At the TriMet board meeting on Wednesday, the agency’s General Manager Neil McFarlane pushed back against claims that he’s a “freeway builder.”
Last month we shared news (first reported by The Portland Tribune) that McFarlane advocated for three freeway expansion projects in the Portland region during a speech to the Washington County Public Affairs Forum on February 20th. The comments were met with strong criticism by transportation reform activists who felt the leader of our region’s transit agency should not be stumping for projects that expand urban freeway capacity and make driving easier.
McFarlane’s comments, combined with growing political momentum to invest in these freeway projects, motivated activsts to air their concerns during public testimony at the TriMet board meeting. McFarlane’s comments also prompted a letter from a new coalition of nine major nonprofit groups — including AARP Oregon — that our region would only support a funding package that included as much active transportation investment as freeway expansion investment. That letter garnered a highly supportive response from the entire Metro Council.
On Wednesday, after hearing nearly an hour of public testimony from people concerned about McFarlane’s comments (and a range of other issues), McFarlane was given a chance to respond.
“I want to defend myself as being Neil McFarlane the freeway builder,” he said. “As the guy who’s been responsible — at one level or another — for five of our region’s six light rail lines and probably more active transportation investments than just about any other agency.”
“In this era of false news reports, fake news, and alternative facts, I encourage people to look at the original source.”
— Neil McFarlane during a February 20th speech at the Washington County Public Affairs Forum
He went on to say that his remarks in the Tribune were true, but they were taken out of context. “It was a recognition of a need of a comprehensive transportation solution for this region.” McFarlane urged people to watch a recording of the video available online. “I’d encourage anyone to watch the tape,” he said. “In this era of false news reports, fake news, and alternative facts, I encourage people to look at the original source.”
McFarlane told his board and members of the public that his February speech also mentioned “the importance of sidewalks and active transportation improvements”. “I was just outlining a package,” he reiterated, “Not prioritizing one over the other.”
Since we also reported on his remarks, I went back and listened to the original source. McFarlane is right that he did talk about other things besides the freeway expansion projects — but those comments were not made in reference to a forthcoming funding package. In the part of his speech that dealt with the need to raise funding for transportation projects he only spoke about the SW Corridor transit project and the three freeway projects (I-5 at the Rose Quarter, I-205 at the Abernethy Bridge, and Highway 217 on the west side).
Here’s the relevant part of his February 20th speech:
“The next thing I’m going to talk about might surpise you a little bit coming from the transit guy here. I want to talk about the need to begin to address … there are three big bottlenecks in this region that it would be really nice to make some progress on… we’re hoping that the state legislature will add these priorities in the next year…What we’ve mapped out is a strategy to fund those four big projects.”
McFarlane said he is “optimistic we can get this done.” He said TriMet and ODOT have worked in tandem in the past. “On Highway 26, we built the light rail line and ODOT widened the highway… This is the way we have done things.”
You can watch McFarlane’s speech at the Washington County Public Affairs Forum here and his defense of those remarks on TriMet’s YouTube channel.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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Thanks for reporting his response.
He says “this is the way we have done things,” but the status quo doesn’t work anymore. As Jessica said in her testimony, we need bold leadership from TriMet, and Neil McFarlane is not cutting it.
Exactly Evan! One thing that’s going on in society right now is that people are rejecting the “way we have done things”… in my opinion most public agencies and people like McFarlane don’t fully appreciate that fact. in other words.. times have changed and they are not adapting fast enough.
What an uninspiring pitch.
Why—as the transit guy—can’t he, if he’s going to speak to freeways at all, advocate for a Bus/HOV lane that would give his buses priority on the clogged I-5. Many many cities and countries do this. California even. I regularly sit in the #96 Trimet on I5 northbound, from Wilsonville (most recently this Wednesday from 5:08pm (Carman Drive) to 5:48pm (SW Jefferson and first Avenue), and the bus receives exactly zero prioritization, but is stuck with all the thousands of SOVs in the predictable rush hour, produced by the SOVs, pointedly not the handful of Trimet buses.
