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On SW Corridor light rail line, $100 million could go to garages – or to better options

Posted by on May 8th, 2019 at 1:43 pm

Huge park-and-rides, like this one at the end of the Orange Line south of Milwaukie, convince a few hundred cars to pull off the freeway sooner. But homes and bikeways near rail would make car ownership optional. (Photo: TriMet)

Editor’s note: This piece by former BikePortland news editor Michael Andersen is cross-posted from Sightline Institute. If you’d like to get involved in shifting tens of millions of dollars from parking garages to other ideas like protected bike lanes, affordable housing or bus improvements, there’s an important 15-minute public comment period coming up Monday, 9:10 a.m. at Tigard City Hall.

The people planning the Portland area’s next light-rail line seem to be steering away from a scenario where taxpayers pour $100 million of precious public-transit funding into a series of giant parking garages.

But unless the public speaks up in the next month, it’s possible that a handful of elected officials will push to build the garages along the “Southwest Corridor” through Southwest Portland, Tigard and Tualatin anyway—despite a mountain of evidence that spending the money on bus service, infrastructure for walking and biking, and transit-oriented affordable housing would do far more to improve mobility, reduce auto dependence and cut pollution.

“If we want to maximize transit ridership, park-and-rides are far less effective than other options… The answer is to make transit an efficient and attractive option without requiring auto use in the first place.”
— Madeline Kovacs from Sightline Institute, during a presentation to the project committee last week.

TriMet staffers seem to be looking to “update their approach” to park-and-rides based on a closer look at the factors that actually drive transit ridership, said Ramtin Rahmani, a volunteer on the community advisory committee for the Southwest Corridor Light Rail Project.

Rahmani (speaking only for himself) said last week that instead of pushing multi-level garages at several stations along the new rail line through Portland, Tigard, and Tualatin, TriMet’s staff members are making the case for surface lots, except at the end of the line near Bridgeport Mall. Their theory is that transit funding is better spent elsewhere and the surface lots would preserve the option of adding housing later.

This proposal isn’t perfect. TriMet has indeed redeveloped a few park-and-ride lots over the years, but it’s rarely removed parking spaces when doing so. That said, as I argued in November, surface lots are less bad than free parking garages. Here’s a slightly updated version of what my Sightline colleague Madeline Kovacs told the rail line’s community advisory committee when it met last week:

At $52,000 per stall, free park-and-ride garages are among the least effective ways taxpayers can spend money on public transit.

TriMet records show that 38 percent of MAX park-and-ride stalls sit empty on a typical weekday. But even if we generously assume a vacancy rate of just 20 percent for Southwest Corridor garages and a 45-year lifespan, then taxpayers are spending about $7 for every weekday a space will be used. The region’s taxpayers would be essentially buying more than the equivalent of a free transit pass for anyone who shows up at a garage, on one condition: that they show up in a car.

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If we want to maximize transit ridership, park-and-rides are far less effective than other options. A 2016 King County Metro analysis found that capital investments to improve bus speed and reliability created more than three times as many riders per dollar as free park-and-rides. TriMet’s own analysis projected that even if several new garages are built for the Southwest Corridor, 85 percent of future trips will come from foot, bike or transfer traffic, not park-and-rides.

If we want to minimize congestion and pollution, the meaningful answer is not to convince 200, 300 or 500 cars—out of the 300,000 that drive to jobs in Portland each day—to pull off I-5 a few miles farther south. The answer is to make transit an efficient and attractive option without requiring auto use in the first place.

This can mean improvements to bus, walk and bike connections to rail. $100 million would be enough to install networks of low-stress protected bike lanes for miles in every direction around all 13 Southwest Corridor stops. It can also mean creating mixed-use, mixed-income developments within walking distance of rail stops—something that becomes much harder if you already dedicated the prime land near your rail stop to parking lots and garages. $100 million would be enough to create or preserve 600 more affordable homes along the corridor.

If we want to improve mobility for lower-income people, the solution is not to offer free parking to several hundred car-owning downtown workers in the hope that some of them might be poor. The solution is to spend the money on things we know disproportionately benefit low-income residents: better bus transit and affordable housing near transit. Both of these also boost overall transit use, creating a self-reinforcing cycle that helps improve the system for everyone.

