Portland is a PR machine for light rail & streetcar

Here are Some Facts About Portland Oregon          

Some Observations on Transportation Policy (part 2)

by Thomas A. Rubin BSBA , MBA, CPA, CMA, CMC, CIA, CGFM, CFM

(Tom Rubin’s comments are identified by TAR: & END TAR)

Land use patterns should be designed to improve pedestrian access, encourage shorter trips, increase public transit use, enhance the economic viability of public transit and decrease private motor vehicle use (auto mobility). Therefore zoning, financing, land-use controls and other policies should:




TAR:  While I have little objection to any of these in and of themselves, what I see as the problem is what is missing – any mention of providing for economic vitality of the region and the economic betterment of the residents and encouraging transit modes and systems that do not require major public sector subsidies.


I also have issues with public sector land use policies that require large public sector expenditures to be viable and those which restrict the ability of land owners to use their lands as they wish, in the absence of very clear and particular damage to others.


By the way, densification often provides for LONGER trips; New York City is by far the densest city in the U.S. and the Greater NYC urbanized area has, by far the longest home-to-work travel times.  The main reason for this is that it has such a high transit mode split, and the average transit trip time is over 50 minutes, compares to about 30 minutes for auto trips.  These modal travel times, both auto and transit, are actually very similar to those for greater Los Angeles, but because the transit mode split is so much lower in LA, the average travel time is also significantly lower.


Some of these should be understood to applicable only where applicable; for example, while sidewalks on both sides of the road is so important in heavy pedestrian use areas that it can be difficult to find places where it doesn't currently exist, there are many roads with less pedestrian utilization, current and potential, that cannot justify the expenditure of sidewalks on both sides of the road, and there are many roads, particularly in rural areas, where expenditures for any sidewalks would have no purpose. Of course, sidewalks on high-speed limited access roads are extremely contra-indicated for safety and other reasons.




Existing communities should be revitalized or retrofitted, as necessary, to achieve these qualities and to enhance their quality of life. Planning And Public Participation Urban transportation systems and land use should be planned for whole regions. Transportation-land use models should fully project the reduction in driving and increase in transit experienced when transit is improved and areas are made more pedestrian accessible (see above); and modelers should provide decision-makers with compact, transit-oriented alternatives.


TAR:  I have no objection to such alternatives being studied and offered to decision-makers for action.


I object strongly to other, often very viable, alternatives NOT being studied, or to being unfairly made to appear lower performing.


Please be aware that densification of land use can, and often does, increase auto usage in the specific area, particularly when done outside of the central city.  If one decides to construct a high-rise residential/commercial/retail center around a suburban train station, for example, it will be very rare for train trips beginning or ending at this station to approach 10% of all trips – and it is likely that the total number of trips will increase very significant because of all the new trip generators – including those people who will be driving to the new center to take a rail trip elsewhere.


If this increase in automotive passenger trip volume, and the far greater increase in rubber tire freight movements, is not provided for in the planning of the project-specific area, there can be major problems.


Indeed, the planning of such centers must consider the very real possibility of far GREATER parking for trips of all kinds – or the likelihood of success of the project can be greatly diminished.  There is a classic case at an apartment complex near a Tri-Met (Portland) light rail station, where the planners wanted to put in ground-floor retail – with NO parking.  After the failure of any commercial lender to write a mortgage on the retail properties – because the lack of parking violated their lending criteria – the government agency involved financed it.


There is only one occupant – a hair-care shop that serves the apartment residents, and very few others – that has not failed.  The total unsuitability of suburban retail without parking has now become so well known that no real estate agent will take the listings and there were not even "for rent" signs on the stores the last time I was by there.


In this context, the policy statement element, "Transportation-land use models should fully project the reduction in driving and increase in transit experienced when transit is improved and areas are made more pedestrian accessible (see above); and modelers should provide decision-makers with compact, transit-oriented alternatives" – can lead to much confusion and suboptimal results if decision-makers are taught to automatically believe that increasing transit means that roads usage and capacity requirements are reduced; in fact, the opposite is often the case, particularly on a micro-level.




The National Environmental Policy Act, and the Clean Air and Water Acts should be complied with fully. Meaningful public participation must take place from the start of development of state and regional transportation plans. Opportunities for participation should be enhanced. The participation of environmental, public transit and low income community groups, including legal help and research, should be publicly funded.