I wonder why hundreds (thousands?) of cities around the world give priority to buses in circumstances like this? I wonder if any transportation planners or General Managers of transit agencies imagined that that sort of prioritization might—just might—motivate some to jettison their SOV and take the bus instead?
Why no lane for buses? Because there isn’t a lane to give them. You cannot give 1/2 or 1/3 of your lanes to an occasional bus – doesn’t make sense.
I said Bus/HOV lane.
If there’s no one during rush hour who is willing to carpool, then the lane will be empty until folks get frustrated stuck in traffic alongside an empty lane, and realize what it would take for them to be… in that mostly empty lane.
In the bay area, even after giving HOV stickers to people in hybrids and electric cars, there still aren’t enough people using it, so they do demand-based pricing using the same electronic transponders as the bridges.
What’s bizarre to me is that so many drivers speed indiscriminately here; it seems to have gotten almost as bad as L.A. in the relatively short time I’ve lived here. But the only time I see police officers are at rush hour watching the HOV lanes for solo drivers. The fine is the same for running a red light, which IMO is way more dangerous.
Out in Washington County, I haven’t seen a sheriff patrol thru the neighborhood in months. But right before the next time we vote for a tax increase for more police spending they’ll be coming thru regularly. Don’t give ’em a dime. Get a 9 and take care of yourself.
Have you requested patrols? We do, and they frequently set up in our neighborhood to watch for speeding during the school dropoff time.
“there still aren’t enough people using it”
Hm. I wonder about that. That tells me that either traffic’s not as bad as people think, or that people are mistaking a mostly empty HOV lane for an underutilized one.
Thanks to your pushback, Pete, I did a bit of reading on the success/failure of HOV lanes in the literature.
It turns out that the proportion of preexisting high-occupancy vehicles on a highway critically affects an additional HOV lane’s advantages compared to a general-purpose lane.
What I didn’t know is that there does seem to be some debate about their efficacy, and a realization that there are a bunch of variables at play, not all of which can be maximized simultaneously. Interesting.
The part that intrigued me most about these studies was the finding that apparently most people prefer to be stuck in traffic than to coordinate schedules/routes with another person. If we bring this insight to bear on the question at hand, which is freeway widening, I think we could make the case that perhaps the congestion problem is less of an issue than we perhaps thought.
In other words, if those stuck in traffic are unwilling to, you know, take steps to alleviate the problem within a context where an HOV lane is offered then why should the taxpayers “solve” (I mean throw tens or hundreds of millions at) this issue?
“…most people prefer to be stuck in traffic than to coordinate schedules/routes with another person.”
I do think that’s a big part of it, but I’m guilty of that with my lifestyle. I carpooled through the winter, biking to my colleague’s house then paying to ride with him, but in the summer I tend to go kitesurfing or mountain or road biking after work (all of which require hauling equipment to my office 45 miles away). I imagine that families make the same excuses given their kids’ activities.
BTW, I totally agree with your proposition that it makes more sense to let people endure traffic than throw taxpayer money at it, but then again I neither sit in traffic daily nor rationalize that I’m not to blame for our problems. A related subject recently came up on LinkedIn with this fellow’s impassioned plea to our local government to save the public ironically from years of mostly its own abuse:
(Gonna be fun when the days get longer; I’m training to do the 90-mile round-trip commute by bike, but not willing to do certain stretches at dusk just yet).
I-5 needs bus/hov lanes for the entire length from SW Portland to Vancouver, both directions. I-205 needs the same from Camas south.
Does anyone here know why we don’t have these? Or hear Monsieur McFarlane clamoring for them? I must be missing something.
No body uses them. They do NOT work – they make congestion worse by removing 1 lane.
they don’t always – maybe never – ‘remove’ lanes for this, Seattle added lanes or converted wide shoulders for their HOV lanes.
To say that a lane is being removed you are revealing that you conceive of yourself as a single occupant vehicle driver. Because if you did not do this you would see this as freeing up an existing travel lane for your (unencumbered) use. It is akin to when people moan that a ‘lane has been removed on Foster’ when what has been done is add bike lanes in both directions plus a turn lane. Glass half empty?
