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SP Daylight and #197

This is part two of our trip Saturday June 26th (wrong date given in part 1) from Seattle to Portland via Amtrak and using Trimet to explore the city. As a reminder, this was the weekend of record breaking temperatures in the Pacific Northwest which had serious consequences for rail travel.

Our primary destination was the Oregon Rail Heritage Center. Many transit options from Union Station to ORHC exist, but the most straightforward was to use the MAX Orange line. We could see the MAX trains from Union Station and walked over to NW 6th Avenue. Having been forewarned of the large number of street campers, we weren’t shocked but amazed at how they had taken over the city. The first stop we came to, the ticket vending machine wasn’t working. We walked over to 5th and bought HOP day passes with my credit card for $5; and not a tent in sight.

I have to give Portland transit an A rating. Not an A+ because some of the signage and info on their transit maps is not clear unless you know the system. Like, what does this green square mean on the MAX “Orange Line” train we’re boarding. The colors and direction arrows are also really hard to read on the TriMET map and they have streetcars and MAX lines that use the same colors. It wasn’t yet noon, but already hot and muggy, so the air conditioning on MAX was most welcome. The Green Line train we were on ended at Portland State University. After a short wait we boarded a train with a little orange square and were treated to a ride across the Willamette River on the transit-only Tilikum Crossing Bridge, where we noted we could catch a streetcar for our return trip.

Walking up to ORHC we found it was closed! While the website said it was open, another look at the Facebook page showed it was closed due to excessive heat. Ugh, looks like the whole trip is a bust. But just as we throw in the towel and start walking back to the MAX line, an apparent rail fan stops in their car and asks if we are trying to get in? “Yes, but they are closed”… “I’ll let you in, meet me by the gate.”  Huh, what? Turns out he’s a volunteer coming down to do some work.

We and several other lucky people got a private showing of this very cool place.  Not only are there two operational steam locomotives and rolling stock, but also some in depth historical exhibits that cover Oregon history from a railroad perspective. I didn’t know that the Pullman Company ran its own passenger trains that provided upscale service over what was offered by the railroads. I also wasn’t aware of the inherent racism involved and that Oregon was a Jim Crow State. After looking at everything, even stuff we weren’t supposed to if the Heritage Center was “officially” open, we had lunch at Mt. Hood Brewing Co. seated in a vintage railcar. Mission Accomplished!

Our next adventure was to take the streetcar back to the Aerial Tram that serves Oregon Health Science University. This was a fail, only open to students and staff because of  COVID. We did learn that the TriMET day pass will not transfer to the tram so it’s not really “public” transit.

Back across the river to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Submarine tours, with very limited admission because of Covid, were sold out; . I bought tickets to “the rest” but had 90 minutes to kill (more COVID restrictions). Seeking the streetcar into the Pearl District, I found the reader board saying lines are down due to a power outage. Did I mention the high temp for the day was 108? Fortunately the issue didn’t affect the Orange Line. At least the air conditioning on MAX was able to keep up with the heat, unlike the streetcars.

We got off at Pioneer Place to found nothing but boarded up windows, random street people, and a concert venue that in normal times may have been rockin’, but empty today. Much like the rest of the Pearl District! I’d heard much about how Seattle “lost its soul” and Portland retained so much historic character. There are some cool buildings but it’s mostly new construction; housing, Apple Stores and Starbucks. Honestly Seattle’s Pioneer Square has more historic old buildings than the Pearl District and Tacoma wins in this category by a wide margin, probably because Tacoma never had the huge upscale development pressure seen in the other cities.

We walked down to the river to see if the Oregon Maritime Museum was open; it wasn’t, thanks to Covid. After a 20 minute wait for MAX with no real time info available, a train finally showed up. I was a concerned that because of transit we’d missed the time stamp on our tickets to OMSI. Turns out they didn’t even look. I was expecting something like the Museum of History and Industry on Lake Union but was disappointed to discover it was essentially a children’s museum.

We had more time before we needed to be back at Union Station for our scheduled 7:30PM Cascades departure. We walked up to Powell’s Books, which was busy, but partially closed, including the Pearl section that contains all the engineering and technical books we were most interested in seeing. Since there was a bus stop across the street, we decided to experience that mode of transit back to the Transit Mall. After waiting 20 minutes for a bus that claimed to be 15 minute frequency, we gave up and walked down to the streetcar stop. After another long wait we gave up and walked back to Union Station arriving with 30 minutes to spare and the departure screens reading “on time”. Next up, the Amtrak meltdown.

