Light Rail Myths and Realities

The real goal of light-rail advocates is not to reduce congestion but to bring federal pork to Portland.

Portland's light rail is poorly utilized and does nothing to reduce traffic congestion. Construction of more light-rail lines will make congestion worse, not better, because it will limit the funds available for activities that actually do reduce congestion.

Light rail is bad for congestion, bad for transit riders, bad for Portland's livability, and bad for your tax bill. Proposals to build a light-rail line between Portland and Clackamas--the so-called "south-north light rail"--make no sense. The best thing we can do for Portland's future is to halt light-rail construction and planning today.

Popular support for Portland's light rail is based on a series of myths and misconceptions about the MAX light-rail line. Claims of MAX's "success" and other myths are eagerly perpetuated by those who stand to profit from light-rail construction. Here are some of the most pervasive myths and the realities behind them.

Myth: "Light rail eases traffic congestion."

Reality: Metro says the south-north line will carry under 1 percent of Portland-area traffic, yet it will consume three-fourths of available transportation funds, denying funds to bus, bikeway, and road improvements that could greatly reduce congestion. As a result, says Metro, Portland-area congestion will quadruple in the next 45 years. Spending billions on light rail to reduce congestion is like spending all your grocery money on whiskey to stay healthy.

Myth: Portland-Clackamas "light rail will attract 17,000 new riders out of their cars each weekday."

Reality: So what? That's less than a quarter of one percent of the Portland-area auto trips that Metro says people will take each weekday when the light rail is done. For that we're supposed to spend more than a billion dollars?

Myth: A "highway to carry the same number of commuters as the Portland-Clackamas light rail would cost $3.2 billion--twice as much as the light rail."

Reality: Metro says adding two lanes (one each way) to the highways between Portland and Clackamas (99 and 224) would cost just $121 million--less than a tenth of the cost of the light rail. Those lanes would carry far more than 17,000 cars per day--at faster speeds than light rail, too.

The $3.2 billion estimate includes a complete reconstruction of I-405, the Marquam Bridge, and I-5 between the Marquam and Fremont bridges. The Portland-Clackamas light rail will not significantly reduce traffic on any of these roads.

Myth: Light rail "provides fast, reliable transit service at a moderate cost."

Reality: Light rail is s l o w: MAX averages just 19 miles per hour. When MAX began its 45-minute Gresham-to-Portland run in 1986, Tri-Met cancelled Gresham express bus routes that went the same distance in little more than half the time.

"Moderate cost"? The proposed line from Milwaukie to Clackamas will cost $455 million and carry only 600 people per day. That's a subsidy of hundreds of dollars per ride!

Myth: "Bus service would cost as much as light rail but attract fewer riders."

Reality: New bus service costs far less to start and express buses cost less to operate than light rail. Fast, frequent bus service would attract more riders than light rail at a tiny fraction of the cost.

Light rail is so costly, says Metro, that it "limits future bus expansion." Without the south-north line, Tri-Met can expand bus service by nearly 4 percent per year. With it, Metro says bus service can expand by barely 1 percent per year--less than the rate of population growth.

At a far lower cost, buses can carry more people and relieve more congestion than light rail. For less than 3 percent of the cost of the south-north line, which will serve only a few people, Tri-Met says it can put a dozen bus routes on faster, more frequent "light-rail schedules," serving people and reducing congestion all over the city.

Buses are more flexible, too, since they can change routes literally overnight at nearly no cost in response to changing traffic patterns. Light rail takes years to construct and any changes in routes will be expensive and time consuming.

Myth: "Light rail works in Portland." The MAX line was built on time, under budget, and it exceeded ridership projections.

Reality: This claim is particularly devious. In 1979, when Portland was deciding whether to build the MAX line, Tri-Met projected rapid construction, low costs, and high ridership. In 1985, after the MAX line was nearly completed, Tri-Met revised the cost estimates upward costs and ridership estimates downward. Actual costs were slightly less and ridership slightly higher than those final projections.

But when compared to the original projections, the MAX line cost 55 percent more, took a year longer to build, has had less than half the ridership than expected, and has had higher operating costs than originally projected.

Myth: Light rail will make Portland more livable.