One reason is that you need a complete third lane system or there would be no buy in from Tri-Met or the truck lobby. I hate to say it, but the highway expansion package is the only politically feaseable way to get a comprehensive HOV lane system. Since we have no other way to pay for it but congestion priced tolling, it would be a net gain for the region if done right. Then we can remove east bank I 5. http://www.wweek.com/news/city/2017/03/24/mayor-ted-wheeler-offers-new-money-for-roads-and-sidewalks-and-an-ambitious-vision-for-the-east-bank-of-the-willamette/
Furthermore, even if they do convert and existing lane, it is not ‘removed’; there are just additional criteria – a few passengers in the vehicle along with the driver – you need to meet in order to use it.
Nobody? Meaning..if one stands next to an HOV lane…no two people will use it…ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever? Never…ever ever?
Current Federal law prohibits conversion of general purpose lanes to exclusive uses like HOV and Transit. That’s why you see places building new when adding HOV lanes.
The same goes for tolling already paid for freeways versus the new toll lanes that are built.
It would be nice, I think, if the current administration, wanting to cut government and all, might consider devolving more of the Federal gas tax to State control and changing the rules so that Freeways could be managed locally with things like toll lanes and HOV lanes. Keeping in place Federal research and safety standards, but letting local jurisdictions determine operational needs, instead of the one way to do things for every place in the nation mentality.
We would still have the Texas’s widening failures, and Mississippi’s low funding models, but we might also get Portland and Seattle HOV lanes and toll roads for freeway maintenance – world class congestion management and funding models not currently allowed.
Interesting. Thanks for that clarification.
Where is Neil’s resignation ?
It wouldn’t mean much with his massive retirement.
Neil, ODOT largely forgot about SW Canyon Road.
Thanks Neil for your past work.
However, the past doesn’t mean you get a free pass when advocating for one of the more regressive expenditures of transportation funding proposed for this region in a long time. The return on investment from freeway expansion is small and temporary. In time–likely a short time–the roads will be congested again. Then what will we have to show for our expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars of our hard-earned treasure? Scant little. The opportunity cost of these freeway projects is too high to justify them.
ODOT, as the strongest regressive transportation force in our urban area makes a poor bedfellow.
On point the Hwy 26 widening. The bid from beginning to end was a 2 year project. It took 14 years. I commuted this way for over a decade and the final result was 1 additional lane each way. The cost also went up by between 7 and 10 times during the alleged fixed bid project. From month to month the construction area was used for equipment storage as the vast majority was never used from year to year.
That project didn’t include a multiuse path for the north side of the freeway.
The reason why people came to the public hearing was that he came out in favor of three highway widening projects. Whether or not he also mentioned other active transportation measures does not make this less unacaptable.
unacceptable — sorry for the typo. Typing in a phone while watching kids …
The MAX and widened Hwy 26 have made it easier to get to downtown from the west side. MAX is slow, but if it’s rush hour, it can be worth the slow trip. So, they did a pretty good job there. Not saying any of it was an efficient use of taxpayer money, but it does help move people.
“On Highway 26, we built the light rail line and ODOT widened the highway… This is the way we have done things.”
They widened Hwy 26 to Hillsboro, and diverted the light rail through Beaverton.
Imagine if instead of that highway expansion they built MAX directly out to Hillsboro (in the same ROW). Thousands of Intel employees could take a direct train to work on the Blue line (and you could have the Red line go through Beaverton and continue SW instead of the WES).
Freeway ROW is typically a terrible place to build mass transit. It is very hard to build density along the line. This is why the green line still has lackluster ridership.
So perhaps Hwy 26 to NE Cornell and follow that out through Tanasbourne, past Intel’s campus (N end of Orenco), and then on to the center of Hillsboro.
Of course, it’s kind of crazy that we have to pick the one or two rail lines and pretend they’ll serve entire cities, and meanwhile build huge networks of auto infrastructure in every direction.
Maybe the lackluster ridership is due to lack of rezoning the nearby land for multi-unit dwellings.
