My View: Cut commuter rail line to improve service where it's needed

TriMet’s proposed budget avoids new fare increases or service cuts. That’s a mistake.

Inequitable discounts and disproportionate streetcar subsidies led to degraded service regionwide. Both need serious review from management to avoid accepting current reduced service levels as the new normal.

One specific fiasco begs for termination ASAP: WES (Wilsonville-to-Beaverton commuter rail). Why? WES is exorbitantly expensive. It costs about $1,200 per hour on average; MAX runs for less than $300 per hour while carrying half again as many riders.

Even on its 18 highest-cost-per-rider fixed bus routes, TriMet serves more than twice as many people for what we subsidize WES. These lifelines, often miles from the next nearest transit, are dispersed throughout the region. With buses serving all its stops, nobody needs to ride WES. It’s premium service without premium fares.

WES requires extraordinary support. Its subsidies were $13.47 per ride last fiscal year compared to TriMet’s $1.47 fixed route average. We’d need some combination of surcharges averaging $12 or a tenfold ridership increase to bring WES subsidies in line.

WES doesn’t meet projections. Although ridership has grown, it’s consistently been around half that forecasted and is leveling off. WES never made sense. Relatively few live or work close to any of its five stops, and there’s free parking throughout Washington County. The line doesn’t attract many commuters, and half-measures like dropping runs or adding surcharges would only make it worse. Even if WES met projections, it still would need disproportionate subsidies.

We need to shut it down.

There are better alternatives. For example, suppose TriMet operated a carpool fleet of 625 intermediate hybrids, paying all costs including vehicle replacement every five or six years. Assuming one driver and three passengers per car, TriMet could pay participants $5 each day they carpooled and give the driver a mileage allowance for personal use. Altogether coming to about $12,000 annually per car, the entire program would cost half of the $300 million that we’re on track to spend on WES through its first 20 years of operation, yet would take more than twice as many vehicles off Highway 217 and I-5.

For all its ridiculous extravagance, this scheme still would be more than four times more effective than WES at relieving congestion. It would be even better at conserving energy because carpool vehicles should use less fuel than those replaced. WES diesels wouldn’t be running back and forth, and the roughly 1,000 additional cars taken off highways would allow remaining traffic to flow more efficiently.

WES service guarantees with Washington County expire this month. Unlike current contracts with the Federal Transit Administration, the WES funding agreement has no guarantee period. So why hasn’t TriMet announced plans to shut down and get past this debacle? Doesn’t TriMet have a duty to taxpayers and riders to get value for our money? The millions we squander on WES every year could restore vital service throughout the district. It can be hard for bureaucracies to find the humility, integrity and courage to admit and correct obvious mistakes like WES. No fault finding is required, just acknowledgement that it isn’t working out. Critics say WES proves that TriMet is out of control. Is it?

R.A. Fontes is a Lake Oswego


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