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Transpo bill: Rail advocates say new tracks, not more lanes, will fix congestion

Posted by on June 9th, 2017 at 4:33 pm

Rail advocate Dan McFarling testifying in Salem on Monday.

One of the best ideas for improving transportation in Oregon is glaringly absent from the state’s transportation funding package: Better passenger and freight rail lines between Portland and Eugene.

At one of four hearings on House Bill 2017-3 held at the State Capitol this week, representatives from the Association of Oregon and Rail Transit Advocates took the opportunity to remind lawmakers about this fact.

While the package being debated includes over $900 million in earmarks for highway expansions in the name of “congestion relief,” advocates with AORTA feel like the bill will cause Oregon to fall even further behind our west coast neighbors.

“Go big or go home,” is how AORTA rep Dan McFarling began his testimony in front of the Joint Transportation Preservation and Modernization Committee on Monday. “Rail programs in Washington and California are going big. We are treading water.”

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McFarling then detailed Washington’s purchase of eight new locomotives that can go 125 mph and the new trail station and passenger-only tracks being built in Tacoma. Washington, he added, already has double-tracks for its entire railway corridor and new investments will add a third track soon. Oregon by comparison operates on a single-track line — which means freight and passenger cars compete for space (with passengers often losing out).

Referring to Oregon as “the missing link on the west coast,” McFarling said the plans to expand freeways and tax low-emission vehicles are actions that take the state in an opposite direction from our climate change goals.

Instead of trying to fix congestion by improving the thing that causes it, McFarling told lawmakers, “The best way to alleviate congestion is to entice motorists out of their cars and onto modern and efficient passenger rail… Adding road capacity in urban areas encourages sprawl and increases congestion and maintenance costs. That is a receipe for long-term budget disaster.”

Senator Betsy Johnson asked McFarling a follow-up question after his testimony.

If we add capacity, where does AORTA stand on this bill?” she said. “Much of the bill is focused on three big road projects in the metro area.”

“That is not approprate in my opinion,” he replied.

Then, perhaps in an attempt to catch a flaw in his proposal, Johnson asked McFarling if he would support counties using eminent domain to acquire the land to expand the rail corridor. “Most of corridor between Portland and Eugene is owned by railroad companies,” McFarling replied, “and most of it is 100 feet wide [offering plenty of width for expansion].”

While freeway expansion was the top priority for lawmakers in the bill, there’s no money for rail transit and that’s unlikely to change even after McFarling’s persuasive testimony (the public transit section of the bill was drafted with a stipulation that it cannot be used for light rail).

Stay tuned for more coverage as the final version of the bill becomes available next week.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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45 Comments
  • SD June 9, 2017 at 5:17 pm

    More and more it appears that the Oregon legislature/ governor/ DOT lacks the leadership or intelligence to do anything that is different from what they have done in the past. A progressive face on failed, uninformed policies.

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    • rick June 9, 2017 at 6:37 pm

      Sad

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    • wsbob June 12, 2017 at 1:52 pm

      “More and more it appears that the Oregon legislature/ governor/ DOT lacks the leadership or intelligence to do anything that is different from what they have done in the past. A progressive face on failed, uninformed policies.” sd

      Based on what, at least in a few examples of your own? We the public, elected the people serving as our legislators. If there were better, more qualified people in the state, we’d most likely have voted for them instead of who is there now. Did you run for office? If you did, and you had any ideas better than what the legislators are mulling over, we here might have been reading about the legislature discussing your ideas, rather than your complaints about the legislatures’ work and nothing more from you.

      Most people in the state likely would welcome better, more innovative and visionary ideas and direction towards addressing the major travel need challenges existing in Oregon. Conceiving them in some realistic form, is not so easily or affordably done. Washington has added some passenger rail track? If they have, why and how in some tangible numbers, have they worked to address the travel needs of that state’s population. There’s no point in building more passenger rail lines in Oregon unless they’re really going to significantly address the looming travel needs of this state’s growing population.

