit revenue’s are limitless, then you’re assertion is correct.
        If on the other hand, public resistance to higher transit taxes to support both Metro and Sound Transit results in a cap being placed on one or both, then it’s a short sighted strategy.
        Right now, we’re seeing one with a robust capital program and the other cannibalizing their system.
        I suspect we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul – we will end up with a great subway system, and crappy bus service.

      5. We already have crappy bus service. I don’t think we can predict what people’s tax limit is. We’ll only know in retrospect. But that’s all the more reason to prioritize our projects and get a few most important ones done first, and to not pout if we don’t get everything we want, and to acquiesce to a few automobile projects to maintain goodwill with the rest of the population.

        I would rather cut half of Metro’s routes and have ST2 Link, than to keep all Metro’s routes and have no Link or an all-surface Link. Beyond ST2 I don’t care as much. Whether or not Link reaches Tacoma and Everett, it will have the core covered.

      6. Query: Why is it that it’s so standard to look to Portland’s system as a model for Seattle to emulate, when Vancouver B.C. has a system that is, as far as I can tell, head-and-shoulders better than Portland’s in every way?

        Is it really the case that Canada is that much better at building excellent things than the U.S. is? Is it impossible to build something in the United States that’s better than just mediocre?

      7. Field Marshal Stack:

        It’s easier to compare Portland with Seattle because both are subject to the same federal funding grants, which this post is specifically about. Vancouver obviously funds their system in an entirely different way, in many cases in ways that Seattle simply can’t do.

        That said, Vancouver’s SkyTrain is a huge success but Vancouver also has the advantage of being relatively flat.

      8. Mike Skehan,
        Both Metro Transit and ST have a cap on the taxes they collect. The 0.9% sales tax is the maximum authorized by the legislature.

        Even with the tax at the maximum rate Metro is being forced to cannibalize service. Without Sound Transit it is quite likely Metro would not have been able to get additional tax authority, so Metro (and PT and CT) would be in far worse shape as ST service hours wouldn’t be able to offset some of the cuts elsewhere. Even if Metro had been able to get additional taxing authority in order to do the same things Sound Transit has done, that funding may not be any more fungible for filling Metro’s budget gap than the current ST taxes.

        Furthermore we have no idea if people in either King County or the ST taxing district are “maxed out”. We won’t know unless the legislature grants additional tax authority and there is a Metro or ST ballot measure to vote on.

    2. It also helped that most of the original Oregon Electric ROW was left in-tact even after nearly 50 years and it’s what the MAX red and blue mostly follow. It’s really visible here west of Hillsburo when the freight rail tracks continue off to the west where TriMet wants to someday expand MAX.

      Think of it as Link following the Interurban or Burke-Gilman Trails.

      1. The Banfield part of MAX was an existing freight railway, and 205 was built with space for grade-separated transit.

        It also helped that most of the original Oregon Electric ROW was left in-tact even after nearly 50 years and it’s what the MAX red and blue mostly follow.

        From Lloyd Center to Gateway TC, the Blue/Red/Green Line is located in Sullivan’s Gulch, inbetween the Banfield Freeway (I-84) and the Union Pacific’s Graham Line. MAX was basically squeezed in at the same time as a freeway project; the UP mainline is still there.

        From Gateway to Ruby Junction, the MAX line runs generally in the median of East Burnside Street, a former arterial street.

        From Ruby Junction to Cleveland Avenue, the MAX line uses the former right-of-way of the Portland Traction Company, an one-time interurban (trolley) line and in later years a shortline freight railroad owned jointly by the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads. The PTC also operated another line which is today the Springwater Trail between Portland and Boring.

        From Portland to Beaverton the line uses various streets, a tunnel, and right-of-way alongside the Sunset Highway (U.S. 26) and Oregon 217, plus some created right-of-way east of the Beaverton Transit Center slicing an apartment complex in half and rerouting a creek.

        From Beaverton to Hillsboro, the line uses the ROW of the one-time Oregon Electric Railway, another interurban route but was later a branchline for the Burlington Northern Railroad. (From Orenco west to Hillsboro had been out-of-service for many years; east of Orenco was used until the early 1990s.) The Oregon Electric route still exists south of Beaverton as part of the Portland & Western Railroad now, and is used by WES from Beaverton to Wilsonville; and freight trains from Wilsonville through Salem and Albany to Eugene.

        The Red Line from Gateway to the Airport uses excess land in the median of I-205 that was intended for a transit-way, and then open land east of PDX.

        The Yellow Line from Rose Quarter to the Expo Center uses the median of Interstate Avenue, once the route of U.S. 99W, and a bridge over the Columbia Slough to get to the Expo Center.

        The Green Line uses land intended for the I-205 Transitway.

        The Portland Streetcar uses various streets; however the portion from Riverplace to Gibbs, and the outbound/southbound track through South Waterfront uses an old right-of-way originally part of the Oregonian Railway, later becoming the Portland, Eugene & Eastern Railway and used by the Red Electric interurban trains, which was eventually merged into the Southern Pacific Railroad. The proposed Streetcar line south to Lake Oswego would use what’s left of the “Jefferson Street Branch” which was once the Red Electric mainline from Portland to Oswego, Tualatin, Newberg and McMinnville – eventually ending in Corvallis. The track west from Lake Oswego is still used today by the Portland & Western Railroad.

    3. I heard that transit ridership in Portland in general hasn’t grown by more than the rest of the country despite all of its light rail opening.

  3. Yeah, they’ve picked the low-hanging fruit and built a rather inadequate system for long-term TOD/density growth in the central city. MAX is ultimately a system on the cheap for most of its length and is not remotely rapid downtown. Plus, it is dependent on one (one!) bridge crossing until the Orange Line is built.

    It’s nice to see how they were able to game the system with greenfields developments on both ends of the Blue Line, too. What a gross distortion of the ecological benefits of electric transit. Blech.

    1. I’ve always been pretty underwhelmed by the system:
      1) There doesn’t seem to be much TOD on these long highway-ROW stretches.
      2) It is a streetcar downtown, and that would cause problems in a bigger city (two-car trains are very small)
      3) It’s slow.

      Having said that, the entire system cost Portland about just the difference in what Bellevue wants to spend on its tunnel.

      1. Oh, it was VERY shrewd money management on the part of their policy makers but I’ve met so many Portlanders who literally lie to themselves about MAX, its origins and its benefits. Oh, and Seattleites with Portland envy who admire things that Portland actually didn’t do “right.”

        This doesn’t prevent me from saying that I wish there’d been more extensive upzones around Link stations (for instance) or an ST board with the balls to make use of rail banked (hahah about that term, by the way) rights of way like, I dunno, the Burke-Gilman Trail?

      2. cjh–The Burke-Gilman trail really wouldn’t make much of a rail line (ignoring its critical place as a bike corridor). It’s too close to the water and so loses 50% of its potential walkshed for much of its length. I suppose the portions along Sand Point Way and the Lake Forest Park to Bothell section would work OK, but those areas also have broad roads nearby that could be reconfigured for light rail if it’s ever put there.

      3. Re: Burke-Gilman Trail, from Husky Stadium station, North Link could cross under Montlake Blvd, join up with the Burke-Gilman somewhere north of the ped. bridge to the Hec-Ed, then follow the trail toward Bothell and Woodinville. Who cares about Sno. County?

