Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, Wes

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

It never is, of course--at least not when things go wrong. But for the past decade, Washington County officials--noting the success of MAX, had dreams of their own rail line whisking commuters and shoppers up and down the busy I-5/OR217 corridor. With no money available to expand the freeway (a project that would generate intense opposition in any case), and no money to build a MAX line--commuter rail seemed like a good idea. The old Oregon Electric right-of-way, while an active freight line, didn't get much traffic, was in relatively good shape, and passed through the cities of Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin, and Wilsonville--all important employment centers.

But today, the vision has come to fruition, and the dreams which were dreamed ten years ago have turned into nightmares. The Westside Express Service, or WES, for short, has been nothing but a disaster for TriMet. The project had numerous problems during its construction--from a failing rolling stock vendor, to exorbitant fees for parts of the right of way, to the straitjacket of FRA regulations more geared towards long-haul freight--and then the line opened up during the worst recession since at least the early 1980s, if not before. Today's story in the Oregonian goes into many of the dirty details, but some of the more salient bits:
  • $50 per vehicle hourtrain-mile to operate.
  • $20 cost per boarding ride (passengers pay an all-zone TriMet fare of $2.30 for a ride; assuming they don't have a pass).
  • Last month, 1260 passengers per day. That's about half of what an average bus line does--not the system, not the high-volume lines like the #33, but an average line.
Ouch. For those numbers, TriMet could almost--not quite, but almost--replace the service with a fleet of taxicabs, 3 passengers per. Except that as part of the federal funding agreement, the service needs to be in place for 20 years. Washington County, which pushed for the service, is currently contributing part of the funds, but at some point it will be TriMet's baby.

Even the optimistic service projections (which are now being called BS by some), only reach in the low thousands.

Right service, wrong place

When the line was being developed, it was widely touted as the only suburb-to-suburb commuter line in the United States. This was viewed as innovation. Perhaps it should have been a red flag--after all, there is ample evidence (with Wes now added to the exhibit folder) that such services don't work. Commuter lines, when they do work, connect major cities together, or major cities to distant exurbs. Sounder, up in the Seattle area, runs between Tacoma and Everett, a distance of 82 miles, stopping on average once every ten miles. Commuter rail between Portland and Salem (possibly including Vancouver in the mix) would probably be successful--Amtrak Cascades does a lot of commuter business despite a relatively infrequent schedule. But the distance covered by WES is too short; none of the cities involved is driver unfriendly (virtually all Washington County employers have ample free parking), and the connecting transit services are spotty in many cases. Plus, two stops (Hall/Nimbus and Wilsonville) are mainly useful as park-and-rides, and numerous important destinations along the corridor--Washington Square, Bridgeport Village, and Wilsonville Town Center--are quite a bit distant from the nearest stop.

What the corridor needs, is what planners concluded they couldn't afford--true mass transit (running on frequent headways, all day), not peak-hour commuter rail.

The Future?

The Metro High Capacity System plan has some interesting details in it. Of a handful of corridors examined, three were designated as "high priority" corridors, indicated in green on the map. One of them, the Barbur Boulevard corridor, is next in line (after Milwaukie MAX). Another, though, is the WES corridor--Beaverton to Wilsonville. Planners at Metro realize that mass transit is what is needed here.

However, the form of this future transit service is an open question--several notes in the planning document indicate that HCT in this corridor probably won't be LRT or anything else--but more WES, running all day. Which brings up some interesting questons:
  • How would the region pay to operate that?
  • The P&W railroad seems unwilling to expand WES service hours, as it interferes with their freight operations. Without a change of heart, an alternate ROW for freight, or a severe drop in P&W's shipping business, how would expanded service be accomodated?
  • At headways more frequent than 30 minutes, the significant number of single-tracked sections along the line becomes an issue.
  • 5 stops is probably adequate for commuter rail, but a rapid transit line generally benefits from stop spacings in the 3000-6000 feet range. Are stops going to be added?
At this point, no serious route planning has been done on the corridor (at least none that has been published); and it may be the case that the "expanded WES" claim is there to avoid any Federal objections concerning future cancellation of the service. But a replacement or expansion of service along the corridor, in whatever form, is probably a decade off--and in the meantime, WES trains will rumble along through Washington County every 3045 minutes. Weekday mornings and evenings, that is.

And somehow, tri-county taxpayers will be paying for it.

Happy birthday, Wes.

1 comment:

  1. LOL!
    Very good piece of work, I love the taxicab idea!


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