Portland Struggles to Remain a Leader in Public Transit

Thanks to Joe Gall for posting this article on LinkedIn.

BY: , GOVERNING | MARCH 2012

Reduced revenue and federal funding, combined with unsustainable employee costs, are making it difficult for the Oregon city to stay on top.

When Peter Rogoff, the head of the Federal Transit Administration, visited Portland, Ore., earlier this year, local leaders and transit officials were abuzz. The city’s identity has long been tied to its reputation as a transit leader, and hosting the highest transit official in the land helped bolster those credentials.

Rogoff, in town as part of a conference on streetcars that drew local leaders from across the country, took time to praise the region while visiting the nearly completed Southwest Moody Avenue renovation. The $51 million project, which includes new traffic lanes, a bike and pedestrian path, and links to light rail and streetcar lines, is key to the region’s efforts to expand its transit system. But it means more than that to the city. It’s also touted as a way to encourage millions in redevelopment of the nearby waterfront.

The city and regional transit agency, Rogoff said in a press release, “have hit a home run with this project and demonstrate the enormous economic benefits transit can deliver to a community.” Rogoff’s presence at the site was a fitting capstone, since U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had been on hand for its groundbreaking a year earlier.

But the timing of the Rogoff visit could have been better: About 36 hours earlier, the suburban community of Lake Oswego, some seven miles south of downtown Portland, withdrew its support for a proposed new transit line that would have vastly expanded the Portland streetcar system. The withdrawal was due in part to questions about costs, which were initially pegged at $458 million. The decision was front page news in the local newspaper — and a bad omen for Portland. Despite Rogoff’s celebratory remarks, the decision makes the future of the new line unclear.

The Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet), the regional transit agency that runs buses, commuter rail and light rail, faces a budget shortfall of up to $17 million next fiscal year. The Portland Bureau of Transportation, which manages the streetcar, faces a $16 million gap. Local officials are still crafting those budgets, but it’s virtually certain that leaders of a region long known for a commitment to multimodal transportation will have to increase fares and reduce service to balance budgets in 2013. Especially significant will be 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. What’s less clear is how significant Portland’s transit challenges are in the long term. Most government leaders here say they are temporary setbacks that won’t change the region’s future priorities. But some critics say that’s exactly what needs to happen.

Read the rest of the article at http://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-portland-oregon-struggles-to-remain-leader-in-public-transit.html