The huge cost of new rail lines can sometimes make park-and-ride garages seem cheap by comparison. They are not. The cost of building something great, like a new public rail line used by tens of thousands of Oregonians, shouldn’t be allowed to conceal the boondoggle of free garages. Our region desperately needs to spend this money on things that will matter more.

Happily, TriMet staffers made some of the same points themselves to the advisory committee Thursday night. Take a look at this section of their slideshow. (Slide 41, for example: “Parking is expensive.” TrIMet puts it at $52,000 per garage space and $18,000 per surface lot space, plus $1 per space per day to operate.)

TriMet’s staffers also shared this image comparing greenhouse gas pollution for driving alone, for driving alone to a park-and-ride, and for taking bus or bike to a rail station:

Shifting a trip from car to bus-plus-rail is 67 percent better at cutting carbon pollution than shifting it from car to park-and-ride. (Image: Los Angeles Metro. Data from Chester et al, Infrastructure and automobile shifts: positioning transit to reduce life-cycle environmental impacts for urban sustainability goals.

But it’s not TriMet staffers who have de facto power over what ends up in the light-rail plan. The Southwest Corridor Steering Committee, which consists mostly of elected officials from suburban jurisdictions, will effectively decide how many transit dollars and how much transit-adjacent real estate to dedicate to park-and-rides, even within the City of Portland.

The agency could scrap its garage plans and solicit proposals from outside the agency for mixed-income housing developments. If a new building (probably with some shared parking on-site) can generate more transit riders than a parking lot alone, it could be allowed on the site instead.

Another option: The regional 2020 ballot issue that’s expected to fund this rail line could give cities money to install networks of protected bike lanes around each stop. That, along with relatively dense suburban station areas, can be the “secret weapon” of suburban transit ridership.

TriMet’s steering committee will briefly take up this issue at a meeting next week, and will go into depth at its next meeting on June 10.

Free park-and-rides might seem great for transit use. But look closely. They’re not: They soak up money that would be better used making transit better and easier to access. Yes, garages are visible. But that visibility is just a monument to our failure to make transit more attractive than driving in any way but one: free parking.

— Michael Andersen: (503) 333-7824, @andersem on Twitter and michael@sightline.org.

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Chris I
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Chris I

Build garages if they can use parking income to pay for themselves. If they can’t, they shouldn’t be built. If this compromises the business case for the mass transit project, then it clearly doesn’t include enough upzoning and TOD, and shouldn’t be built.

Ramtin Rahmani
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Ramtin Rahmani

If you are interested in giving public comment at the Steering Committee meeting this coming Monday, (logistical details at end of comment), the 94 (Express), 12 (freq service), and 45 (local) bus lines all go to Tigard Transit Center which is a 5-10 minute walk from the Tigard City Hall building. There’s a lot of (free) parking if you drive. If someone wants, I’ll send the least-bad bike route to here.

I would love to see people showing up and making the case for protected bike lanes. SW Portland generally gets infrequent walk/bike improvements and this is our opportunity to significantly improve walking and biking in SW Portland metro area.

Tigard currently has 0.0 miles of protected bike lanes. I believe Tualatin in a similar situation. SW Portland only has a short stretch of Multnomah Blvd with a raised, car-mountable, bike lane lip and a sidewalk MUP for another block

This meeting and next month’s meeting are the only times we have to move the needle on pushing for easy, sustainable, fun access to transit. The parking garage(s) proposed would be free to drivers.

STEERING COMMITTEE

Monday, May 13, 2019
9–10:30 a.m.
City of Tigard Town Hall
13125 SW Hall Blvd., Tigard

Agenda:
https://trimet.org/swcorridor/pdf/meetings/steering/Agenda_SC_05_13_19.pdf

SW Corridor Website:
https://trimet.org/swcorridor/

rick
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rick

but, but TriMet says people are willing to walk 1/2 mile up and over and down hills to get to the new light rail line and give up their old bus route or give up on plans for rerouted buses, per the 2014 SW Service Plan. There is a high cost for free / cheap car parking (cheap on the user side of the coin).