      4. The Burke-Gilman still loses a lot of its walkshed along Sand Point Way, running along the shore of Lake Washington – most of its development potential is between U-Village and about 65th. (Well, and in Kenmore and Bothell. A line from Lake City towards Bothell and Woodinville might do well to take over the Burke-Gilman ROW between Lake Forest Park and Bothell.)

      5. The only part of the Burke-Gilman that would make sense for rail is Ballard to UW. Sand Point Way has the same problem as Sounder North: it’s not where most people live or are going to. Most people live near 99 and I-5, not in Edmonds or Mukilteo. It’s much more important to serve Northgate than to use the Burke-Gilman.

      6. I know about the limitations and it wasn’t an entirely serious suggestion except. It was mostly meant to point out that rail banking is sham and always has been.

      7. What are you saying about rail banking, and is the Burke-Gilman rail banked? I do think BNSF should be railbanked for future Link/Sounder service. If Bellevue builds up the wasteland at NE 8th/118th someday, a N-S line on BNSF will make more sense than it does now.

        The Burke-Gilman may be technically railbanked in the sense that railroad interests can demand it be reopened, but I don’t think that will ever happen east of UW. UW-to-Bothell is not a high-demand route for freight traffic, and for passengers other routes would be more effective. Also, there’s a different attitude to water views and beach access than there was when the line was built — it would have never been put there given the current mindset. (Even the Kirkland waterfront used to be gas refineries, which is inconceivable nowadays when million-dollar houses flank the coast.)

      8. “The only part of the Burke-Gilman that would make sense for rail is Ballard to UW.” And even there the Ship Canal takes away a large portion of the walkshed (and there isn’t much on the south side of any of the Ship Canal bridges, with the freeway bridges taking away a lot of the opportunities for development on the south side of Fremont and University, and the Ballard Bridge is the third-longest and third-least-walkable of the bridges) and the trail passes well away from the heart of Wallingford at 45th/Wallingford. Further north would also work better for the U-District.

      9. I was wrong. The first section of Burke-Gilman predates the 1983 Rails-To-Trails Law so it likely does not have any railbanked protections.

        I am saying that I am skeptical of railbanking as a concept. Since its inception only a handful of (parts) of rights of way have returned to use as rails. There’s simply too much NIMBY idiocy associated with rails to trails to rails…

      10. Actually its only slow for people that need to travel all the way from one side of down town to the other for instance take a look at the system east of the lloyd center station it is all high speed traveling 55mph except for a section of 35 along burnside. I live in the lloyd center area so I can now go to large parts of east portland in 20 minutes these areas include 5 major shopping centers with hundreds of retailers just on the eastside including home depot and Ikea Nordstrom Macys and too many starbucks too mention. you frequently see inner city folks with shopping bags who can now take advantage of suburban big box stores.for grocery’s there are multiple options at 2 diff stations. there are three 24 hour fitness centers on the eastside light rail line alone. for recreation I can take a 15 minute lrt ride to half a dozen different trailheads to do a bicycle ride along multi use paths. there are also nature areas and many of the areas best parks are all connected even A large off leash dog park if you bring your service animal along. 4 of the areas largest medical centers are also connected by light rail. some east side stations are deserted park and rides lots with little potential for tod like division and powell stations. the stations along burnside are mostly developed residential neighborhoods with low density but 10 minutes to the east of these stations you arrive at gateway station wear you can travel N S E W all on light rail we now have a light rail grid just on the east side of Portland. on the west side of town you can get from downtown beaverton to pioneer square station in 20 minutes at 55 mph most of the way a distance of 7.5 miles by road. so if you get in a car at the same time as a person getting on a train lets assume theres no traffic and you drive your car directly to pioneer square downtown and park at the nearest garage guess what! by the time your locking your car at the garage the person on the train has arrived and thats with no traffic. add an accident in morning traffic and suddenly our slow light rail system is looking pretty good.I agree it seems slow to travel from one end of the line to another but thats a distance of 38 miles .finally I would add time is valuable and while it will be cool for someone entering the workforce in 2023 to ride a train from Bellevue or northlake to seattle think of all the extra time I haven’t spent in a car because of max since 1986 as the system expanded so has the amount of saved hours. I rode my first ride on max at age 11 If I had grown up in Seattle, instead think of how my life might be diff I would be finally getting to ride a useful light rail system at the future age of 48 would I be as healthy? would I walk as much? would I think of transit as a waste of taxpayer money and desire more freeway lanes?. I agree your system is being built for the future generations, but when I think of how much more time im going to enjoy in my life between now and 2023 not buying gas not stuck in traffic when i imagine all the useful everyday trips to the gym, grocery store, library,airport, employment centers ect I am soooo thankful someone had the forsight to build our slow and humble max light rail system.

    2. Dead on.

      Something interesting to take away from this is that in the long run (50+ years), Central and U Link will become more cost effective in terms of passengers carried than MAX. When we break 300,000 trips per day, Portland might still be at 150,000 because of the limitations of their system.

      1. Right Ben – the 2 car vs 4 car trains will be the important difference between the 2 systems over the long run.

      2. In terms of overall money, Central and U Link may become more effective, but I kind of doubt they’ll ever be more effective in terms of the money spent by the local taxpayers; Uncle Sam paid for Portland’s lines.

      3. A smell a new count down clock coming.
        18,250 Days until Seattle buries Portland in ridership. WooHoo!

      4. The biggest limitation in the system is downtown Portland, and that’s fixable for about $700 million. Coming from the west diverge from the existing trackage just east of the tunnel portal and west of the View Avenue bridge. Enter the hillside under the bridge with a station under the Vista Ridge, drop under I-405 to a station between Sixth and Eighth under Mill, swing northwest to a station under the Central Park, back northwest to one under Pioneer Square then up Broadway to one just West of the US Bank Building, north under the North Park blocks and under the postal annex to a station a couple of blocks around Ninth and Jameson, under the river in a big hairpin to an underground station at the Rose Garden then out onto Halliday in front of the Convention Center.

        Stack the tunnels in the hairpin so that a connection to the Yellow Line could be made at a later time if it becomes a viable service in Vancouver. Ditto at the curve between the Mill Street and Central Park stations so that a connection to the Orange Line and perhaps a future Green Line extension along Barbur can be added.

        As a final flourish put a “local” line between Beaverton TC and Gateway that travels the existing tracks for people who need service to the east edge of the city.

        The existing Blue and Red line services would use the tunnel; the added service would be every fifteen minutes allowing the trunk to be every five minutes without having to worry about the Green Line’s erratic behavior downtown.

        Eventually of course it would be in the tunnel, too.

    3. I’m a transplanted Portlander, and with the exception of that ridiculous (and out of date) system map, I’d say this article is a fair assessment of Portland’s LRT history. A couple of things I’d like to point out:

      * On the subject of the low-hanging fruit having been plucked, it is correct that the next line is going to require a new bridge be built. I personally think it’s impressive how heavily Portland is going to leverage that investment, though — it’ll serve the new LRT line, the streetcar loop, and 3 bus lines. In addition, it’ll serve the LRT line out Powell when that eventually goes in. And it’ll deliver that traffic to the south waterfront, a brownfield that’s undergoing very dense development.