      Large regions around other cities in the world have long established passenger multi-rail systems. Living in the U.S., to my mind NYC comes first as an example that may be most readily applicable to the travel needs of people, present and future, in the Willamette Valley. Haven’t done the commuter routine from NYC to the burbs, but what I read about it, while it may be more feasible and cause less congestion on the roads that motor vehicle travel…it’s no picnic. Beginning and ending their work days, people spend lots of dreary time on the commuter trains. Is this possibility among the vision that Association of Oregon and Rail Transit Advocates has in mind?

      Change seems inevitable even in Oregon, but personally, I’d rather not be obliged to try live in NYC or its burbs and have to commute into town on one of its trains. Or in Japan, South Korea, or any European city with major train systems. In some of those countries, the need for them became more or less unavoidable, but the reality of high speed trains, despite the efficiency of commute time, has plenty of downside. Good for McFarling for his effort in making the pitch for passenger rail that he did, but I think he’s going to have come up with some much better reasons than he has so far, to have a rail in Oregon be a sure thing for meeting the travel needs of people in this state.

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      • SD June 13, 2017 at 2:51 pm

        1. -Based on the legislature’s inability to do anything other than what ODOT or freight lobbies tell them to do.

        2. “If there were better, more qualified people in the state, we’d most likely have voted for them instead of who is there now.”
        -Do you really believe this?

        3. I have a job already and do not have the flexibility or independent wealth required to spend the time in Salem. This does not preclude me from commenting on or discussing obvious flaws in the current system.

        4. Your musings on trains are interesting… but rail has clear advantages over SOV trips and is underdeveloped in Oregon. The places I have lived or visited that have developed rail systems were easy to traverse and the people that I know who live in those places appreciate being able to travel without a personal vehicle.

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  • 9watts June 9, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    “Adding road capacity in urban areas encourages sprawl and increases congestion and maintenance costs.”

    While no one wants to hear this, the same could be said, would largely be true for rail expansion. While passenger rail is probably preferable in several ways (CO2 emissions/passenger-mile, congestion), it is entirely reasonable to view expanded rail service as a subsidy to those who, for instance, would just as soon live far from their jobs. If we had a world class rail system in Western Oregon, a certain class of people could live that much further out and glide into work far more elegantly, and probably quicker than they do now, either stuck in traffic on I-5 or stuttering in from the West Hills.

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    • David Hampsten June 9, 2017 at 5:36 pm

      If they are not doing it already, they will be doing such long commutes within the next 20 years with robot self-driven cars. Rather than add such vehicles to our already congested and poorly-maintained public roadways, why not add them to our commercially-maintained trackways?

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      • 9watts June 9, 2017 at 5:39 pm

        You seem to see this as a zero sum game: add cars or add trains. I prefer to look at this as varieties of induced demand and would advocate tackling the matter of growth (in population, economic throughput, etc.) to see if we really all collectively want to grow in these directions or would instead prefer not to.

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        • David Hampsten June 9, 2017 at 5:52 pm

          I don’t see it as much zero-sum as a concern that Oregon has effectively de-regulated it’s rural planning to encourage rural sprawl beyond the boundaries of the Willamette Valley. People are already living in cheaper coastal and eastern communities, as well as sprawling SW Washington, long ago priced out of Portland, generally working online, and commuting into the Portland metro when they have to, either for face-time or to catch flights from the airport. As long as Oregon and Washington insist upon maintaining rural highways leading into the metro area at the expense of its urban centers, you will continue to get the induced demand you rightly talk about.

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          • Chris I June 10, 2017 at 6:46 am

            That group is a tiny minority. For example, at my company, we have about 1,600 local employees and about 4 or 5 people that live in Bend or at the coast and telecommute. I know the numbers are higher in tech.

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    • Ed June 9, 2017 at 6:07 pm

      Trains do not encourage sprawl. They encourage density. Adding highway capacity increases sprawl and makes congestion worse, not better.

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      • 9watts June 9, 2017 at 6:12 pm

        “Trains do not encourage sprawl. They encourage density.”

        You can assert that, but how about providing some evidence, making an argument.

        My argument is that when you add an option, never mind a cool, convenient one, you give some people (those who can afford and might wish to live further out) a new option for justifying and making it work, practically. This is not a new argument or one I’ve come up with.
        Let me ask you who you think would use a system of high speed trains we’ve heard about for decades, and of the sort that other countries already have? How might they have previously accomplished their commutes, and what sort of dynamic changes could you imagine following from the introduction of such a system? Surely you don’t think it would have no dynamic effects?