TAR:  As long as it is understood that "opportunities for participation should be enhanced" applies to EVERYONE, fine with me.


By the way, "opportunities for participation" does not mean that people have the opportunity to speak – it means that they will actually be listed to.




Financing and Subsidies


Federal and local subsidies should be provided to those systems (walking, bicycling, public transit, passenger and freight railroads and ferries) and equipment that go further toward achieving accessibility, convenience, efficiency, cleanliness and equity goals, and denied to the other modes.


TAR: This is stated in the format of a goal, which by definition, is not quantifiable, and therefore there are no numbers, nor is there any presentation of the proposed relative scales of the subsidies.


Therefore, as such, this is really just a statement of the status quo:


 Walking – which generates no revenues what-so-ever, with the possible exception of citations for jaywalking and sales taxes on the sales of shoes, is therefore completely, or almost completely, subsidized.  The subsidy percentage is large – generally, 100% – but the dollar value is generally small.

Bicycling is also almost free of any revenue generation to governments, again with the minor exception of cycle licenses and the somewhat more significant sales tax revenues from the sales of cycles, cycling clothing and accessories, etc.  On the other hand, the additional costs of cycling are relatively minor in most regards, as most transportation (as opposed to recreational) cycling is done on the road network that was designed for motorized "rubber tire" traffic.  Again, we have high subsidy percentages, but the dollar values per use are generally fairly small for most well-structured, well-utilized cycling "transportation" projects.  (I am referring to "transportation" cycling projects to differentiate them from "recreational" cycling projects, such as most off-road cycling.  While there is some crossover, in most cases, the best starting point is to separate project proposals by purpose and to have different funding and project evaluation methodologies for each.)


Public transit has been substantially subsidized by all levels of government for decades.  The percentages are large – nationally, in the 75-80% range, in total, with certain types of projects both significantly better (meaning lower taxpayer subsidy) and below.  Certain types of new projects, particularly rail projects and other non-road projects, can have very high subsidies (for many years, the cut-off point for Federal evaluation of guideway transit projects for dedicated Federal transit capital grants was $25 per new rider; there are any number of recent rail transit projects that have failed to achieve this standard).


Passenger transit – which, because "public transit" is shown as the previous line item, evidently refers to intercity passenger transit – is also heavily subsidized by government (or, more properly, by the taxpayers who do not receive direct benefits).  Amtrac, in particular, has never come remotely close to fulfilling the promise that was made when it was formed of becoming self-sufficient and I know of no one with any real understanding of the subject who has any expectations that it ever will.  Other intercity rail, which is primarily a state-subsidized function in the U.S., is similarly structured to require substantial governmental subsidies for the foreseeable future.  The various proposed high-speed rail projects around the nation are also projected to require huge construction subsidies, with the requirement for continuing operating subsidies also a strong possibility in at least some cases.  The percentage subsidies are fairly low compared to other non-auto modes reviewed here, with the better lines well under 50%, but the per-ride subsidies can be very high, in the hundreds of dollars for trans-continental service.

 There is some question if freight railroads receive governmental subsidies or not, and this is a discussion that has been on-going for well over a century.  At the current time, it is probably fair to state that, to the extent that governmental subsidies of freight railroads do exist, they are relatively minor, at least on a percentage of cost basis, compared to the major modes above, particularly public transit and passenger rail.  It is difficult to compare "subsidy per," because, for passenger travel, the metric is subsidy per passenger, while for goods movement, it is subsidy per ton, and there is no generally accepted basis for comparing these similar, but very different, metrics against each other.


In my experience, much of the existing "subsidies" to freight rail are in the form of infrastructure improvements to track and other facilities to allow the operation of passenger rail on freight rights-of-way (which often provide significant benefits for freight movements), grade separation of road crossings to reduce the safety hazards, and intermodal freight connections, particularly improving freight railroad access to ports with public dollars.  (What I do not understand is why there is a need to subsidize what is organized in the U.S. as a for-profit business, and is operated as such.  The shippers, acting as surrogates for their ultimate customers, the buying public, appear to be willing to pay a fair market price for moving freight on rails when rail is the superior option.  If the for-profit business is being asked by a public sector body to do something that has no direct benefit to the business and its owners, then the business should be adequately compensated for this.  However, if the "payment" is in the form of a capital improvement to allow someone else to use the rail line and that improvement also provides benefits to the business, then this may reasonably be considered as a subsidy, depending on the details of the particulars.)


