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?
|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.
|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.
*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.