Reality: Light rail is part of Metro's plan to redevelop Portland to a higher average population density than the New York urban area. This will greatly increase congestion, pollution, crime, and housing costs.

Light rail "is not worth the cost if you're just looking at transit" admits Metro planner John Fregonese. "It's a way to develop your community to higher densities." But if we wanted to live in New York densities, we wouldn't be here!

Myth: Light rail will get people out of their cars.

Reality: Most light-rail riders previously took the bus. Many bus riders abandon transit when light rail is built because light rail is slower than express bus service. Since the MAX line was installed, the percentage of Portland commuters using mass transit has significantly declined.

Myth: Light rail reduces pollution.

Reality: At least a third of light-rail riders drive to park-and-ride stations. Since cars pollute the most when they are first started, and since more than two-thirds of light-rail riders would otherwise take the bus, light-rail may actually increase pollution.

Myth: Light rail increases property values and promotes redevelopment.

Reality: What actually happens is that light rail initially depresses property values as people who don't want to live near light rail lines leave. If redevelopment takes place, property values may eventually increase--but most redevelopment along Portland's light rail lines is taking place only with tax breaks and other subsidies.

Myth: Light rail is the technology for the twenty-first century.

Reality: Light rail was invented in the nineteenth century--the only difference is that people then called them "trolleys." The MAX line has no fundamental technological advances over the old streetcars. A twenty-first century city needs something better than nineteenth century technology!

Myth: Light rail is an efficient use of your tax dollars.

Reality: Buses and other alternatives to light rail can carry people at a fraction of the cost of light rail. The whole south-north light-rail line will cost nearly $1,000 per Oregon resident--more than thirteen times as much as the MAX light rail and nearly three times as much as Oregon pays school teachers each year. Is this how you want to throw away your $1,000?

And that's just the beginning: Light-rail planners now expect to spend all of the money that Portlanders voted to spend on an Oregon City to Vancouver light rail on a more limited line from Clackamas to the Rose Garden. They will need more of your money to finish the system--as much as $5 billion more for the 30 to 40 miles of added light rail that Metro is planning.

Myth: Light rail will carry as many people as a six-lane freeway.

Reality: The westside and south-north light-rail lines cost well over $50 million per mile and are optimistically projected to carry around 40,000 people per day. (The MAX line carried only 27,000 per weekday in 1996.) By comparison, a six-lane freeway would cost under $20 million per mile and carry over 100,000 people per day. But new freeways aren't needed; just better bus service--which is even less expensive.

Myth: Transit advocates support light rail.

Reality: The south-north line is so wasteful that even light-rail advocates oppose it! The Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates supports rail transit but opposes this project "because its costs and negative impacts clearly exceed its benefits."

Myth: Light rail is supported by the communities it will serve.

Reality: Milwaukie and Clackamas, where the south light-rail line would go, voted heavily against light rail in the November, 1996, election.

So who supports light rail? Ballot measure 32's biggest contributers were the electric companies that will sell electricity to run light rail, the construction firms and streetcar makers that will build it, and the banks that will finance it. They will profit at your expense.

It's your money. Do you want it wasted on a light-rail boondoggle that hardly anyone will ride? Or do you want to spend it on buses, bikeways, and other ways to reduce congestion--and save money besides?

If you worry about congestion, transit, livability, and your taxes, then call or write your city or county commissioners, Metro councillor, state representative, or U.S. representative and tell them to oppose or vote "no" on proposals to fund Portland's south-north light rail.


Metro, Region 2040 Recommended Alternative Technical Appendix, September 1994 (Predictions of future congestion, etc.).

Metro, Regional Transportation Plan, July 1995, p. 7-8 (costs of alternatives, light rail "limits future bus expansion").

Oregonians for Roads and Rails, "Just Do Something about Traffic," October, 1996 (all myths in quotation marks).

Wisconsin State Journal, 23 July 1995 (Fregonese quote).

This fact sheet was prepared by the Thoreau Institute for ORTEM, a citizens' group opposed to the Metro 2040 plan. Fact sheets are available on a variety of other topics, including congestion, growth, and open space. If you have any questions or would like hard copies of this fact sheet, please call or write the Thoreau Institute, 14417 S.E. Laurie, Oak Grove, Oregon 97267, 503-652-7049, or email

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