      * With respect to greenfield development, it was a choice. In this case, the parcels that were developed were well within the urban growth boundary, and were slated for development in any case. In the 13 years since the west side line opened, the targeted parcels have been developed far more densely than would have been likely without the line, with all the attendant efficiencies, which will save many more acres that are currently outside the UGB from being added to the urban reserve. The alternative was to route the line nearer to US 26, where the development already was. But that development was strictly suburban in character, and for the line to be utilized fully would have necessitated *re-development*, which has a much higher bar to clear, economically speaking.

      * Finally, this could be my provinciality speaking, but I have actually come to appreciate the street-level MAX operations in downtown Portland. My appreciation actually came from an argument that was made on this site. I think it was Martin, who was comparing the alternative alignments for downtown Bellevue, C9T versus C11A. He argued that they were both good, but that the surface option benefited Bellevue residents the most (due to its superior walkshed around two well-placed stations), whereas the tunnel option benefited the people traveling to or from Redmond the most (because of the faster travel time). And I realized, is MAX there to serve people in Beaverton who want to get to Gresham? Or does it serve the region better by emphasizing the downtown core? I feel that the latter is more in keeping with both the mission and the strengths of transit. MAX absolutely *is* a streetcar in downtown Portland, and the walksheds around the stations there give ample coverage to to the densest part of the region. It does *not* speed through it, catering to people who live in a suburb and conduct their business in a completely different suburb on the other side of the region, which is as it should be.

      Seattle is going to have a great system. I’m looking forward to using it. My biggest fear is that all the revenue streams we’re counting on between now and 2023 (or whenever ST2 is built out) may be vulnerable, and that the revenue and cost projections might not live up to the reality. 12 years seems like an eternity — we’ve had 2 major bubbles pop and 2 recessions in the last 12 years. There really is something to be said for just getting it built.

      1. Some good points Michael – it is good to hear a transplant’s perspective on things. On your point about the streetcar nature of MAX in the city core, I actually tend to agree with you. The big-city (I’m not implying Seattle is a big city, thinking more of NYC, etc) lover in me can’t get enough grade separation, but I appreciate the benefits of a streetcar too.

        I also share your fears about future revenue. As fast as things are moving in Seattle, I wish they could move faster. Sorry for the impatience ;-)

      2. Well the walkability of the short-blocked Downtown Portland is light years better than the auto-centricity of Downtown Bellevue. I think it makes sense to keep LRT on the surface more in Portland than Bellevue (nevermind the nature of the two LRT systems… Link being more heavy rail)

      3. The south extension is already in dire straits, and the Northgate-to-Lynnwood segment is under pressure. So it’s unclear whether they’ll actually be built as rail or BRT. The main issue is how hard each subarea was hit by the recession. East Link depends on how the I-90 lawsuit goes. But Westlake-to-Northgate is pretty well go unless a catastrophe happens. I’d argue that SeaTac-to-Northgate is the absolutely critical segment, and we can live with any modifications beyond that.

        There are certain factors which could halt all capital construction in the next decade. High oil prices, high commodity prices, inflation, deflation (Depression), no state/city money due to Eyman initiatives, catostrophic weather due to climate change, etc. But it’s too soon to tell whether any of these will happen by then, so all we can do is just keep going. (My guess is high oil prices.)

      4. ST is actually pretty optimistic about the S 200 St extension, they’re hoping to get federal money to have it built by 2016. It could be a decade before they get south of that.

        I agree about Northgate-Seatac being the critical section of Link. Once we get that segment built out, even if there are temporary funding setbacks that delay the build-out, almost no-one will question that the ultimate goal is to extend Light Rail.

        Bellevue is the critical section for the Eastside. Once people in Overlake and Redmond see what Bellevue gets, they’ll want it too. No-one has been able to tell me about the likelihood of Freeman actually winning his I-90 case; I’d be interested if anyone has more info.

      5. I lived in Portland for a time, am not really from either city and not in either city right now due to school/work.

        First, I’m not sure that I agree that growth would have come to those greenfields sites so quickly without MAX. There is still a few empty parcels along the Sunset Highway even after all of this. Regardless, it was a conscious choice to a) tie MAX and real estate development together and b) draw the growth boundaries where they are. It worked financially but should give us all pause.

        Second, the Portland metro area is finally facing their first really big transportation projects more or less on their own and they are having a lot of trouble with both of them. If the Orange Line works out, it will add an impressive layer of resilience to their system. The CRC will also connect the fastest growing part of the metropolitan area with fixed rail transit (at the cost of expanding road miles). Both are crazy expensive to the region in ways that previous projects (both earlier MAX lines and the freeways before that) were not.

        Third, that is not quite the conflict between speed and walking that I would make. You can have closely spaced downtown stops and higher speeds… if there is grade separation. In fact, that improves accessibility considerably. All those street crossings in downtown Portland are quaint but they are what truly slows the system down.

  4. I think that everyone needs to keep in mind that just because you have an at grade alignment in downtown now doesn’t mean you can’t build a tunnel later. This is a tend that you see in a lot of mid-sized European cities that kept their tram networks. A few examples off the top of my head are Brussels, Den Haag, Koln and Karlsruhe. They are often called pre-metros.

    An advantage of this system is that you have the money to build a comprehensive rail network, and then when you have strong ridership, rail capacity problems and slow downtown operating speeds it is easier to justify a tunnel.

    1. I’m skeptical that at-grade on Eastlake would meet demand for any length of time. Moreover, when we go back to the well for a 2nd Ave tunnel in 20 years, we should have gangbusters ridership from our subway/el + RapidRide to show them. Props to PDX for playing the game smartly, but those federal rules are fundamentally distortive.

      1. Yes while living in Sweden I just got used to called cities by their native language name because otherwise it can be very confusing to talk about. In English Copenhagen is Copenhagen, in Danish it is København and in Swedish it is Kopenhaven.

      2. Eh, either works. But of you are going to use the German spelling for Koeln you either need the umlaut or to add the extra ‘e’.

      3. Yes I know, I was just teasing. We do speak English here, though, right? Otherwise I’ll start writing posts about 東京,北京 and 台北. In seriousness, though, I stayed a few months at the University of Copenhagen during my master’s, and everyone called it Copenhagen when speaking English.

    2. Actually, Portland is going to STRUGGLE with building a downtown tunnel later due to the alignment of West Hills tunnel and subsequent development – too much up and down to make it work without a really massive investment on par with the Big Dig.

      ALSO, their dependence on one bridge is going to be hellish when the Steel Bridge needs extensive maintenance (it is 100 years old next year…).

      Basically, they built all the cheap stuff first and Seattle built the expensive stuff first. There is a lot to be said for their strategy (they’ve built pretty solid per-mile ridership over the years and goodwill toward MAX), of course.

      1. Good point about alignment difficulties. That is always an issue. At the same point if they can’t afford to build a downtown tunnel now or sometime in the future how would they have been able to afford to build a tunnel 20 years ago? That is the catch-22 I’m talking about.

      2. Not quite, by choosing certain paths in the interest of saving money, they made upgrades difficult. They simply didn’t built with a DT tunnel in mind. Or elevated segments. Or whatever.

        Of course, building something with upgrades in mind is no guarantee that they can actually be used when the upgrade comes (see DT Transit Tunnel light rail tracks).

      3. New York did build subways when they got tired of their elevated lines. But commodities and labor were also cheaper then. It’s an open question whether we’ll be able to build incremental improvements in the future or whether it’ll be impossible to build anything. To me, that’s the biggest reason to build up Link as much as possible now while we still can.

      4. But commodities and labor were also cheaper then

        plus no environmental impact studies, insurance, lawsuits, etc. etc.