11 Replies to “PDX to the MAX”

  1. There are also a bunch of nice old buildings east of the river. If you walk across the Burnside Bridge I think you can see them, or explore the streets east of MLK south of it. I can’t think of any counterpart in Seattle.

  2. Under normal circumstances, the areal tram accepts either TriMet day tickets or a cash fare for the uphill trip. There is normally no charge going down the hill, similar to how the Washington State Ferries operate with walk-on passengers. However, under the current circumstances, the public isn’t allowed, so it’s only OHSU paperwork that allows people to ride.

    Pioneer Square isn’t anything like Seattle’s Pioneer Square. The name refers to the Pioneer Courthouse across the street. The Square is just a city block of open space that might be the “Concert Venue” you were thinking about? They do all sort of things, there, but most of the time it’s just a city plaza.

    There is no National Historical District protecting Portland buildings, so we lose a few every year. Most of the interesting ones are concentrated in the “Old Town” area between Naito Parkway and about 3rd or 4th, south of Burnside and north of about Morrison. They are quite scattered though. Also, virtually none of the builders in Portland are doing the thing where the 1890s to 1930s exterior is preserved as a shell for a new building, like you have in Seattle. There’s maybe one such structure that was converted to a parking garage, and the Montgomery Park conversion of a Montgomery Ward multi-floor warehouse in the 1980s, and that’s it.

    Like everywhere across the country, many of the shopping malls in Portland are in financial trouble, and have been since the rise of Amazon. You didn’t miss much at the Pioneer Place Mall, as most of what’s there is the same stuff as any shopping mall. Washington Square in Beaverton and Lloyd Center on the east side are also both mostly shuttered. Clackamas Town Center is sort of functioning for now. Under normal circumstances, the Galleria mall, several blocks west, has more local and unique stuff.

    What most people call the “Pearl District” is west of the big Post Office building and north of about Hoyt Street. It’s quite a ways from Pioneer Place mall. That whole area was once the Spokane Portland & Seattle / Oregon Electric Railway freight yards and surrounding warehouses, and was only started to be turned into residential around 2005 or later. So, there simply isn’t much there that’s old, and what was there were old warehouse buildings that looked really neat on the outside, but as noted above nobody here is preserving the old exteriors of these buildings like Seattle has figured out how to do. It’s almost entirely plowed under.

    The Powell’s Technical Bookstore at 33 NW Park was located in what many people would think of as Chinatown, but they may have adjusted the borders of the Pearl District to go that far east. It closed sometime around 2010 or so and was consolidated into the main store, then consolidated further when “Building 2” closed in 2012. This also happened with Powell’s Home and Garden / Cookbook store and the Powell’s Travel Store: with the current online retail environment they simply couldn’t operate they way they were. The Pioneer Square Travel Store Powell’s closed in 2003 or so, and the one at the airport closed this year (many more people are using electronic stuff rather than paper books when they fly, and the limitation of the airport to only ticketed passengers started a grand slide there).

    If you are trying to find interesting shopping in Portland, you are better off going west to the northwest end of the streetcar at NW 23rd and walk south. That’s a retail district that hasn’t suffered anywhere near as much from Amazon as the big malls have. Don’t try driving there, as there is never any parking and it’s extremely congested with just about everything. It’s a place where people live, shop, eat and work so unlike shopping malls like Pioneer Place, there is always a ready market. From the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, you could also get over to bus routes 2, 14 or 15 and those go to shopping and restaurant districts along Division, Hawthorne and Belmont, respectively. All of those areas are somewhat like the Capitol Hill or Ballard or Fremont areas: lots of activity because people actually live there. Route 2 will soon be moving to the stop next to the rail museum.

    According to one of the drivers, TriMet made the mistake of buying buses with radiators suited for the climate that Portland had 10 years ago. This means they sometimes overheat in hot weather, due to the air conditioning load plus the engine load. When I’ve been riding them in hot weather, this usually means they have to pull over regularly and let the engine cool off. Bus routes like the 20 (what you were probably trying to catch on Burnside?) have an issue because they go uphill through a bunch of concrete (Beaverton and the area of Sylvan north of there), where the air gets about 10 degrees hotter than the average listed in your weather web site due to the amount of asphalt. All the extra engine and heat load means they probably had to stop regularly and cool the engine while going up the west side of the West Hills.