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        • B. Carfree June 9, 2017 at 8:16 pm

          A system of high speed trains running the length of the Willamette Valley (or even further afield) may just help recreate what Oregon had a century ago when dozens of trains per day connected Eugene to Portland. In a modern context, it could allow people to live in cities that are less expensive than Portland while still being able to access such cities with minimal impacts on them. Also, all those folks pouring out of the train stations should induce demand for better local transit options. PDX might finally get a critical mass to create a car-free downtown like some European cities are progressing (slowly) towards.

          This is also a way of increasing the functional housing supply, which should allow for some price relief (or at least slow the increases) in the middle rings of the cities. (Cores will probably remain expensive as can be owing to those real estate rules – location, location, location.) We may also see cities along the line grow into real cities instead of just suburbs of bedroom communities as people find it more convenient to be near the train stations that connect them to the larger cultural and business centers.

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      • Chris I June 10, 2017 at 6:48 am

        They encourage a different kind of sprawl. The problem is that in America, we tend to surround our stations with giant parking lots, enabling sprawling developments nearby. In Europe and Japan, they zone for density around the stations, so you end up with a string of denser cities and towns along the line, rather than low-density sprawl along the entire line. I love the idea of improved rail service, but we need to do it right.

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        • BradWagon June 12, 2017 at 12:26 pm

          Agree, giant park and rides at stations is not the answer. We also need stations that make stops in existing residential areas. Transit needs to be close to both commercial and residential. If someone has to drive to transit what is to stop them from just staying in their car…

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          • Dan A June 12, 2017 at 1:08 pm

            Lots of people skip it because the Sunset Transit Center fills up by 7:30am, despite having 630 parking spaces.

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          • Chris I June 12, 2017 at 3:49 pm

            It’s a chicken and egg problem. We need to spend more on transit to get it close to where people live, but you can’t economically serve sprawling single family neighborhoods. When new lines go in, they need dense development around the stations. Trimet’s Blue line did this pretty well. They got lucky and had a rail ROW with desirable land adjacent. Several areas have been built up since the line went in. The Green line is the exact opposite. The ROW was next to a freeway, making the adjacent land undesirable. As a result you have mostly surface parking lots and stagnant ridership.

            This is why I advocate for a light rail line along Powell, before we do anything with the SW corridor. This is a huge opportunity for dense development and big ridership numbers, at a fraction of the cost of a SW corridor line.

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            • BradWagon June 12, 2017 at 4:18 pm

              SW Corridor needs to go through Hillsdale / Mult Village Area to hit residential areas, right along I5 isn’t going to do much besides get a few park and riders from Tigard to Downtown.

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              • Chris I June 13, 2017 at 8:33 am

                The SW Corridor will only be successful from a ridership perspective if they go big and tunnel most of it. Forget I-5/Barbur and go directly south from PSU into the hillside. A subway station would serve OHSU/VA, another at Hillsdale, and another for Multnomah Village (but only if they agree to add density). The remainder of the line could be surface running.

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            • wsbob June 12, 2017 at 4:55 pm

              “…This is why I advocate for a light rail line along Powell …” chris I

              Where is it you believe residents along Powell are needing light rail to take them to? Is it destinations that already existing light rail lines travel to? I don’t know where these people in neighborhoods adjacent to Powell, commute to everyday. Maybe some people reading here, do know, if they’d care to offer their ideas about that.

              Housing density can help light rail ridership, but rail lines are not of much value if they’re not able to take people where they need to go. Light rail already is on the east side of the river. If biking really is the first mile, or two, or even three mile connection some people hope it can be, people living on Powell could bike down to the existing light rail stations on improved for biking infrastructure along Powell.