      5. There was some talk of a subway tunnel for the first Portland light rail line, this was in 1980. the short blocks downtown make it much more necessary, too late now, they just threw down $220 million on a rebuilt transit mall.

        A subway would have to start by the Lloyd Center to get under the river, then run north-south on 5th or 6th to Portland State. A branch of the subway running east-west would have to be built between City Hall at 5th/6th and Goose Hollow along Jefferson St. We are now talking like 3-4 miles of tunnel in a highly urban environment….$$$$$.

      6. Read upthread. The connection can be made just east of the portal. Dive right into the hillside under Vista Avenue.

      7. Your proposal seems terribly optimistic from a cost perspective.

        I’m not an engineer, but to get under a) 405 and b) the Willamette, you’re going to have to bore in a bunch of alluvial muck over a distance of about three miles. Both factors are shockingly similar to U Link.

        This will cost $Texas.

      8. You’re probably right; the stations will probably make it cost more than I estimated. But the actual tunnel costs are not out of line. It’s not three miles end to end, actually about 1.8, which is just about what the DBT will be in Seattle end to end. They’re putting its boring costs at short of a billion and it’s much bigger in diameter. True, a rail line needs to parallel bores, but the total amount of earth excavated is smaller than a four lane roadway, even stacked. And TBM’s of rail size are a proven technology.

        Is the “muck” under the Willamette any “muckier” than the water soaked landfill under everything south and west of First and Marion? I doubt it.

      9. Needless to say, I’m one of those who thinks the stupid DBT costs are also wildly underestimated.

      10. Oh yes, a bunch of both sides of the Willamette waterfront is also fill. There are also a bunch of “hidden” creeks and lakes throughout downtown Portland (as in Seattle). It’s a challenging environment.

        I’d like an actual transportation engineer to comment, of course.

    3. I’m with cjh here – I think the cost of a downtown tunnel would be astronomical by the time they decide they “need” it – when you can already argue that it’s necessary.

      1. Calgary has a big problem already re capacity with their surface system in the city centre. More than 250k riders/day, and no money in sight for a downtown tunnel. That will impair the connectivity of their new West line, under construction.
        Seattle is already getting benefits from semi-segregation, and U Link will deliver more. The downside: the lack of China-construction-speed.

  5. One of my best friends from college was born in Portland and after school has lived there all his life. To me he is Portland…he bought his home in the NE section near Powell but he used to live downtown near Flanders.

    In all the time Ive known him I don’t think he’s ever set foot on a bus or train…he’s just always had a crappy little beater car. I remember one time just after MAX was built, I went on a special excursion to try it out and rode one of the lines to terminus and back.

    He is not alone…almost all his friends, and most PDX hipsters, drive 20 year old cars to get around.

      1. It wasn’t years 1-15… :)

        I commuted on MAX from Hollywood to Beaverton for a few years, when I wasn’t riding my bike.

  6. If we’re going to compare the cost of Portland and Seattle’s LRT, and especially if we’re going to rag on Portland for its at-grade alignments (there’s two of them now, you know) through downtown, we really should include the cost of building the downtown transit tunnel in the early 1990s in the cost of Seattle’s system. Building that thing now would probably have doubled the cost of building Seattle’s initial line.

      1. I’d have to agree with you there Erik. The last (and only) time I was in Seattle was in 1992 and the bus tunnel was open and didn’t look brand new. I hear you are putting trains in that now.

  7. Some general comments regarding whether Seattle could have attempted this approach:

    Seattle’s geography makes it much harder to build at grade here, and means that inexpensive water crossings are subject to the much-lamented drawbridge raisings. You can’t build any Downtown-Capitol Hill rail connection at grade, and that is projected to be one of the most productive segments of Link.

    Some of the corridors mentioned above as possible at-grade corridors don’t make any sense: once Link goes in, traffic on Eastlake will drop to a level that can be served by a one-car streetcar for the foreseeable future. If you build full-blown light rail there, then you put in Central Link, you’re left with an overengineered LR system running below capacity.

    Running LR straight down Marginal Way to Tukwila and Seatac was (I think I read on STB) considered and rejected on the grounds of poor ridership and extremely poor federal funding prospects. It would be nothing more than an airport shuttle, and would have less than half the ridership it has now.

    Interbay does make more sense, as any line from Ballard to Downtown should run at grade through Interbay: there’s plenty of room, it’s not very dense and it’s pretty industrial. One could imagine a future ST3 package where the West King subarea could afford to pay for a 2nd Ave tunnel but not a tunnel under the Ballard bridge, so we could negotiate improved ROW with the Coast Guard over the bridge, then later build a tunnel.

    If you were to discount the role of federal funding, I think you could say that Seattle made better decisions in the sense of short term pain (mostly inflicted on people who have the misfortune to use the 7x’s) for long-term gain. The main thing that I take away from this article is the importance of having federal administrations that get the importance of density/TOD, and the unfortunate distortions that the previous standards caused.

    1. As was discussed in the last few STB comment forums, land use and transportation infrastructure shape cities. Cost and funding sources aside, the question I have is, 50 years from now, which city will be closer to having the city it wants? Since I like both cities, I hope both do, but I’m thinking it will be a mixed bag for all (since both of course made compromises).

    2. The problem with an Interbay alignment is that I suspect Queen Anne would want and arguably deserve a station or two. On the other hand, I could see an alignment running at-grade in the Emerson Street corridor west of the bridge, then crossing the Ship Canal on a new bridge somewhere between the Ballard Bridge and central Ballard. Of course you’d then probably want to transition into a tunnel…

      1. Seattle Center definitely needs a subway station. It’s a major destination and transfer point. A station under QA/Boston never occurred to me until today because the mantra is always “tunnels are too expensive except where essential”. I assumed it would emerge on Elliott with a station at Dravus/15th W.

      2. Except that Seattle Center could easily be served by the Century 21 Monorail, if a few changes were made, such as a better, faster elevator from Westlake Station up to the Monorail Terminal, an integrated fare policy, and perhaps a short extension from the Armory (is it “Center House” now?) over closer to Mercer and 1st Ave N.

        (And maybe add a stop in Belltown).

      3. The Center is a destination for the whole city, though (admittedly less so with the Sonics gone). Forcing everyone to transfer downtown is going to be a pain, especially for those that’ll be served by the westside line who might have to backtrack if you don’t give them a Center station.

    3. @Morgan The alignment I was thinking (daydreaming) about would be a tunnel under 2nd Ave with stations at Marion, University, Battery then 1st & Mercer, heading west to a portal at the edge of Queen Anne hill. A brief elevated section would put the tracks into the median in Interbay, then you’d tunnel under the Ballard bridge to downtown Ballard. After that I’m not quite sure where you’d go. It would be tough to run at grade through Loyal Heights etc.

      1. It depends on how you’d run through downtown Ballard. If you can tunnel under Ballard it shouldn’t be too hard to tunnel under Loyal Heights; it’s just added tunneling costs for sheer length. My idea for a westside line runs pretty much north-south to about 65th or 75th then turns on the diagonal towards a Greenwood station at 85th/Greenwood. After that it’s either a straight shot up Aurora or a turn to the east towards Northgate and possibly Lake City.

      2. Also, I’d replace University with something closer to Pike Place Market. I’m guessing you’re looking for a quick connection with the DSTT’s University Street station, but a Marion stop would seem to mitigate closer to alternating stops with the 3rd tunnel. A Pine/Pike stop can connect to Westlake Station after a slightly longer walk.