    It’s always interesting to read about visitor’s experiences. eg, “I’d have never told anyone to try to visit Pioneer Place because it’s just a shopping mall” but of course, coming from Seattle, you’d think of Pioneer Square as being a historic district instead of our version of Westlake.

    I’m glad you visited, and I hope that we make progress into returning to somewhat better conditions by the time you visit again.

    Please consider turning some of your writings into a letter to the editor. Without some pressure, nothing will change, and it seems like nobody who has the power to do anything listens to those that actually live here.

  3. WSDOT is raising fares 25 cents on the 520 and Gig Harbor bridges. My understanding is the fare increase is to make up the loss of usage to meet bond payments.

    Ordinarily the concern is a price increase is offset by a loss of usage. My guess is WSDOT figures these are bridge users who have no option, even if low income, at this time. Bond payments are bond payments, and Wall St. really doesn’t give a shit about the poor.

    At some point Metro and ST will have to make the same tough decision. The ferries have. Farebox recovery is essential to the operational budget for ST and Metro, but especially ST because of its very “optimistic” ridership estimates pre-pandemic, and 40% farebox recovery assumption in the levies.

    I suppose ST and Metro can reduce coverage or frequency, or grow ridership, but the reality is fares will have to increase, based in large part on the loss of riders post pandemic.

    I would suggest a 25 cent fare increase across the system now, although without an increase in general fund tax revenues (per subarea) and reduced ridership post pandemic the fare increase will need to be much steeper.

    The capital budget deficit, as enormous as it is, can be dealt with through changes to WSBLE, particularly DSTT2.

    But the hidden issue is the deficit in the operational budget through 2044, even though the system is new, but aging every day.

    ST built a gold plated system to many undense areas, and to be fair could not have anticipated WFH, but the levies assume a 40% farebox recovery, and that ain’t going to happen, even without the pandemic let alone with it.

    Unless I am missing something, or the bond holders are willing to take a haircut.

    1. I am in San Luis Obispo. Flying in I was surprised that in a state of 40 million residents how much land has no one and nothing on it.

      We went to dinner tonight, and by chance the Amtrak station was next door. Just a romantic single story station with a sign stating the next station and a bench.

      By luck the 6:53 came by. The station is so minimalist and shaded by trees it seemed very romantic to me.

      My life is so busy, and at times unromantic, the idea of just boarding the train and leaving everything behind to see America was compelling.

      I didn’t of course, but I could understand how trains have mesmerized so many over the years. Like an escape, and arrow into the heart of America.

    2. As the above comment is off topic for a visit to Portland, I’ll keep my respond specific to the operation here:

      MAX also goes through many undense areas, or areas where acres is difficult due to highways.

      I don’t know where this 40% farebox recovery thing you cite keeps coming from, but here in Portland the cost per MAX passenger and the cost per bus passenger is about the same.

      The average MAX passenger travels about 10 times the distance as the average bus passenger, so even with the terrible places MAX serves, the overall savings to the system over the buses has been significant.

      Northgate Link will represent a time savings over surface buses to a huge number of passengers, unlike anything built in Portland. The reduction in travel time also means significant operational savings, as nowhere near as many hours will be spent moving people over the same distance.

      Thus, the experience here runs counter to your whole premise.

      1. You can Google farebox recovery and Wiki will list recovery rates around the world.

        When an agency like ST places levies on ballots they must make assumptions about farebox recovery, which is passenger revenue from fares, and other sources like pay bathrooms in some systems. The farebox recovery assumptions then determine the amount of general fund tax revenues that will be necessary.

        ST chose 40%. ST’s ridership estimates pre-pandemic have been higher than actual ridership. Post pandemic ridership on Link looks like it will be even lower with WFH.

        Farebox recovery is critical to operational revenue. If it is lower than estimated — due to lower or discounted fares, fewer riders, or higher costs than anticipated — the shortfall has to be made up through cuts to service (the choice during Covid), lower costs per mile (driverless trains), higher fares, federal grants, or higher general fund tax revenue. Just like covering bond payments on bridges when estimated usage declines.

        I don’t know what assumptions Max uses, but it assumes a farebox recovery rate; otherwise it can’t know what other revenues are necessary since I highly doubt Max’s farebox recovery rate pre or post pandemic is 100% like in some cities.

