However, much of the criticism of the project goes well-beyond the details of Milwaukie MAX, and instead takes the form of an outright anti-rail position. Several different identifiable factions have been advancing anti-rail positions, asserting that TriMet ought to cancel the project outright, and not advance any other rail projects for the foreseeable future. (Occasionally one even sees the suggestion that the existing MAX lines ought to be dismantled and replaced with something else; a position I won't consider further). Many of these factions have entirely different motivations and goals--in some cases, they even conflict--but their positions all lead them to the same conclusion.
The positions in question, and several others, were previously discussed in this post on transit agency missions; here we focus on only three. Some of the criticisms discussed herein extend to other forms of rapid transit as well, such as BRT; others are rail-specific.
One common set of light-rail critics are to be found in the community of activists desiring social and economic justice. A prominent such organization in Portland is OPAL (Organizing People/Activating Leaders), which has, on numerous occasions, called for TriMet to halt future light rail constructions and instead provide more bus service. OPAL's John Ostar, speaking to TriMet on the proposed property tax levy now on the November ballot, had this to say:
What we're doing – what you're doing, essentially, is requiring voters to pass bonds for absolutely essentially service, essential infrastructure, basic infrastructure. Things that we have payroll tax revenue to pay for. But instead, we're now using that payroll tax revenue to pay for non-essential service – light rail - and requiring voters to pass bond measures to pay for essential service. I think that we have it backwards.
Emphasis added by me. Clearly, Ostar considers light rail to be a "non-essential" service--an interesting position to take given that 1/3 of unlinked trips are on MAX and not bus. But when you consider what OPAL considers important, and what they do not, it makes perfect sense:
- OPAL, and similar advocates, think that a key part of TriMet's mission ought to be providing transit to the "transit-dependent"--people who cannot afford an automobile, or who otherwise cannot drive. Given that the transit-dependent (and their destinations) are often widely-dispersed in the region, that leads to service patterns which require coverage of a large area rather than focusing on a smaller corridor--a pattern of service that is easier to provide with busses (and in many cases, with paratransit).
- Poverty advocates are generally less concerned with attracting "choice riders", providing extensive service to wealthier parts of town, increasing transit's mode share, or using transit as a land-use tool. Amenities beyond basic coverage and service frequency/speed/reliability are deemed unimportant. They are especially wary of anything that looks or smells like gentrification--almost always a bad thing if you're poor. (Your neighborhood might improve, but you won't be able to afford it anymore). Many of the stated goals of rapid transit--especially rail--are simply unimportant to advocates to the poor, and some are viewed with hostility.
- Many poverty advocates are generally distrustful of government--which is often seen as in the hands of the wealthy and powerful, and inherently indifferent (or hostile) to the interests of the disadvantaged. Such advocates, when a large project is proposed by the government, frequently start to smell a rat.
A second group who can be counted on to oppose capital transit projects are what I'll call "economic conservatives"--a group which includes libertarians, many Republicans, and a broader spectrum of the population that objects to high(er) taxes for services they consider to be wasteful or non-essential. Motivations can range from ideological ("transit shouldn't be provided by the government"), to financial ("I don't want to pay for transit I don't intend to use"), to skepticism concerning particular agencies ("Sam Adams/TriMet/Metro are all crooks"), to hostility toward the community of transit users ("Those damn hippies ought to get a job and buy a car like the rest of us"). This community also includes a fair amount of lobbyists for industries (auto, petrochemical) which frequently regard transit as competition. With the financial crisis and economic downturn, calls for greater fiscal austerity ("light rail is a luxury we can't afford") get added to the mix.
The overriding concern for this group is that dedicated-ROW rapid transit, particularly rail, is too expensive. While some in this group would eliminate public transit altogether, there is a significant faction that supports what I call "subsistence transit"--transit that provides basic mobility to those who have no other choice, but of a quality which is so low that only the desperate (or dedicated) would use it. Almost invariably, this means POBS ("plain old bus service"), usually running at low frequencies--virtually any capital improvement to the system or attempt to provide frequent service (other than in places and times where the busses are crowded otherwise) is, by definition, superfluous. This may superficially appear to be similar to the social justice position--which also isn't interested in expansive service--but differs in several important ways. Where as the social justice advocate generally wants to provide decent transit to the communities s/he represents, those supporting subsistence transit generally care first and foremost about cost.
While some conservatives do generally care about (and will defend) basic levels of transit service; there are others who want to do away with it altogether--and frequently use the characteristics of "social service" transit to attack transit. Social service transit is inefficient by its nature (the busses are often empty); and that is used to advance arguments that the transit agency is incompetent (otherwise the busses would be full!), or that transit is not environmentally friendly (an empty bus is less fuel-efficient than a single-occupant automobile, after all), or that it's wasteful because hardly anyone uses it (which is, after all, the point).
Conservatives are also frequently skeptical about politics and government in general--especially in large cities, where the political scene is often dominated by liberals. Charges that rapid transit projects are exercises in "social engineering", or represent forthcoming Soviet-style totalitarianism, or are intended to enrich labor unions, are common.
Speaking of unions...
A third constituency which is often hostile to rapid transit, especially rail, is transit unions--and the reason is obvious: Jobs. The biggest operating cost for transit agencies is labor; and one of the selling points of rapid transit--especially rail--is that you can provide the same capacity and service levels with fewer payroll hours. While this can mean increases in service without corresponding increases in labor cost, in practice it often means reductions in hours, or layoffs. And while some transit agencies (such as Muni in San Francisco) are notoriously labor-friendly, in most cases, the agency and its workforce have a relationship that is at least somewhat antagonistic.
What do these all have in common?
What do these positions have in common? Several things:
- A belief that the specific benefits provided by rapid transit are unimportant, and thus not worth spending money on.
- A desire for transit minimalism--lack of interest in increasing ridership or service beyond some baseline level which is held to be "good enough"; in particular, a lack of interest in attracting "choice riders" to the system.
- A lack of confidence in transit management/governance, often causing disbelief in the stated goals of the project(s) in question, and/or the projections concerning population growth, future ridership demands, and future revenue used to justify such projects. In many cases, this is expressed as a public officials are acting in bad faith.
When someone makes a statement that light rail is not an "essential service", or that it is "anti-transit"--it is good to ask of them what their vision for the transit system is. Chances are, their vision is one of minimalism--they believe that transit has a limited (and specific) role to play in the overall economy and infrastructure of a place, and that attempts at expansion are out of line.
A few final thoughts
Many transit activists, including yours truly, don't subscribe to the minimalist philosophy. After all, we (as a society) haven't practiced minimalism when it comes to road-building over the past century--there's scarcely a capacity problem on the roads that doesn't provoke calls to build more of them. And the result is a mess--and will become a larger mess the next time gas heads north of $4 a gallon. I'm not a maximalist, either--I'm fully cognizant of the political and financial constraints which are in place, and believe that projects need to undergo public scrutiny.
However, the absolutist positions expressed by some, are extensively troubling. They're political arguments couched as technical arguments. (This is true for light-rail supporters as well). It's far more open and honest to say things such as "I think TriMet should focus on social service to the poor, and not on trying to attract motorists from their cars", rather than attacking a particular mode choice as unsound. It's better to have an open debate about values--what sort of service should be provided, then cloud that debate in pissing matches about bus vs rail. Because that's what the debate is really about. Arguments about mode choice are really arguments about values, and the vast majority of participants in transit blogs (including myself) have only a superficial understanding about the limitations of various technologies--often colored by what TriMet (or whoever the local transit agency is) does in practice.