      3. The high-density portion is north to Market Street, where it could connect to or continue as the 45th subway to Brooklyn. Terminating at 85th would also make sense because there’s a general expectation of a one-seat ride from 85th. But from there to Northgate is lower ridership so I think we should focus on other rail projects before that.

        I’d also contemplated downtown-Ballard-Northgate-Lake City, but I’m now convinced Roosevelt makes a better starting point for a Lake City line. It would avoid the hill and single-family houses between Lake City and Northgate. There would be a gap between a 45th line from Brooklyn and a Lake City line from Roosevelt, but that may be acceptable since tunneling northeast from Brooklyn is probably not in the cards.

      4. There is no room to interline trains into the Northgate to ID Link line.

        If Lake city gets link it would most likely be part of a separate line with any track links to the ST2 lines strictly non-revenue for shifting equipment around.

        Most likely a Lake City line would have a tranfer point at Northgate.

        Besides running a line between Crown Hill and Lake City Via Northgate provides a crosstown connection. The estimated ridership in the city ICT study was pretty good. Though Crown Hill to Lake City might be a bit redundant with a line along 45th.

      5. Worth considering, too, whether or how a line across 520 or making a new Sand Point-Kirkland crossing would fit into this. University Village could definitely support a transit stop, and Wedgwood could work as well depending on whether it wants/could use rail. If you connect those two places, you could branch into a line to Lake City and a line across the lake. I don’t know whether tunnelling northeast of Brooklyn “isn’t in the cards”, but since the line would pretty much be following 45th between Wallingford and at least Brooklyn, and would meet Brooklyn at a right angle, I wouldn’t be opposed to running MLK-style center-running surface on 45th, or an elevated structure that turns into center-running east of 15th and across the viaduct.

        However, I’m starting to lean more towards a downtown-Ballard-Northgate-Lake City option (and Aurora for the current North Corridor). You’d probably have to dig a tunnel from Northgate to the side of the hills; I don’t know where a portal for that would be since (IIRC) ST2 Northgate station is an elevated structure.

        All North Seattle is likely to get in ST3 is light rail to Greenwood, maybe interlining with the ST2 Aurora segment or connecting to Northgate. I doubt anything’s coming to Lake City or (especially) the 45th corridor until ST4.

      6. 45th is the place that most needs Link. The congestion is most intolerable there, and it would have high ridership. Only downtown-Ballard and downtown-West Seattle can rival it in terms of necessity. These need to be built first before we build any other lines.

        A second Lake Washington crossing will be very expensive. I’m fine with it as long as it doesn’t divert money from these higher-priority projects.

  8. Thanks for another thoughtful article. There have been a lot of well-researched articles in the past month; you guys have really heeded the New Year’s call to keep on writing good articles.

  9. Nice post.

    Skehan is correct. In the early 90s, there were advocates for a Portland type of LRT program (e.g., Greg Hill, Preston Schiller, and Skehan). RTA director Tom Matoff with Sacremento exprience was booted.

    My hypothesis has been that the three large county governmenance led directly to the regional nature of the program. Rep. Fisher was from Tacoma and made sure that the government with high capacity transit authority included Tacoma. The RTA leadership asked for it too. Seattle affrimative votes would make improved transit in Pierce County more likely. The three counties of TriMet are one half the area of King County.

    The unique ST approach follows the three county governance: 1500 volts, long station spacing, and an emphasis on “regional mass transit”.

    An agency could have followed the Portland approach for urban LRT and used bus and commuter rail for the longer trips. In Portland, there seems to have been more political courage to take right of way for transit.

    We are still to overcome the 2001 decision to build south-first and not north where the greater ridership was and is.

    1. We are still to overcome the 2001 decision to build south-first and not north where the greater ridership was and is.

      It’s easy to forget that ST went through a prolonged existential crisis around that time, and the initial Link segment through the RV was built because it was relatively easy, relatively cheap, served at least the airport and one part of the city with decent short-term and good long-term potential, and — most importantly — proved that ST was capable of actually building a Light rail line. The choice was not between building north and building south. It was between building south and doing nothing at all.

      I also think that a regional system is what ST exists for, and what its voter mandate is. The city of Seattle is perfectly capable of building its own streetcars if there’s enough public will to do it, and very few areas outside of Seattle and Tacoma have local transit needs that cannot be met by bus.

      1. I know its a sore subject around here but it was always my dream for the monorail to be the city transit mode with ST being used as the regional mode.

      2. … and because serving Rainier Valley (a poorer, minority area) made it more competitive for a federal grant. North Link was postponed because of the construction risk of the ship canal crossing. South Link was then revived, I think, mainly because of this grant.

        Don’t forget the monorail supporters at the time. Many people supported the monorail because surface segments are impossible with it, and they were afraid that Link would end up being mostly surface like MAX.

      3. Bruce,
        actually, there was a better choice, but the ST board rejected it. In 1999, Sims and Schell proposed building LRT between NE 45th Street and Mt. Baker with the first phase West subarea funds; both Rainier Avenue and MLK Jr. Way South would have been provided improved bus service; the south King County Link funds would have been redeployed to a center access ramp at Industrial Way and frequent Route 194 service. the downtown transit tunnel would have had interlined Link service much sooner and the ridership attracted would have been much greater.

        yes, by 2001 ST was under pressure and they felt they had to build something to survive.

      4. If Sound Transit had “stayed the course” on building North first the agency might have suffered the same fate as the Monorail. At the very least we’d still be waiting for the initial segment to open and ST2 might not have passed.

        Building between Westlake and the Airport was the right decision as it allowed ST to build something on something while working on the problems of the initial preferred alignment between Downtown and the U District.

        The Sims/Schell proposal did nothing to address the issues with the preferred alternative between 45th NE and Westlake. Indeed the experience in building the Beacon Hill station caused Sound Transit to avoid any further deep mined stations due to construction risk.

    2. Eddie, I would (and just did, before seeing your comment; please read down below) argue that a downtown streetcar alignment combined with express service to the outskirts does not make MAX a particularly urban transport system. It may be the worst of all worlds.

  10. Both systems — at very different costs and for somewhat different reasons (though each somewhat beholden to the Fed’s flawed understanding of “urban” transit) — leave their cities’ respective CBDs and shoot out the the furthest reaches of the urban sphere as quickly as they can.

    It is an open secret that MAX effectively does not exist for those in inner SE Portland and inner N/NE Portland (east of the impenetrable I-5 alignment and thus unaided by the Yellow Line). These are the very areas of the city that are youngest, that are most drawn to the urban experience, and that are most likely to be carless — and they have no rapid transit! (Fortunately for them, TriMet’s buses are run infinitely better than Metro’s.)

    Sadly, Seattle has made much the same mistake, and ten times the cost.

    1. These are the very areas of the city that are youngest, that are most drawn to the urban experience, and that are most likely to be carless.

      Last time I checked, we were building Link through Capitol Hill and the U-District as fast as we could.

      1. …and making sure that 80% of Capitol Hill falls outside its walkshed!

        (No disrespect intended in my snark, as I’m pretty sure you’re new-ish to STB The regional-express pretense of Link at the expense of urban usefulness is a common source of friction here.)

      2. Let me put it differently. How would you build out Link, on the same budget, starting at the same time, subject to similar political pressures?