              Around the Beaverton Transit Center…I mention this because I know how well all of you reading here, like to know what Beaverton is doing…the city gradually adds more density directly adjacent to the transit center. Big field right next to the north side of the transit center. Good chance it eventually will become multi-story apartments and condos like those on 1st street, Farmington, and over on Jenkins near Murray. Or maybe not…maybe it’ll become another massive car-park and ride. We can know fairly certainly where the people living near the Beav transit center are traveling to on the nearby light rail: Hillsboro and Portland. What I’ve seen, there’s quite a bit of drive to and drop off at the transit center. Always lots of room for securing bikes in the nice, card locked bike shelter.

              Despite its downsides, I generally feel that at least quite a bit more of rail infrastructure than exists now in our area, will help meet people’s travel needs. I doubt though, that many people have an overall concept of what the extent of that infrastructure would need to be over the next, say fifty years. Does Dan McFarling have an idea of what that may be? In his role as rail advocate, has he looked at the state’s population, now and what it will be in future, thinking about where all these people will need to go, and has he some ideas in mind of the extent of rail system that would be needed and could be built, to provide the service he suggests rail could provide for Oregonians?

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            • David Hampsten June 12, 2017 at 9:25 pm

              Outer Powell doesn’t have nearly as much density as Outer Division, and moreover its right-of-way is much narrower and it’s zoning was recently made much less dense.

              I agree with wsbob, that any new line should match existing commute patterns to jobs. Less than 10% of East Portland residents east of I-205 work downtown; the vast majority work along the Columbia Corridor, with substantial numbers also in nearby Gresham, Swan Island, Clackamas, and Clark County, with a few in Washington County and nearly none on Pill Hill, according to a BPS report from 4 years ago. Given that, I’d suggest a new line on 122nd from Foster Rd, to Airport Road, then a subway under the airport that comes out at Montgomery Park, with stations at the airport, Concordia University, PCC Cascade, and the McDonald’s on Swan Island.

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    • Dan Kaufman June 13, 2017 at 10:46 am

      Sound Transit 3, Seattle’s $54-billion package won without adding freeways and without making the claim that it would reduce congestion. That is because the proponents know that adding transit does not reduce congestion.

      “We’re building additional capacity to give people options to get out of traffic. With 1 million people coming, I don’t know how anybody can realistically say we have a way to reduce congestion,” said Shefali Ranganathan, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition.

      The extra capacity opened up by transit does not stay open for long especially if demand and the population keeps growing. Seattle Metro voters bought the package because they were convinced that they would at least have a more reliable (in terms of commute time) way of getting places. They also may have seen it as more equitable and as a jobs program- among other things.

      I do not believe the majority of Oregonians are ready for logical remedies to our transportation, growth, and climate issues AND no one has been elected who is willing to lead on it, either. So leadership just tells people what they want to hear, “this, that, or the other thing will reduce congestion, this time, really”. Maybe they should try selling the plague instead – that would actually work in reducing congestion.

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  • David Hampsten June 9, 2017 at 5:30 pm

    While I agree with McFarling’s sentiments, his assertion about a 100-foot corridor from Portland to Eugene, while technically “mostly true”, the physical section of single-track along 12th St NE in downtown Salem is the biggest and most expensive bottle-neck in the system. Trains there have to slow to a crawl that is even worse than the Steel Bridge in Portland. Burying or elevating the track is the only good option, but it is terribly expensive.

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    • rick June 9, 2017 at 6:38 pm

      I think a tunnel is the way to go.

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      • GlowBoy June 15, 2017 at 11:43 am

        Ask people in Seattle whether they think tunneling is a great way to go.

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        • Adam H.
          Adam H. June 15, 2017 at 11:50 am

          The Link Light Rail tunnel to UW is terrific, actually. Tunnels are only problematic when you put cars in them. 😉

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    • Chris I June 10, 2017 at 6:55 am

      That section could easily be widened to add a second track. There is room in the ROW to shift the road west, or it could be reduced to two lanes. For a bit more, a 2-track trench could be dug that would remove the level crossings. And slow sections near stations are not really a problem for fast rail. The trains have to slow down for the stop in Salem anyway. The single track bottlenecks outside of urban areas, where the trains should be going 80+mph are a bigger issue for average trip speed.

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  • rick June 9, 2017 at 8:31 pm

    High speed rail is needed.

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    • Mike Quigley June 10, 2017 at 8:52 am

      Don’t need high speed as long as it runs often and on time.

