Editor’s Note: City Observatory is pleased to present this guest commentary from GB Arrington, longtime veteran of Portland’s transit and land use planning systems, explaining why he’s against a proposed $5 billion transportation bond measure proposed by Metro that will be voted in the Portland region this November.
By GB Arrington
When I stepped down as TriMet’s Director of Strategic and Long Range Planning, the TriMet Board gave me a fancy brass clock engraved with “You may not like the message, but you know it’s true.” So, here is the unvarnished truth, a vote for Metro’s $5 billion Transportation Bond Measure will hurt the region’s livability. It’s a bad idea, and that is why I’m voting no.
The measure Metro referred to the voters is an example of broken old-time transportation politics. You will be voting on a Christmas tree loaded down with sprawl inducing road projects and a new MAX light rail line to Washington County that simply does not stand up to rigorous analysis. Metro paved the measure’s way to the ballot by giving every part of the region an earmark for a pet project. New suburban highway capacity in Clackamas County. Bridge replacement in Multnomah County. Quicker access to Port of Portland airport parking garages.
For two plus decades my job at TriMet was to help set the future direction and weigh in on the decisions required to help assure the success of TriMet and the region. I was part of the team planning the region’s first MAX lines. I sat at the table shaping Metro’s Region 2040 land use and transportation plan. And I lead the planning to create livable mixed-use communities around the east and westside MAX lines. Collectively, we worked to ensure the livability of the region’s residents and getting more riders for TriMet.
The opening of the Portland Transit Mall in 1978, when I was a young planner, was the region’s first installment in a signature strategy that would repeat itself over and over — using transit investments to help achieve broader community building objectives. In that case to help revitalize a declining downtown. After decades of hard work, the Portland region rightly won global acclaim for how it pioneered linking new transit investments with land use to leverage its vision to “grow up, not out.”
Sadly, Metro has now chosen conventional political pork barrel over being the steward of the region’s livability. Metro’s proposed transportation measure departs from its past track record of success and innovation. The most expensive project in the package, the $2.8 billion SW Corridor light rail project, is a perfect case in point on what’s wrong. Don’t be fooled by the hyperbole, the SW Corridor has always been a very expensive politically driven project with marginal transit and land use benefits.
The region did the best MAX corridors first. So, it should come as no surprise that corridor number eight does not stack-up well compared to corridor one, two or three. That may help explain why ridership on recent MAX lines have failed to meet projections. The newest line to Milwaukie forecasted 17,000 average daily riders by 2016. So far, before COVID, it has averaged less than 11,000 daily riders – 35 percent less than promised.
Some inherent challenges unavoidably came with the territory when TriMet and Metro chose a politically expedient low-density auto-dominated corridor for MAX line number eight. At the end of the day, compared to other MAX projects, the SW Corridor has too few riders, costs too much, and does too little to continue the region’s legacy of using transit to create livable vibrant equitable transit-oriented places.
TriMet and Metro are counting on 50 percent of the SW Corridor’s funding to come from the Federal government. I helped write the federal rules to evaluate which projects qualify for funding. Demand nationally for federal transit funding has grown by about 70% over the past few years.
With limited discretionary federal funds, the national competition is highly competitive. Apart from the politics, the equation for who gets funded is pretty simple. The capital costs of each project are divided by its benefits (ridership and transit friendly land use). Projects that meet the criteria set by Congress are then eligible for funding. The critical numbers the federal government will be looking at to evaluate the SW Corridor are moving in the wrong direction. Ridership forecasts have gone down more than 12 percent this year, while capital costs to build the project have climbed and climbed. Fewer benefits and more costs. That may add-up to a fatal flaw in the region’s financial plan for getting federal funding. The SW Corridor also fails to actually connect to important destinations in this part of the region.
A big unknown for the project remains unanswered. How to serve “Pill Hill,” —Oregon Health and Science University—the biggest ridership generator on the corridor. TriMet is more than a year late with a multi-million dollar decision on the Marquam Hill Connector to move some 10,000 daily riders up nearly 120 vertical feet from the Gibbs Street station and then disperse them in different directions, another 100–200 feet higher on the hill. TriMet can’t tell you the cost, the technology or how it gets paid for. Similarly, the light rail line also doesn’t serve Portland Community College’s Sylvania Campus.
Don’t just take my word on the SW Corridor projects flaws. Former Metro President David Bragdon, now executive director of the TransitCenter, a New York City think tank, summed up it up well for Willamette Week in March:
“The current low-density land uses and auto-dominant street design along Barbur [Boulevard] are big challenges. For a line to succeed, it needs to have a whole lot more housing and job density, and much more pedestrian-oriented streetscapes and station areas, than that corridor currently does.”
It saddens me to vote no. I love the Portland region. And I’m privileged to have been a pioneer in helping set the direction for transit and land use in Portland over nearly a quarter of a century.
I’ve spent the next 20 years as a consultant working in more than 25 states and eight foreign counties applying the lessons I learned in Portland. So, I’m very surprised TriMet and Metro lost sight of their job to deliver livability to the region’s citizens. Going along with political backslapping and road building is not what made the region stand out as a global model of livability. Pursuing political business as usual is a sure- fired recipe for making Portland more like sprawling auto-oriented Houston than the Portland we have long worked and aspired to be. I ask you to join me in voting no and committing to work with TriMet and Metro to get the region to get back on the right track.
GB Arrington was TriMet’s Director of Strategic and Long Range Planning in a career that spanned from 1975 to 1999. He left to join Parsons Brinckerhoff (now WSP) where he led a global planning and design practice from 1999 to 2012. Time Magazine highlighted GB’s plan for Tysons Corner, VA as one of “10 Ideas for Changing the World Right Now.” GB is a Former board member and a founder ofRail~Volution. Since 2012 he has been the principal of GB Place Making, LLC.