        The North Corridor HCT, assuming it’s built as a Link extension, will be an excellent (I-5) or great (Aurora) regional link to pre-existing suburbs that have expressed enthusiasm about upzoning near stations (Lynnwood) and will benefit UW and Downtown directly by bringing in commuters without cars. If and when South Link is built to Tacoma, it’ll do the same for Tacoma with respect to Federal Way and other South King cities. The slog through the RV limits its usefulness for commuters south of 200th St to downtown, but there were reasons (funnily enough, also centered around federal money) why that had to be done to get Link built at all.

        Central/U/North link between Beacon Hill and Northgate is the regional and urban express service that I, for one, want. Assuming the FHSC is built out to Aloha, that’s the streetcar feeder system that I (for one) think we should put in place to extend the walkshed. If you want to argue that Metro’s bus service on the Hill is a mess, I will entirely agree but that’s something ST can’t fix.

        I think, in general, and subject to the constraints I listed at the beginning, ST is doing a pretty good job of building a regional express that does right by downtown and the carless areas of the city. That fact that our local service is a wreck is not something that can be laid at ST’s door.

      3. Sorry to have taken so long to reply, Bruce.

        The truth is that, if you take those two caveats — same budget and similar political context — as a given, there isn’t an answer.

        In a world where politics were fair and where “sub-area equity” applied to all infrastructural expenditures (rather than, somehow, to transit in isolation), the answer would be simple: screw the suburbs.

        Yes, screw the suburbs. You chose to live somewhere that required disproportionate outlays for basic infrastructure (water, sewer, utilities, and per capita square feet of pavement). You’ve gotten the lion’s share of major highway expenditure for more than 50 years. And now you want us to waste billions on new rail so that a couple thousand of you can ride it 5 times per week? Oh, and you want it to be express, too?

        It’s not just the warped Federal funding justifications. Here on this blog, we too get lost in discussions of “miles built per dollar spent,” when we should be discussing connections per dollar spent, or permutations of trip-pairs made possible per dollar spent, or number of cars retired permanently per dollar spent.

        I try not to talk in pure hypotheticals. How many people have ever been able to go car-free because BART was built? Most likely, nearly zero. Would it have been better just to build BART just past the region’s worst topographical bottlenecks, throw up a gigantic parking garage, and call it a day? Then there might have been some money for actual improvements in urban SF and Oakland!

        Denver’s another great example: They’ve built a whopping 40 miles of suburban right-of-way in just 15 years. Number of automobiles removed from the region as a result: zero. Ridership: a paltry weekday 43,000-63,000 (depending on which quarterly report you read). But they’re super-proud of it! (That money should be budgeted under “civic uplift” rather than “transportation.”)

        Connecting Seattle to Bellevue and Overlake, given the lake between the first two and the many jobs offered at the third, should always have been a priority. As a southward endpoint, the airport was not a bad choice. But Lynnwood? Des Moines? Adjudicated with anything resembling due diligence, and these places can’t begin to justify the expense So again, screw them. Build some parking garages at the city limits, and let them sit in the traffic that wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t insisted on living in a subdivision until they reach the urban transport system that terminates there. Then there’ll enough money to make that urban system, y’know, actually worth a damn within the city!

        (Again, functioning precedent:,+ma&aq=&sll=47.601996,-122.311134&sspn=0.156953,0.264702&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Cambridge,+Middlesex,+Massachusetts&ll=42.392276,-71.135273&spn=0.042978,0.066175&t=h&z=14&lci=transit_comp )

      4. (In case that map isn’t as clear as I mean it to be: note that the bright red subway line ends directly underneath an enormous parking garage, and that the northwesterly yellow-colored freeway ends there too. The disruptive highway never enters Cambridge; the expensive subway refuses to leave it.)

      5. d.p.
        First remember that due to sub-area equity each area is paying for its own light rail. The money to run Link between the Airport and North Federal Way is coming from South King County and can’t be used to say build Link to Ballard.

        Second I must strongly disagree with you about the utility of extending Link North of Northgate. The projected ridership at the County Line exceeds the entire ridership of East Link or Central/Airport/South Link. If you don’t believe me simply look at how many ST and CT buses cross the county line during peak.

      6. Hey, Chris,

        Thanks for not taking too much offense at my willful (but deeply felt) provocations.

        That was actually the point of my line about “a world where ‘sub-area equity’ applied to all infrastructural expenditures.”

        Where was the “sub-area equity” for decades of road-building? Where was the “sub-area equity” when utilities had to be extended to the distant corners of the region? Where was the “sub-area equity” for environmental impact that extends across municipal boundaries?

        Hell, where’s the “sub-area equity” for my much lower per-rider subsidy for the in-city transit that is the only transit I ever use?

        The problem with claiming that “each area paying for its own light rail” makes it all okay, is that the urge to express the long-distance service leads to reduced utility in the city. We pay our portion, and we get something inherently less worthwhile for it.

        “Look at how many ST and CT buses cross the county line during peak.”

        That doesn’t necessarily justify billions for a ROW that just duplicates the existing highway and that still no one can/will walk to. Either they clog the highways and transfer at Northgate, or they clog the highways and transfer at Shoreline, or they clog the highways and transfer at Lynnwood. Why does it matter which?

        I’m not a particular fan of highway buses. But at some point, wouldn’t it be just as good to give the suburbanites an HOV-lane bus to the transfer point. Then the $billions saved could build transit to allow them transfer-travel throughout the city rather than just to 3 “chosen nodes.”

    2. Tri-Met buses running better than Metro is uh… what?

      Their bus capital investment is truly abysmal. They were (maybe still are?) behind on their replacement schedule and were running some diesel buses that were pushing 20 years of service time. I don’t know about you but I found that those were sort uncomfortable rides that would discourage transit ridership.

      I’m not up to date on a comparison of frequent service routes but last time I looked at that metric, they were roughly comparable.

      And you’re describing people living in uh… Humboldt and Boise neighborhoods? Yeah, young people live there because they’re those neighborhoods are some of the cheapest places left in town.

      The real problem with carless living as a young adult in Portland (and Seattle, as well, but to a lesser extent) is the overabundance of SF housing. Walkable SF neighborhoods are crazy expensive, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.

      Grass isn’t always greener, man.

      1. CJH:

        Who cares about capital investments if you can’t get the operations right?

        Thanks to smarter routing (i.e. better allocation of resources), nearly every bus I’ve ever needed in Portland has run at 15-20 minutes or better, including late evenings and weekends.

        With generally straight-and-logical routing, not to mention Portlanders’ apparent ability to board and exit more quickly (through the back!), every trip I’ve experienced has been less painful and laborious than its Metro counterpart.

        And yes, I am shocked they can do this in such a low-density environment.

        (Also, I was referring not just to Boise and Alameda, but also to the long-established inner-SE neighborhoods between the river and the 60s, from Burnside to Reed, as places where MAX is good-as-nonexistent.)

      2. Key line in that key blog post: “This balance between grid and radial patterns was carefully constructed in 1982, replacing an old network in which almost all routes went downtown.”

      3. And again, d.p., what would do you propose to do differently? North of the ship canal, a bus grid makes sense, and I agree that Metro’s current service layout is pretty retarded, but how are you going to implement one south of that given Seattle’s messy street grids, land use and topography?

        Emphasizing transfers is why I think running all the frequent (< 20 min) radial routes down Third Ave is a great idea. I think Metro is mostly doing it right in that respect.