No one wants to live next to the freeway. You can zone it as densely as you want. They are currently building a storage unit building right next to the NE 60th MAX stop.
So, that brand new multi-story apartment and mixed use building at I-84 and 33rd is empty?
problem with theories, they may never be proved but can be disproved with one example.
My “theory” was obviously hyperbole, but you get the point. This is a well-documented issue with rapid transit systems.
As somone who lives within a mile of the green line, I would suggest the lackluster ridership is also (maybe moreso) due to how long it takes the green line to get near downtown. Especially for the southern portions the green line takes a lot longer to get downtown than just driving in.
“In this era of false news reports, fake news, and alternative facts, I encourage people to look at the original source.”
Did the head of TriMet just call BikePortland fake news?
These days I’d be keen to not ally myself with others who throw that phrase around indiscriminately.
The Tribune? His statement is confusing.
Grammar can be so useful.
I assumed when reading the pull quote at the top of the article that it was a typo, but no, he really says: “I want to defend myself as being Neil McFarlane the freeway builder.”
Except that is the exact opposite of what he ‘s trying to say. What he meant to say is:
“I want to defend myself against the charge that I’m Neil McFarlane the freeway builder.”
people often do not say what they mean. Small omissions on this site are often blown out of proportion as well.
If people don’t say what they mean it makes communication needlessly difficult.
I mentally punctuated it as “I want to defend myself as being ‘Neil McFarlane the freeway builder.’ “
the problem remains: ‘as’ is not the correct word for that sentence, no matter the punctuation.
Widening I-5 in the center of the city = increasing the number of cars = increasing air pollution where there is the greatest population density = based on an old model of dead urban centers that is not appropriate for Portland, but lingers in the minds of suburban-living “transportation planners.”
When will these folks finally retire, go away, let us get on with the business of actually solving these problems in creative, inspiring ways rather than kicking the can forever down the proverbial road?
So, it’s better if thousands of cars sit idling for 2 hours during the AM and PM rush hour?
We already have that now.
Yes, we do, so why not give them some lanes so they can get out of town and stop spewing crap into the air?
That is not how it works.
What you suggest is delusional, a fantasy, nothing more.
Look up Induced Demand and Latent Demand, and get back to us about your theories.
For real case studies, check out stories about the Katy highway expansion, or the I-405 in Los Angeles.
My understanding is that, in spite of the population growing by millions of people during the expansion, when it was finished the traffic was no worse than before it began. That’s got to count for something.
Increasing freeway width increases the number of idling cars. Improvements in traffic flow are fleeting at best. This has been demonstrated again and again. In the center of a city with multiple on ramps, off ramps and merging highways the gains in “flow” are even less. I-5 widening is essentially building a bigger parking lot for peak traffic time commuters.
Should we just go down to one lane then? I mean if more lanes is just a bigger parking lot…
That depends. Do we invest in ways to move more people using less space? How many transit vehicles would it take to move the same number of people as one congested lane?
We can see this a couple different ways. One is that it reduces congestion for drivers by taking other would-be drivers off the road. Another is that it’s just an efficient way to move people in cities. (The part of induced/latent demand that we don’t really mention is that getting more people out of cars and onto bikes and buses also makes driving easier, which causes other people to start driving.)
So, yes. Start by asking how many people you want moving around your city and then figure out how you’d like them to get around. And invest your transportation money accordingly.
Wait..adding lanes removes traffic…forever? Finally…we have a solution. Someone call the Oregonian.
Same argument that was made when the Tillikum bridge was being built: with existing bridges across the Willamette being congested at rush hour all the time, how dare they build a new bridge without additional vehicle lanes?
So, I took a closer look at the existing bridges across the Willamette near downtown. Just in central Portland (from the Fremont Bridge down to the Ross Island) there are forty-three vehicle lanes across the river. What’s adding two more going to accomplish? Besides clogging up two more neighborhoods – South Waterfront, and the OMSI area – with car traffic they can’t handle, of course.