Although air transportation is not specifically mentioned in this section, its inclusion in other portions of this statement makes me believe that it may be one of the modes the author(s) had in mind for the "other" modes that were to be denied subsidies.  For air transport, while the vast majority of the costs are paid out of user fees, here there does appear to be significant dollar value of subsidies.  In recent years, much of this has been driven by security concerns, particularly those post-9/11.  I agree that there should be direction to make air transportation revenue-neutral to taxpayers, which, in my opinion, can be achieved in larger part through more efficient functioning of the governmental end of air transport (getting the FAA and its various systems to the point where air traffic flow is not delayed by system shortcomings – or there is serious consideration of replacing the public sector with the private for this purpose; more cost-effective approaches to security) and by proper application of market pricing of airport gates, chiefly by period usage fees driven by demand.  Once complicating factor here is that the nation's air transportation system is used for both passenger and freight transportation, which would appear to require segregation of subsidies, to the extent they do exist, between passenger and freight transportation, which cannot be done precisely to the extent of general acceptance.  In general, the percentage subsidy for air transportation -- both passenger and freight -- is small compared to most of the other modes.  The subsidy per passenger or per ton is high compared to some other modes, but when the subsidy is computed on a passenger-mile basis, it tends to very low.  Subsidies per ton-mile tend to be higher, primarily because air transportation tends to be used primarily for high-value, low-weight goods.

 Again, I note certain significant transportation modes are not mentioned, including water transportation (except for the rather minor case of passenger ferries – which are proposed for government subsidies, ignoring the far more significant water freight movements), pipelines, and electronic information transmission.  (I'll skip the examination of subsidies for these, which quickly gets rather complex for the instant purpose.)  The most prominent government operated transportation system, the U.S. Postal Service, is also unmentioned, but it has been rechartered to operate as a break-even enterprise, which it appears to be at or approaching.


This leaves the road transportation system, which is recommended for no subsidization by government.  I concur in the overall recommendation, with note taken that this should not be understood to mean that this test should be applied to the road system in total, not to each individual road or class of road; in fact, certain roads, particularly multi-lane freeways with high usage, tend to be "money-makers," while less utilized residential and urban roads are generally not.  It should also be understood to focus on "hard" costs and to specifically exclude many of the more exotic proposed soft costs.

From my personal research on the subject, it appears that, taken as a whole, the "hard costs" of the U.S. road system, is not only not subsidized, but is actually a significant "money-maker" for governments.  The best data on this is from FHWA Highway Statistics series, which in recent years tends to show that the user fees collected for road use, mainly "cents per gallon" charges for fuel, tend to be approximately 70% range of road expenditures.  Unfortunately, the FHWA reports do not comprehend certain important governmental revenues from road use, particularly sales taxes on fuel and autos, auto parts, etc., unless they are dedicated to transportation at their source, which is only a minor portion of such fees.  When such user fees are included, it appears that road users are paying their hard costs, and then some.


(This is not to say that there are no direct governmental subsidies for roads.  In almost every jurisdiction, there are property taxes or other taxes utilized to support local roads, particularly those lighter used residential and rural roads I mentioned above.  This subsidy has been somewhat lightened in recent years by the move to require new developments to either have the initial road infrastructure provided by the developers and/or the payment of impact fees, which I also support.  However, while local roads are frequently supported by non-road user fees, the amount paid in road user fees appears to significantly larger.

 (It is also important to recognize that many of the user fees paid by road users do not go for roads.  The most obvious example is the $.184 Federal gasoline/$.244 Federal diesel charge, over 15% of which is directed to Federal transit subsidies, not even considering the exemption of transit vehicles operating on roads from paying such fees.  Obviously, if such road user fees are shifted to transit – not to mention the various programmatic allocations and "earmarks" of gas/diesel road use fees for "transportation" purposes that often appear to have little, if any, actual transportation purpose other than incidental – they are not available for road maintenance and construction, which is one of the reason why the shortfall in road infrastructure has reached the current crisis stage.  There are many similar allocations of road user fees to non-road uses at the state and local level, such as the nickel of the Texas $.20/gallon charge that goes for schools.)