        I think ST inflated farebox recovery in ST 2 and 3 to lowball general fund taxes. I could be wrong. It is very difficult to predict long term during a pandemic, but I do know pre-pandemic ridership was less than estimated, and farebox recovery was less than 40% although ST stated that was because of construction on lines that has not yet opened, although that was pre-pandemic.

        It isn’t an emotional issue, just like raising bridge tolls due to decreased usage is not an emotional issue. If farebox recovery is less than estimated it must be made up. For the bridges that was an increase in tolls. I don’t think a 25 cent increase in light rail fares is unreasonable if farebox recovery is below 40% although some may disagree, just like some felt raising bridge tolls was unfair, especially on the working class and poor.

      2. People ride Link, and then transfer to buses. The resulting fare is split between the bus operator and Link.

        Extending Link means a greater share of fare revenue goes to Link.

        So, I really don’t see this 40% number as so very outlandish (and you still haven’t shown where you are getting it from). TriMet as a whole system is about 20%, with MAX well above the system average.

      3. I only explored a small part of the rail system in Portland and that on a very bad day. Better than if it had been Sunday when the whole thing collapsed. Still, the combination of MAX and the streetcars is a major reason I’d make another transit trip to the city. It’s high quality transit (i.e. POSH) and you can see a lot of things because it covers ground so much better than the local stop every two blocks bus. I’m just a tourist but I suspect it has an impact on system wide transit use in Portland.

        One thing about % of fare recovery; if a trip on rail cost $400/hr 40% fare recovery means the subsidy is $260. If the cost is $200/hr on a bus with a 20% fare recovery the subsidy is $160. I suspect the cost per platform hr is much higher than that for rail and lower for buses. So rail is eating a lot more real $$$ to operate and it cost a fortune to build. So unless it really boosts system ridership it’s hard to justify.

        The Portland metro area has invested more in rail than the ST covered areas around Seattle. At least in terms of TriMet operated track. I don’t know how the total cost compares if you factor it Sounder. How does transit ridership compare between the two Metro areas?

      4. Costs per bus and light rail are here:

        $261 vs $149 per hour.
        However, operating expenses are $0.80 per passenger mile for light rail and $1.52 for the bus. Next column: light rail costs $4.28 per trip, while each bus trip cost $5.41 per trip – and do some division work on the annual passenger numbers. Even though the bus trips cost more, the passengers are riding them less distance.

        The bus system actually accounts for more capital funds right now as well – by a wide margin.

        So, as stated above, light rail causing higher operating expenses and causing a decline in farebox revenue and farebox recovery has certainly not been TriMet’s experience. This, despite the fact that our lines go through some fairly marginal areas (eg, green, yellow and Orange end in the middle of nothingness, and red, green and orange spend a fair amount of distance going through nothingness.

        Light rail that actually goes somewhere, and results in vastly improved bus service, as Northgate Link will, can hardly result in worse performance. Even TriMet has improved performance with its lines, and they aren’t great.

      5. @Glenn,
        Thanks for the Link. Lots of ways to look at the puzzle. I like Expense per “vehicle” revenue hr. Pretty straight forward with a bus. One bus is one “vehicle”. ST has reported the cost per “vehicle” as each unit in a train. So if it’s nominally three car trains they understate the cost by a factor of 3X. I don’t know if TriMet plays this game but in King County the cost of a train is more than 3X a bus. If trains are running full that’s legit but if they’re empty it skews rail as looking really good when it’s not. An equalizer would be cost per seat. It would be a little more work for the transit agencies but that would be a much better comparison.

        Portland does have a nice system. It’s a city I want to visit and the transit system is a major reason why. That said, my experience… admittedly on a bad day, was locals didn’t seem to think MAX failure was an uncommon experience. Everyone tends to think of any failure as “happens all the time”. People expect perfection and for some strange reason accept traffic delays from accidents but not a record heat wave as a reason for being late.

      6. The cost of any train system is going to be difficult to compare with buses. You can’t just multiply or divide by the number of cars, because a huge portion of the cost is related to infrastructure. Only some of that changes as train frequency increases.

        Therefore, the “game” you refer to is inherently an inaccurate measure when trying to compare modes. Every agency measures it the same way. All multiplying by two or four or three or 15 (have you seen the length of Long Island RR trains?) does is try to work in the cost of the driver or crew, which is only part of the equation.

        The rest of the numbers illustrate that there is no way TriMet could be financially functional if MAX weren’t significantly dropping the cost per passenger over what would be possible if those same services were operated with buses.

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