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      • 9watts June 10, 2017 at 8:59 am

        Agreed. Rail is a fantastic amenity we here have almost no experience with here in Oregon. At least not for the past eighty years or so. It is or could be a key variable in allowing us to jettison the car for many trips or altogether. All I’m saying is that if we pursue it in the manner we often hear, we should be prepared for unintended consequences.

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      • El Biciclero June 12, 2017 at 2:00 pm

        “…often and on time.”

        I find MAX to be very convenient and reliable…until I need it.

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  • maccoinnich June 10, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    Washington is doing a great job of investing in passenger rail. The upgrades they’ve done around Tacoma mean that commuter rail from Seattle now runs all the way south to Lakewood (and will run to DuPont in the future). Overlapping investments in the same area will later this year allow 2 additional trains to run between Portland and Seattle every day, at higher speeds with less delay. Similarly, California is upgrading the Caltrain route to add capacity for commuters, which will also make it possible to run the California High Speed Rail system into San Francisco.

    Oregon hasn’t done any of that. It’s easy to imagine a series of investments we could make that would both benefit intercity rail to Seattle/Eugene, and make it possible to run commuter rail between Vancouver, WA and Oregon City or Wilsonville.

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  • rachel b June 10, 2017 at 6:36 pm

    Amtrak offers a couple commuter trains from Salem that stop in Oregon City (unmanned station–you buy your tix online) to Portland and back, M-F–something that’s a bit of a secret. I’m mentioning it because I hear they’re considering stopping it when in fact they should expand it. It’s $5, I think (less if you buy a monthly pass) and you ride nonstop in comfort to, I think, Union Station. With a drinks car, or coffee in the morning.

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    • 9watts June 10, 2017 at 6:40 pm

      The price is closer to $16 each way, and Amtrak actually runs far more buses than it runs trains on that route, but it is fast and pretty convenient to be sure. I hadn’t heard that they were considering reducing service. Yikes.

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  • Peter W June 11, 2017 at 9:49 pm

    Connecting urban centers with frequent and faster trains goes hand in hand with creating a system of places that work well for people who bike, walk, and take local transit. Thanks for covering this, Jonathan.

    > Oregon by comparison operates on a single-track line — which means freight and passenger cars compete for space (with passengers often losing out).

    Coming up on the train from SF to Portland yesterday, I experienced this first hand.

    It is strange to be spending hundreds of millions to shave minutes off urban SOV commutes that would be better served by local transit when you have passenger trains delayed for hours (2.5 hours in my case) because – literally – pushing log trains is higher priority than pushing passenger trains.

    I briefly served on an ODOT “highER speed rail committee” (they really didn’t want people getting false hope thinking this was HSR, just “higher speed” than the “really slow” service we have now). During that time, it became clear to me that ODOT’s rail division was understaffed and the staff they do have has a fatal combination of minimal ambition and minimal authority.

    The question needs to be asked: what will it take to get ODOT to commit to rail in a meaningful way?

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    • 9watts June 11, 2017 at 9:52 pm

      Unless I’m mistaken at least one elephant in the room is the fact that Union Pacific owns the tracks and has no interest in deferring to Amtrak or any other passenger rail service.

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      • Peter W June 11, 2017 at 10:19 pm

        Others know way more than I do about ownership issues, but the more fundamental issue is that ODOT / Oregon just doesn’t seem to care.

        If the same logic (lack of ownership impeding projects) applied to highway expansion, we’d never talk about new or wider highways because Oregon would never spend money on ROW acquisition — but they do, all the time.

        There was discussion in the higher speed rail committee meetings about possible new routes on a) less used tracks and b) new ROW / tracks such as going under the west hills to get into Portland quickly. When I left, it seemed they were leaning against these because that meant spending money, which apparently is an activity we reserve for freeway expansion.

        Regarding the “ODOT doesn’t care about rail” point, for one trivial example see this timeline of passenger rail in Oregon. According to their own timeline, ODOT stopped doing anything on passenger rail six years ago:

        https://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/RAIL/pages/passenger_rail.aspx#Oregon_Passenger_Rail_Project

        Holy slow moving train, ODOT. [RIP, Adam West.]