I am very much in favor of higher per gallon charges for road use, with the understanding that road use fees should go for road maintenance and expansion.  I am a strong supporter of transit, which should be considered a "general fund" expenditure of government, along with an understanding that the taxpayers deserve that transit expenditures should be for productive and cost-effective transit systems that are designed to provide mobility for users, with the primary focus on those who have limited mobility options due their age, physical condition, and/or economic status.


Shifting gears for a moment, the purpose of public transit is the provision of mobility.  While there are certainly secondary benefits of transit, when there are attempts to design transit systems around these secondary benefits, it generally turns out that this is not productive, wastes taxpayer funds, and often significantly hurts the people who are most dependent on transit for its transportation benefits.  In any case, the best way to maximize the secondary benefits of transit is to focus on the mobility aspects of transit; for example, transit best contributes to air quality improvement by increasing mobility for those economically-challenged individuals that would otherwise be getting their mobility by driving "junkers" – which are often 100, or even 1,000, times as dirty as current generation rubber tire vehicles.  Interestingly, one of the best ways to increase transit use – and to do it quickly – is to reduce fares, something that has had great success, but is very little used by transit planners and public officials that would rather "build something" – even if that would be far less productive and cost-effective utilization of taxpayer transit subsidies.


I find it troubling that the stated rationale for the above policy proposal – "accessibility, convenience, efficiency, cleanliness and equity goals" – are presented as if the modes proposed for subsidy are superior to those that are proposed to be denied subsidies, when, in actuality, the reverse is very often the case.  Indeed, the very reason that the modes proposed for subsidies require subsidies is that they have been proven by the workings of the marketplace to be significantly lower performing on several of these goals to the modes that are being "looked down on" by this policy.  The reason that transit carries approximately 2% of the U.S. passenger trips – and, of course, virtually none of the freight movements – is that the auto has proven to be far superior in terms of accessibility, convenience, and efficiency, and, to be kind, it is often very questionable if transit is superior in cleanliness and equity, even for that small percentage of U.S. trips where transit is even an option.  (By way, the problem with attempting to make transit an option for more trips is that, while transit is generally not very competitive with the auto on most trips where transit service now exists, the places where transit now exists are pretty much where it works best; expanding transit to other areas where it does not currently exist means, in most cases, that the new service will be less cost-effective and productive than the existing service, in some cases, significantly so. Attempts to provide transit service that will be competitive with the auto on the criteria which are most important to the potential riders –accessibility, speed of travel, wide coverage, high frequency, etc., etc. – often produces costs that are so high that very little such service, adding very few additional riders, is possible.


So my message is clear, I am most certainly not saying that there are no opportunities for providing new and valuable transit services in this nation, nor for improving existing services; a significant portion of my professional practice involves exactly this concept.  What I am saying is that expectations for such have to be reasonable, in light of what transit is capable of doing.  If the objective is to increase transit use in a specific urban area by, say, 10%, over a period of a few years, that is often well within the realm of possibility.


If the objective is to double transit use in a large urban area over a decade, my response is that traditional transit thinking, which focuses primarily on expensive new capital projects, has never achieved anything remotely close to such a result; indeed, the urbanized areas that have come the closest to such results (I'm thinking primarily Las Vegas, but mention should be made of Los Angeles increasing transit ridership over 40% in three years) did so by improving, expanding, and/or reducing the fares on conventional bus service.




Such subsidies are especially needed to correct the history of heavy subsidies to motor vehicles, including trucks.


TAR:  The "history of heavy subsidies to motor vehicles" is presented as a fact.


While a policy statement of this type is generally not expected to include the detailed support for such statements, it is generally accepted that there documentation of such available.


In this case, I find the statement so remarkable that it cannot be accepted at face value.  As I have stated above, I find that, at the present time, road users generally pay more than all of the direct costs of the roads that they use.


... and I DO have documentation available.





 Part 1  part 2  part 3  part 4     Pdf of this document

Part 1  part 3  part 4  

Pdf of this document