And that’s kind of the point: any transportation professional can tell you that bridges generally have twice the traffic capacity per lane that ordinary roads do (due to the lack of intersections). The bottleneck isn’t the bridges themselves: even when you have to wait half an hour to get on the Ross Island Bridge – as I have many times – it often flows freely once you’re on it, but then gets bunched up again near the end. Because the infrastructure on the ends – where people start going in different directions and/or merging – is maxed out.
To circle back to freeways, that’s more or less what you’ve got going on with this segment of I-5. As I pointed out below, you’ve got four major flows of traffic – Belmont/Morrison Bridge/downtown, I-84, Broadway and the north end of 405 – exiting and merging in a relatively short distance. The problem isn’t enough lanes, it’s too many exits. There isn’t enough room between them for the mixing zones to be free flowing at even moderate volume. Additional lanes won’t help anyone but the construction industry and those whose bread they butter.
To celebrate the 200th birthday of the invention of the bicycle, I propose adding 2 lanes in each direction to all metro freeways!
Smokey Bear for Director of Trimet Active Transportation Office! Let’s Make Transportation Great Again!
But who would want to ride on them and suck all that pollution tho?
Are you getting tired of Cheeto Winning?
Wow, talk about arrogant: Neil takes credit for five of the six MAX lines? Neil, hun, time for reality check.
LRT was made possible by many people. Not the least of which was the faith of the people of the tri-county region TriMet purports to support.
MAX was a visionary project far-ahead of it’s time but is perhaps entering a period of diminishing returns regarding it’s continual expansion. It is precisely this narrow-focus on MAX by Neil and the small thinkers at TriMet which is responsible for the mess we find ourselves in today. They should pursue an aggressive BRT system to supplement MAX but instead we get more of the same. Mega projects with mega price tags. Not going to work in this new political era.
Freeway widening in Portland makes sense. Especially the two-lane sections of I-5. I don’t see any evidence that transit and active transportation are being ignored. Transportation infrastructure should be built to accommodate all road users, and that includes highway projects for drivers.
Arguing that all people or road users have a reasonable right to transit and should be accommodated makes sense, but arguing that all modes of road use should be invested in based on the modal distribution that is currently in place is flawed. Moreover, supporting the status quo of modal distribution undermines the premise that people should have reasonably equal access to safe streets, clean air and safe transportation. You have complained about not being able to afford housing with better transportation options as well as the limits of public transportation. However, you are also saying that access to mass transit is fine the way it is and that money is better spent on accommodating single occupancy vehicle trips rather than significantly expanding mass transit. Investing in single occupancy vehicle trips is investing in one of the most wasteful and costly acts that people do en masse. All travel modes are not equal in there cost/ benefit to society and they should not be falsely viewed as being equal.
Besides Induced Demand (which is kind of a DUH to anyone who knows anything about transportation planning), there are other problems with fixing the I-5 “bottleneck”:
– It isn’t truly a bottleneck. There are several nearby segments of highway that will suddenly reach capacity and become congested if this “bottleneck” is “fixed.”
– Much of the congestion is due to large volumes of traffic entering and existing I-5 at I-405, Broadway, Morrison Bridge/Belmont and I-84 in a short distance. There are 4 of these major “mixing zones” in the space of a little more than a mile. NO number of additional lanes will solve this. Accept that at peak times, some congestion here is normal.
Know what makes more sense than widening I-5 between the Rose Quarter and I-84? Ripping out I-5 from I-84 down to where it meets the south end of 405. Including the Marquam Bridge. Rip down all that elevated monstrosity and redesignate I-405 as I-5. The mile-long segment of I-5 that I’m talking about becomes the first (or last) mile of I-84. Doing it right will cost some money (new signage, reconfiguration of existing I-405 ramps, renumbering of I-84 exit numbers across the state), but overall Portland would be a lot better off.
Let’s put Portland on the map:
“Get a 9 and take care of yourself.”
Thats bus #9, Powell/Broadway, right? 🙂 Don’t know how that will help him out in WA Co though.
I don’t understand why Portland persists in acting like this sad, pandering wimp, desperate to be asked out to the prom by the swarms of people moving here. Everyone wants to live here – that means the city can call the shots. And our whole effing brand (hate that word) is walkable/bikeable city. It’s not as if people are going to move away if we invest in a really livable, European-style transit system and actively discourage getting around by single-occupant vehicle. If they do, good riddance.