      4. Are you serious?

        The first link is a bit confusing but basically, it’s a wash in terms of frequent service routes.

        They have better geography than Seattle to work with (so does Vancouver outside of the West End) and have taken advantage of it with routing. This we can agree on (I guess) but this not some strong virtue of Tri-Met.

        The one thing you can credit them with which Seattle has not done is simplifying the route numbering system. But in terms of actual service (if not ease of service), Seattle is no worse than “comparable.”

        And bitching about fellow riders? 1) Grow the hell up. 2) Portland buses are less full – the magic of never having to deal with crush-loaded buses.

      1. Actually, the MBTA and L.A. Metro Rail should count as unified systems, and I considered MUNI and BART together for the sake of consistency.

        Which means that I should have noticed PATH on the list and considered it under the umbrella of New York mass transit.

        Which actually makes Portland 9th.

        (Those top-six commuter rail systems are all in cities already above Portland, so it doesn’t change the rankings.)

      2. That is crazy-talk. Why not include metro and link if you’re going to combine BART and Muni? What makes BART and muni the same other than the four station downtown SF tunnel?

      3. I ride metro every day, like 400,000 other people. That’s more than three times the number of people who ride MAX.

        What does mass mean to you if you think a single-60-person-capacity-car Muni train running in the middle of the street is some how “mass” transit but buses aren’t?

      4. Are we really having this debate?

        There’s nothing mass-transit about the F-Market. (The fact that it rumbles along directly above a high-capacity subway corridor suggests that it in no way intends to be. The F-Market represents MUNI’s rail system no more than the SLUT represents ours.)

        You want me to define “mass transit?” Let’s try this:

        A system, using any vehicular mode, that is capable of producing a consistent travel experience irrespective of fluctuations in demand, within reason.

        Most any bus system you can envision will fail as mass transit — the lower the frequency, the less efficient the boarding/exiting/payment methodology, the more fractured the route system, the more ensconced in traffic, and so forth, the more spectacular the failure.

        A 20% increase in boardings on particular Metro bus can often mean a 50% decrease in travel speed. Metro is not mass transit.


      5. Therefore neither is Muni.

        Muni’s buses are slow because of their excessive number of stops combined with high passenger volumes and traffic. Streetfilms calls it “one of the slowest transit systems in the country”.

        Muni metro is fast only within the subway, outside it’s more like a streetcar with onboard payment, shared travel lanes with cars and stops in the middle of the street.

      6. Yes, Oran. That was my point, I think it’s weird to say “BART and Muni” are the same system, when they are nothing like each other and don’t serve the same area.

        Either way, Portlands 127,000 daily boardings is a huge bargain for $600 million. We won’t get that many drivers through the DT tunnel for $2.8 billion.

      7. Oran, 99% of existing bus systems are slow for those same reasons.

        MUNI’s buses were not, however, factored into the cited mass-transit ridership statistics (F-Market and the cable cars were, but represent a tiny sliver of MUNI rail ridership that would not effect MUNI’s ranking if subtracted).

        MUNI Metro, like Boston’s Green Line, has many drawbacks, especially lack of signal priority. It does, however, have a de facto proof-of-payment system, with all-door boarding for passholders (and very high transit-pass adoption), an huge amount of dedicated right-of-way, and reasonably high frequency.

        MUNI Metro could certainly be improved, but even at present a spike in demand on a particular vehicle does not markedly slow down that particular vehicle. This is truly key to a functional, predictable, works-well-as-your-primary-mode-of-transport system that rises to the level of “mass transit.”

      8. I also forgot to mention that MUNI’s accessible stops, though too few and far between, have level boarding for wheelchairs. Again, increased ridership doesn’t entail slower service.

        The real question is why Andrew is freaking out about this.

        Of course I understand how different MUNI and BART are! I complain about the U.S. predilection towards BART-building — read: good for commuters but not for life — all the time. I’m constantly sniping at Link’s BART-lust, and noting how lame it is to super-express people in from the distant suburbs and then make it take as long or longer for them to get from one side of Capitol Hill to the other!

        But Andrew insists we calculate their ridership separately. Why? Does he want to calculate Washington Metro within D.C. separately from Washington Metro in the burbs (that distinction is very similar to the MUNI/BART one)?

        It wouldn’t change Portland’s rank-by-city of explicitly-rail-transit usage (or mass-transit usage by my stated criteria) to do so. But it would obfuscate the point of the rankings: Here’s a list of cities with real mass transit; how many people are using it in each?

      9. Let’s not use the word “mass transit” at all as the definition is disputable. Jarrett Walker wrote an article titled “unhelpful word watch: mass transit“. Wikipedia defines mass transit as a synonym of “public transit”, “public transport”, etc. The characteristics you described as “mass transit” seem to correlate with the term “rapid transit” (rail or bus).

        For the most part combining the two lists makes an “urban rail transit system ridership” ranking (excluding infrequent commuter rail systems). Therefore, exclude all bus ridership for that comparison.

        However, that misses most of the transit ridership. Only 22% of SF Muni’s ridership is on the Metro streetcars, the rest are on buses. Many densely populated areas of SF are not served by rail at all (excluding cable cars). And people use bus transit for daily life, despite their slowness.

        “A 20% increase in boardings on particular Metro bus can often mean a 50% decrease in travel speed. Metro is not mass transit.”

        RapidRide A Line had a 25% increase in ridership in just 2 months and it is faster than the 174 it replaced.

      10. d.p. I think you’ve got some good points and I think we basically agree aside from a few semantic points (mass transit vs rapid transit vs whatever). I think we can agree to disagree on those.

        1) Personally, I think BART is not all that much like the DC metro, something I’ve written here before. Muni isn’t really anything more than a streetcar system outside of a few special cases, and really isn’t a full-blown subway.

        2) Where do you stop when you’re combining systems? What if some people take BART to Richmond transfer to the Capitol Corridor (commuter rail) go to Sacramento and get on the Sacramento light rail? Or if they take Muni to the Caltrain and transfer to San Jose’s light rail (my daily commute when I lived in San Francisco). Do those all count as one “system”?

        3) While we’re on the subject, I was thinking the DC Metro is mostly paid for by the Feds as well. What other systems have this quality?

      11. I wish I could say that RapidRide’s increase in speed was the result of mass-transit-esque boarding/running features.

        But we both know that it’s because they increased the number of vehicles, and that the increase was roughly proportional to the ridership spurt.

        A heavily-loaded RapidRide vehicle, sadly, will be much slower than an empty one. A packed Link vehicle will be just as fast as an empty one.!

        Your Jarrett Walker link addresses the word “mass” semantically, and he seems to perceive it as implying transit that is “for the masses” in a substandard way. As much as I appreciate his work, on this one I must respectfully disagree. I see the word as implying the ability move large numbers of people well.

        Jarrett sees the word as implying harm to its riders sense of individuality. Unfortunately, Oran, individuality can be taken too far. That guy who takes 2 minutes blocking the doorway of a Metro bus while he fumbles for change has made the ride all about himself, and he is doing quantifiable harm to “the masses” of other riders.

