Sunday, April 25, 2010
WES COMMUNTER RAIL: Supporting urban sprawl?
When will WES prove itself? Tri-Met's Wilsonville-to-Beaverton commuter rail still suffering growing pains
By The Oregonian
March 08, 2010, 7:54PM
After a year of disappointing ridership and frequent breakdowns on WES, TriMet is expected to trumpet a rare piece of good news about Oregon's only commuter-rail line this week.
Preliminary numbers show average daily ridership reached 1,260 in February, marking two straight months of growth for the much-maligned Beaverton-to-Wilsonville service.
Just two months ago, ridership on WES -- $161.2 million to build and 10 times more expensive to operate per rider than MAX -- appeared to be on a steady slide, attracting 1,075 passengers a day.
"We're officially in Year Two now," said TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch.
True. On a cold morning commute last month, the Westside Express Service turned 1. But the first year may have only reinforced questions about whether TriMet inflated ridership projections to get federal funding and if the 14.7-mile line can ever be viable.
Ridership hasn't been the only letdown.
In 13 months, myriad mechanical problems – from faulty wiring to blooming cottonwoods along the tracks clogging engines – have forced WES riders off the system's three brand new diesel-power trains onto cramped shuttle buses on 16 full days.
On the weekday-only WES, that has added up to more than three weeks with disruptions. Still, many regular riders are sticking with the service.
"WES is great, and not just because it saves me two tanks of gas each month," said Canby resident Deborah Guinther, a funeral home assistant who was on a sunrise train to Tualatin recently. "Of course, if I pull in and see a TriMet shuttle bus waiting for me, I just drive to work."
TriMet dismisses the trains' regular trips to the garage as first-year hiccups. The agency expects the disruptions to become far less frequent once two vintage locomotives purchased for $150,000 from the Alaska Railroad are tuned-up as backups this summer.
As far as ridership, TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen says it's way too early to say if the agency's heavy-rail gambit was a mistake. "If we weren't in the worst recession since the Great Depression," Hansen said, "I think it would be a different story."
Perhaps. But the federal government, which paid for nearly half of WES' construction, has always had doubts about the line's ability to attract riders.
During the planning process, federal officials repeatedly challenged estimates submitted by TriMet as too high. Eventually, the Federal Transportation Administration, commonly known as the FTA, approved WES with anticipated average daily ridership of 1,594 during its first year, increasing to 3,037 by 2020.
The only string attached to $59 million in federal money was that WES operate for at least 20 years.
Nationwide, transit agencies vying for funding from the billion-dollar New Starts program have "systematically overestimated" ridership, a federal study found. Even so, the FTA "really had this project under the microscope," said Ross Roberts, a Metro deputy director of planning and development, who worked with TriMet on the projections. "We had a number of very intense sessions."
A Metro computer program looking at travel times, ticket costs and demographics, among other things, calculated ridership.
In the past, the model for local projects have proven to be spot-on -- or even understated. Only MAX's Yellow Line through North Portland failed to meet first-year estimates, while the entire light-rail system has exceeded opening projections by about 3 percent.
TriMet didn't help dampen expectations when it revised estimates in early 2009, predicting 2,400 daily WES riders the first year. By July, officials had stepped back from that number.
In the United States, there's no other suburb-to-suburb commuter rail line quite like WES, just a handful of stops with only one end connecting to a larger rail network. So, it's hard to draw comparisons when measuring success.
Washington County Chairman Tom Brian, who some critics have accused of pressuring TriMet into building WES, said the ridership projections -- produced before the recession -- were bound to fail with Oregon's economic crash. Patience, he said.
"I think it's a temporary problem," he said. "It was for commuters. And there are fewer jobs to commute to right now."
But while officials wait for the economic engine in the high-traffic corridors linking Beaverton, Tualatin, Tigard and Wilsonville to rev up, WES is proving costly to run.
TriMet pays $50.47 per train mile to operate WES, compared with $16.20 for MAX. Meanwhile, broken down by passengers, TriMet spends an average of $20 per boarding; the same cost on MAX is less than $2.
Those costs, TriMet says, will come down as ridership goes up.
But it's hard to find a realistic route that would allow WES to ever meet ridership goals.
Federal rail authorities say it's reasonable to expect ridership to grow strongest in a new line's early years, averaging about 3 percent annually. Using that formula, daily WES ridership would still barely hit more than 1,600 passengers by 2020 -- roughly half of TriMet's projection.
Hansen admits it will be tough. "Was that projection too high?" he said. "My guess is, it was a bit too high."
At the same time, he expects WES ridership might grow by 50 percent once people "discover" it and TriMet begins actively marketing the service.
No amount of advertising, however, can change the monster challenge of WES' location.
Part of MAX's success have been efforts that have spawned mixed-use developments featuring housing around light rail stations. More people closer to MAX increases the likelihood it will be used.
Contrast that with WES, which uses an existing rail line -- a noisy amenity that's more compatible with the rumble of Chicago than the casual whisper of the Portland region's light rail culture.
Look no further than concerns in Tualatin, where frequent horn noise from WES has prompted about $3 million in safety upgrades to create "quiet zones."
There's also the fact that TriMet's lease to use Portland and Western Railroad's freight tracks doesn't allow WES much room to expand beyond 32 daily rush-hour trips. The current contract would only allow the addition of a midday commuter run. Weekends are a non-starter.
Looking at the recent uptick in ridership, TriMet suspects a group of commuters stumbled onto WES during the December snowstorm. While light rail and bus routes experienced severe delays, WES' powerful trains plowed through the ice and snow, keeping their schedule.
On a southbound train with 50 souls aboard last week, there were only two complaints about WES -- no park and ride at the Beaverton Transit Center, and TriMet's proposal to cut service from every 30 minutes to 45 to help fill a $27 million budget hole.
"WES is awesome," said 44-year-old warehouse worker Chris Shaw. "But I don't know if I have 15 minutes of leeway in my morning schedule."
Richard England, a 59-year-old software engineer who was checking e-mail with the train's free wifi, said the change might also force him to drive more days.
The engineer's voice crackled over the intercom, directing riders to look at the windows at a rainbow on the horizon. England chuckled.
"But you know," he said, "this trip also saves wear and tear on my psyche. My wife likes it because I'm not coming home furious at some idiot who cut me off on 217."
-- Joseph Rose and Brad Schmidt