Sunday, July 19, 2009

Toonerville Trolley

Port Townsend, today. Well Seattle was awash this weekend in grinning faces as eager citizens queued up for a free ride on the latest example of frivolous public funding, Sound Transit's light rail link to Tukwila, just south of Seattle.

Years ago, I lived in north Portland, three blocks from the Metropolitan Area eXpress, euphemistically known as MAX, Portland’s “light rail mass transit” system. Among other results of building MAX, I witnessed the death of Interstate Avenue, when light rail extended to a dead end in North Portland on the banks of the Columbia River.

Where Interstate Avenue had been a lively, prosperous four lane arterial, it was reduced to a single lane in each direction except for “passing” lanes at intersections, following the installation of MAX.

Heralded, as is every system like it including Sound Transit, as a cost effective people mover, it quickly turned into a law enforcement nightmare serving as a conduit for gang members to prey on the public and quickly move around town. MAX destroyed local business along its route by restricting access and removing parking. And, formed a de-facto “Berlin Wall” along its route, simply with its structure of roadbed, tracks, barricades to foot traffic and stations.

My local Safeway store, located on Interstate Avenue, 25 feet from MAX, which served a large area of North Portland, was soon shuttered post MAX, along with any number of small businesses, including a stenographer I employed to type many audio visual scripts for me. She moved out of a very comfortable older Portland house, because of the racket from the trains and lost parking space in front of her home!

And even though Vancouver Washington’s population center has moved 5 miles to the east of downtown Vancouver, light rail proponents keep yammering to extend the dead ended Portland MAX Interstate Line across the Columbia River into a mostly dead downtown Vancouver, requiring an expensive bridge over navigable waters. Once the lawyers and bankers go home, downtown Vancouver shuts down for the night!

Furthermore, and even more important, the only people riding the MAX lived no more than three or four blocks at most from the line. Who feels safe walking home in the dark even for than a block in this era? As a measure of how safe the new Sound Transit light rail promises to be, consider this: 28 new Sound Transit police officers were hired, with 26 new police cars, 65 security guards and 12 ticket enforcement officers.

Reminds me of a motel in Washington DC that my late wife and I got booked into. The manager sought to quell our doubts about staying there by telling me they had an armed security guard on duty during the night!

Fixed rail is a perfect solution for a point-to-point system of transportation, especially over long distance. That is why railroads – for the most part – are successful. But for inner city transit, with its feet literally nailed to the ground – it is inflexible to meet new, changing, or modified population patterns. Stop and think about all the interurban lines that have faded from history.

A sensible, less expensive, more flexible system is based on rubber tires, not steel rails. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is not an inflexible “fixed” system with immovable concrete and steel railroad tracks, which destroy the neighborhoods through which they pass.

Scalable fleets of buses, from articulated buses to passenger vans, are woven into a flexible system that meets the needs of far flung neighborhoods, feeding them like the arterial system of the human body, into pockets of population located away from major arterials.

If a MAX train or, to the south a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train breaks down, that entire leg is frozen until the problem is fixed or buses dispatched!

Bus Rapid Transit is successfully moving people in such cities as Bogotá, Rouen, London, Sydney, Istanbul, Taipei, and closer to home, Boston, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, and Eugene- Springfield. If you’d like to learn more abut this system, start with this study completed by the highly respected firm of Booz, Allen, & Hamilton, then join in the discussion of BRT.

Fixed light rail systems are a massive rabbit hole, down which millions of dollars are spent. They never pay for themselves, and, like other systems before it, Sound Transit will eventually be covered with graffiti, begging for operating funds, slashing service hours, and generally fade in to the background.

So ride it today - this is as good as it will ever get!

The gaiety and hoopla of the last two days will fade away, along with the smiley faces of local, state, and federal personalities, each claiming a their stake in the project. From this day forward, the citizens will pay and pay and pay for this monument to a inefficient fixed mode of transportation.

One can only hope that regional transportation planners will finally come to realize that their purpose is to satisfy the transportation needs of the people, not the puffed up egos of public servants eager to built transportation shrines that burden citizens to subsidize them - forever!

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