      12. “the U.S. predilection towards BART-building — read: good for commuters but not for life”

        It’s still worth asking, why is this predilection there? It’s because for fifty years suburbs were built with only highways and no rail links, and people are tired of it. Ideally the two would have been built together, and then all metropolises would be like Chicago (METRA) and New York (PATH, LIRR, NJ Transit, Metro-North, etc) and there would be higher transit use throughout the region. The US population doubled between 1940 and now, so satellite cities like Bellevue and Lynnwood were necessary. One wishes they were built as high-density islands with something like METRA connecting them, but they weren’t. Many people have only a few potential job choices: they have to work wherever the job is, and nowadays it’s often in a suburban office park or suburban warehouse.

        Second, I disagree that there’s a “BART-building predeliction”. Link is the only new system I know of that’s BART-like. METRA, Caltrain, and the New York systems are not new, they’re just continuations and updates of pre-1950s rail lines. Most light rail in the US is surface with lots of stops, so I wouldn’t call that commuter rail even if it extends into the suburbs. Most commuter rail runs only at rush hour in one direction, so it’s only marginally useful and nothing like BART.

        In almost all cases, peak-only commuter rail exists only because the track was already there and it was cheap to start up; not because anybody thought it would solve more than 0.5% of the regional mobility problem.

      13. > Link is the only new system I know of that’s BART-like.

        Cheaply-built downtown street-running segments aside, would you not consider the systems in Denver, Minneapolis, Dallas, etc. essentially BART-like.

        They mostly cling to highways (or existing ROWs through areas of little density), the stop spacing is wide, the parking is paramount, and the commuting-only intent is unmistakable.

        Also, for all the money spent and civic pride stoked by these projects, their ridership is abysmal!

    1. It’s 9th in light rail ridership per mile. Link could pretty easily have twice MAX’s ridership per mile once U Link opens, even if U Link’s ridership lags well behind projections.

      1. In addition to grade separation and off vehicle payment, a mass transit system also must have regular and frequent service out of the “rush hour direction” during AM and PM peaks, at mid-day, in the evening and on weekends, thus disincentivising driving.

  11. Remember Oregon has no sales tax so that makes things difficult when the typical transit funding source isn’t there. Property, Income and Gas taxes are always out of the question too.

    It is not the TOD or LRT system that is that great in Portland… Portland’s strength is its political system that got LRT, urban development, killed freeways, TOD, etc. For some reason in Portland they can get sh*t done while other places bicker for decades. Plus Portland has had the right people in the right place at the right time, this goes back to the 1970s when this was probably the most true. As far as the quality of the stuff built in Portland, I’d say its pretty much exclusively the Pearl District and the streetcar that are great.

    South Waterfront isn’t that great of a place, rather its remarkable that an ambitious project like that in a place like Portland was put together and built… that is what should be lauded.

    1. Machine politics put to good use.

      Portland area politics has been notoriously opaque unlike Seattle area politics which is notoriously transparent and talky (except the Port).

      Also, the near-absence of minorities means they never really had to worry about a BRU type of suit. Seattle did.

      1. Portland was also a “small city” and perhaps off the radar of the Randy O’Toole/Wendy Cox/Tommy Rubin cabal.

        Also, no Kemper, Emory Bundy or Dick Morrill equivilents that I know of in greater PDX.

      2. Randal O’Toole cut his teeth as a libertarian anti-transit activist by opposing the original N-S MAX Line that would have run from Vancouver, WA to Milwaukie, OR. This was the ballot measure that failed miserably in Clark County and lost in Clackamas County.

        Before that he was a libertarian environmentalist (whatever that means…).

        Note that despite losing, Tri-Met pressed ahead with a plan that didn’t require voter approval (and was, once again, mostly paid for by the feds). Once again, shrewd management.

  12. In 2003 the FTA did comment that Seattle’s Sound Transit application gained some merit because of the big local share, close to 80 percent. That was given as a justification for $500m FTA grants on the $2.6b project. So in that sense, maybe a costlier project “helped” attract federal help. And FTA is giving $813m for the $1.9b U-Link.

    1. I sort of vaguely remember the Feds wanting to pull the plug on funding around that time. I wonder if the $2.1 billion we were shelling out changed their mind.

  13. The post-2005 criteria for the grants say this: “Any project with a cost effectiveness rating less than “medium” – the middle of five rankings – is never awarded a grant.”

    Will North Link and East Link have a high enough “cost effectiveness” rating to qualify for federal grants?

    1. Neither project would have gone beyond initial engineering had ST not been certain they’d make the first federal hurdle. Moreover, the FTA will evaluate the proposed addition to the system as part of the whole system. Reaching Northgate TC will add a sh*tload of riders and bring down the cost per boarding.

      1. Bruce – What are you talking about? Neither East Link nor North Link has gone beyond initial engineering. Both are in the early stages of preliminary engineering, and no FTA grants even have been sought. Heck, the final EIS isn’t done on either of those projects.

        Also, I think your “sh*tload of riders” comment is banal and probably wrong. The ridership projections have been lowered considerably since the 2007 work was done. The reality of Central Link ridership certainly hasn’t been missed by the agency’s planners . . ..

      2. Wrong! North Link’s environmental was done in conjunction with University Link.

        Environmental Work

        On April 7, 2006, Sound Transit and the Federal Transit Administration issued the North Link Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) to the 1999 Central Link Final Environmental Impact Statement on the light rail transit project running from Downtown Seattle to Northgate. The Final SEIS evaluates the environmental impacts of alternative route alignments and station locations from Downtown Seattle to Northgate. The Final SEIS includes the Preferred Alternative identified by the Sound Transit Board, with stations at Capitol Hill, University of Washington, Brooklyn, Roosevelt and Northgate.

        The Federal Transit Administration has issued the Record of Decision (ROD) for North Link. The ROD acknowledges the completion of the environmental process for North Link.

        I had thought the design work was approaching 30%. That’s beyond preliminary engineering.

        East Link is less advanced.

      3. @ aw –

        You were too quick with your “Wrong!” comment there . . ..

        That’s the “Sound Move” era North Link. The ST2 North Link EIS is not done. They are studying whether bus vs. train vs. do nothing would be most effective, the final routing has not been completed, and it’ll go up to Lynnwood (not just Northgate).

        Preliminary engineering is not done for the ST2 North Link.

        Anyhoo . . . the big issue – the amount of federal funds for East Link – is starting to get murkier and murkier. The engineering is taking a long time, the ridership revisions (downward) have to be factored in, and the final EIS can’t be submitted until the I-90 traffic flow studies are done.

        A few gremlins have raised their ugly heads, as you may have heard . . ..

      4. Austin, the official name for the light rail project from Husky Stadium station to Northgate is “North Link.” The Northgate to Lynnwood project is called the “North Corridor Transit Project.”

      5. @ Zed –

        Now I understand the distinction you’re drawing – up to Northgate is called one thing, and then up in Snohomish County is called another.

        So for the King County segment, what’s the budget and how much are the feds going to kick in?

        Any estimates for budget size and fed grant contributions for the Snohomish segment yet?

        All I’ve heard about is that with East Link the fed grant applications are going to be delayed.

    2. Will North Link and East Link have a high enough “cost effectiveness” rating to qualify for federal grants?

      The calculations are pretty messy, but probably at least medium, “medium-low” is pretty bad.

      U-Link had the highest total score in the new system (“High”), and North Link won’t be much worse than that. So I’d guess North Link as far as Northgate gets big bucks.

      East Link is slightly less clear, especially with the Bellevue Tunnel (this is a little-heard point in that debate). If the tunnel increases costs by a huge amount, it could worsen the chances, though that project might be big enough to be okay with or with out it.

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