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      • maccoinnich June 11, 2017 at 11:21 pm

        The Oregon Electric line, recommend for upgrades in the 2010 Oregon Rail Study, is owned by Portland & Western.

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      • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) June 12, 2017 at 10:21 am

        Another thing I just learned via the AORTA testimony is that railroad companies have to pay taxes on any improvements/upgrades they make to rail facilities. This creates a big disincentive for them to do anything with their rail lines. (unlike highway owners, who pay no taxex for “improvements” or “modernizations”).

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    • Matthew in Portsmouth June 12, 2017 at 11:22 am

      Passenger trains typically have to wait for freight because the loops where the trains pass are too short for freight trains. Passenger trains have maybe 10 – 12 cars and two locomotives, freight trains have 100 cars and four locomotives. Also the freight railroads own the track and are allowed to give priority to their own traffic.

      The whole Amtrak – UP/BNSF/CSX deal is a classic rort. Amtrak pays through the nose for access to the rails, has to indemnify the commercial roads for any lawsuits (including those caused by the commercial roads’ negligence/lack of maintenance) and is constantly being berated by Congress. Amtrak was set up to fail, its operating environment has been adjusted multiple times to exacerbate that failure, then gets blamed when the inevitable happens.

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      • David Hampsten June 12, 2017 at 3:18 pm

        You are right, AMTRAK usually has to “rent” tracks to move their trains, but then so does everyone else. The priority of movement is actually based upon a cost of revenue-mile for freight. Whoever pays the most gets priority to move faster. The most expensive items per weight are given highest priority. The highest value comes from UPS and FedEx shipments, followed by passengers (live lumber as sailors used to call passengers), then perishable foods, then various commodities like oil, sugar (ADM), cattle, cars, containers, etc. Coal, grain, and garbage are near the bottom. The only things that freight railroad companies move that is “theirs” is track, ties, ballast, and other items for repair – everything else is someone else’s. The high-value customers pay more to get their goods delivered “on time”, but accidents do happen, engines do sometimes break down in the middle of a mainline track, distracted people do at times get hit (and sliced in half), and the train system does then break down and delays occur.

        For the limited sections of track that AMTRAK owns outright in the Midwest and between Washington & Boston, they also charge non-AMTRAK railroads for moving goods (usually CSX.)

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  • Nola Baar June 13, 2017 at 12:32 am

    As the thoughtful comments show there are logistical and technical challenges and obstacles but there is much merit in expanding rail service across the state and the land.
    When teaching at the U of O, and having a beloved in Portland, I travelled almost every weekend on the Eugene-Portland line and have experienced so many delays caused by freight trains, cars stuck on the tracks and (on my first day of travel, going to Eugene) a Ringling Brother’s train carrying elephants getting stuck on a bridge. Still, I kept travelling, often carrying my bike (for an extra 5 dollars) or having an inexpensive bike wait for me at the Portland station.
    May this plan to expand rail service receive the serious consideration it merits, along with expansion of bicycle lanes (including some covered, for those who can not ride in the rain), bus service, denser and affordable cities, etc. The cost is small compared to the price of missiles, submarines, tanks or the bailouts of corporations and banks.

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  • Joe June 13, 2017 at 9:59 am

    9watts
    “Adding road capacity in urban areas encourages sprawl and increases congestion and maintenance costs.”
    While no one wants to hear this, the same could be said, would largely be true for rail expansion. While passenger rail is probably preferable in several ways (CO2 emissions/passenger-mile, congestion), it is entirely reasonable to view expanded rail service as a subsidy to those who, for instance, would just as soon live far from their jobs. If we had a world class rail system in Western Oregon, a certain class of people could live that much further out and glide into work far more elegantly, and probably quicker than they do now, either stuck in traffic on I-5 or stuttering in from the West Hills.
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    yes the key word sprawl.

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  • Greg Spencer June 13, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    I agree rail transport supports denser development. If you’re going by rail, you want quick, convenient and cheap access to the station. This is why European settlements tend to be compact — towns and villages clustered around churches, town halls and train stations. The suburban development outside of these town centers was all presaged by mass-market cars.

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