In Portland, A Grim Outlook for a Transit Leader

The same issues afflicting transit agencies across the country, the perfect storm of declining funding and rising costs, are conspiring to challenge Portland's leadership in transit innovation and adoption, reports Ryan Holeywell.
March 13, 2012, 6am PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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While solutions to expected budget gaps in the coming years have yet to be adopted, it is likely that increased fares and reduced service will impact Portland's transit users beginning next year. And ominously, budget challenges will mean the, "likely end of the Free Rail Zone, an innovative program that provides no-cost rides in the center of the city and has come to symbolize the region's commitment to easily accessible transit service," writes Holeywell.

For a city that is proud of its ability to "outbox our weight class" in terms of its public transportation leadership, the expected cuts could have a long term impact. According to Holeywell, "To solve the problem next year, TriMet has proposed fare increases -- by nearly 20 percent in some cases -- as well as eliminating the Free Rail Zone program, cutting bus service and reducing the frequency of light rail trains. When you take any of those steps, [Neil] McFarlane [head of the regional transit agency] acknowledges, 'You're messing with people's lives.'"

In addition to the challenges facing the operation of the system already in place, some are questioning whether massive expansion plans are prudent in such a fiscal environment, and whether the same motives driving public officials to succeed will end up causing their failure.

"[John] Charles [president and CEO of the Cascade Policy Institute] and many other skeptics believe the current push is driven largely by local leaders' desire to continue receiving national accolades for their commitment to rail. Indeed, when U.S. News & World Report ranked Portland the No. 1 city in America for transit last year, TriMet tooted its horn by plastering ads highlighting the ranking on its vehicles. (The agency had to pull them when the publication revised its rankings due to problems with its methodology.)"

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Published on Thursday, March 1, 2012 in Governing
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