Social Engineer
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Social Engineer

Will TriMet commit to shifting funds that would have been spent on building free parking garages towards genuinely useful feeder bus service?

Matt S.
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Matt S.

My dilemma: I have to walk 10 minutes to the nearest 44 stop on SW Capital HWY. I work construction and it’s not very fun carrying 30 lbs in tools to the bus stop. However, I hop in my car and drive five minutes to the Barbur park and ride; there’s only a handful of cars when I arrive. When I return at the end of the day, not a single parking space open. This is definitely not a lot where 38 percent of spaces remain empty. I spend 25 dollars a week commuting versus 70 when I drive and park, not to mention the environmental impacts taking transit.

Dave
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Dave

Sorry but without parking garages you’re going to have a tough time getting federal funding. Maybe some day down the road, people will walk or ride to the train but the ridership will not be there is there is no parking at the stations.

Or are you just trying to find a way to kill this project?

Todd Boulanger
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Todd Boulanger

The new Portland [Area] slogan is no longer “put a bird on it” but put a “solar panel on it”…and you can greenwash any parking garage…

Dan A
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Dan A

Is anyone talking about better bike parking at Max stops? You can fit 10 private bike lockers in a single car space, instead of putting it in a huge locker where it’s waiting to be stripped down by any rando with a $20 BikeLink pass.

nwsw
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nwsw

I believe this has already been decided, but why not consider an efficient rapid transit option ($1 billion?) instead of light rail ($2.8 billion?)? Seems like that might save/free up more public funding. A lot of the infrastructure is already in place to start this (in some form) much sooner than 2027 and then spend the time until 2027 making improvements to that infrastructure (barbur bridges, protected bike lanes, sidewalks, barbur/I-5 crossing, etc).

billyjo
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billyjo

unfortunately, any housing that gets built along the line would be expensive since that’s just how it is now. People who can afford $2,000 a month for a 1 bedroom can afford to drive into work and pay to park.

Just building the line will see an increase in property values, and an increase in rents as it opens more options.

Someone needs to think way bigger picture here and create a new zone around these stops that places severe restrictions on the housing and the neighborhoods built there.

Somewhere along the line there needs to be an accessible grocery store. We have the green line that ends at a mall, but you need to get off and go for a hike across a parking lot and take your life into your own hands to cross traffic. Transit just needs to be better integrated into life, instead of being there for people that have no other options.

Jason E Start
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Jason E Start

Here is what I KNOW. They built 1 garage at the end of the orange line & it’s maybe 1/2 the size it needed to be – overloaded on commute days. The other lots around Milwaukie are typically full by about 8am. This has discouraged a lot of would be Orange line riders from using MAX b/c they can’t find parking (this includes my household). These lines extend into the suburbs. We’re not in Chicago or NYC where the practical urban density extends out 10 – 15 miles. Lots of people will absolutely be happy to ride MAX into the city as long as they can park to ride. Most people from King City or Sherwood aren’t going to ride their bikes to the MAX station. It’s just not going to happen. They’re also not going to “double inconvenience” themselves with a Bus schedule tied to a Max schedule…most people really despise transferring in mass transit unless they live in a dense urban zone.

You want maximum riders on MAX? Give them a place to park. Think of it this way: Would you rather add another lane to a freeway or add a couple more parking garages? What has the lowest carbon footprint over time?

Sometimes you need land on a practical win vs an idealistic loss.

soren
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soren

Transit oriented development (TOD) and “mixed income” are code often words for market rate housing with — perhaps — a few token faux-affordable units. The Portland area has an excess of housing available to those who can afford market-rate rents. Unless TOD creates a substantial amount of housing affordable to people making <50% of MFI it's more about about real estate deals than meeting this region's housing needs.

The path to healthy ridership is human-oriented station areas like Orenco, one of TriMet’s best-performing stations.

Orenco Station is a classic example of the use of transit-oriented development to create exclusive neighborhoods for wealthier folk. This project included no “affordable” housing and it took over a decade for the first genuinely affordable units (via federal grants) to be built in this twee neighborhood.