Great idea, where’s the city gonna get the money to build this “…really livable, European-style transit system and actively discourage getting around by single-occupant vehicle. …”?
For anyone that didn’t see it or something like it, construction of the first light rail line through downtown Portland, was a massive undertaking. I’d never seen anything like it before. Morrison street, for months and months, had a big trench running along it. Some shops went out of business because the construction made it like a war zone for people trying to find their way around it on foot, over plywood.
I don’t recall the numbers or the funding strategies used, but I’m sure they were major challenges. Portland could maybe try harder to compete with other cities across the nation for federal money to build, let’s say…a walk-able district based more on a European model than anything the city currently has. If the city could sell such an idea locally, could it raise enough money, locally, to do it, without having to somehow get federal money to cover part of the budget?
If it could, and if people living in the city were supporting the idea, that might be the better way. Personally, I’m somewhat skeptical about the advisability of cities going after federal money to get their capital infrastructure projects built. That type of money isn’t actually ‘free’, though some people seem to want to think it is.
“Personally, I’m somewhat skeptical about the advisability of cities going after federal money to get their capital infrastructure projects built. ”
Oregon only gets back 97 cents for each dollar paid to the federal government.
Only 8 states get less money from the feds than we do.
Our representatives in Washington do a really poor job of getting our money back to us…
What possible reason do you have for not wanting our tax dollars spent locally?
I’m not saying we can just drop and instantly do this – just that our leaders need to start having some vision and building consensus around it or this city is going to become totally unlivable in a few years. You can’t sustain the kind of growth we’ve had recently without laying down the law, or the herd rules and you wind up with the city equivalent of a peed-in pool.
Getting people to pay what it really costs to drive is step #1. Applying tolls to congested roads and bridges and putting the toll money toward expanding and improving transit and active transportation. I don’t think a functional transit system has to mean trains – especially not to start. You just need something that will get people where they’re going at any time of day or night without overlong waits. BRT, shuttle service and expanded hours one existing lines will do the trick. When people complain about BRT taking away a car lane, look regretful and say ‘When a city grows like ours has in the past 10 years, you have to make tough choices. We can’t just keep adding more and more cars, or we won’t have the livable city everyone moved here for anymore.’ I don’t hear anyone saying this. It’s not a radical statement; it’s blunt, simple fact. If leaders don’t say things like this to people, no one will even begin to grapple with the fact that you just can’t keep adding cars to finite grid. So that’s battle #1 – leadership with a vision, like we had in the ’70s in Portland (urban renewal was a disaster, but we’re still benefiting from past leaders’ bold moves in the areas of transit and active transportation).
There are also a lot of relatively cheap things that could be done to make transit more attractive to people – for one thing, keep the buses clean and in good repair (especially the interiors) and take care of vandalism and graffitti immediately, both on the buses and at stops. Make sure transit centers are safe places for people to wait, and not convenient sites for drug transactions.
Countries all over the world have implemented better transit systems than ours, some of them very recently. China, for example. Shouldn’t we be doing better than China? Where’s that Cold War competitive spirit when you need it? China did it for Djibouti too. Maybe we should give them a call.
Because we’ve given every department an equity staff. Because every leader we elect is forever on the lookout for a minority group (as in number, not race) to side with.
Look at the first attack always levied against transit, bikes, sidewalks… that it doesn’t help the poor people. It encourages displacement. They’re right. It does, and as a result, leaders have proven unwilling to do anything.
The irony of this town is overwhelming. We need money, and development, and teardowns in order to generate the money to fund the already-instituted giveaway programs. That generates more complaints, more guilt and more giveaways to try to assauge it.
There no hope of electing anyone but a fence-sitter for the forseeable future. Either we finish the gentrification, in which case car culture will certainly win out, or we continue on our path to a city for only the rich and the poor. You may stave off cars, but run a considerable risk of the entire thing being crushed under its own weight.
Growth wasn’t mandatory and provided no benefits to the residents.