Election results from all three of Portland, Oregon’s largest suburban counties indicate a reaction against what has been called “Portland Creep”—the expansion of the expansive light rail system without voter approval, and the imposition of restrictive densification measures by Metro, the regional land-use agency.
Portlanders in the three largest Oregon counties (Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas) had previously voted against financing light rail extensions, but the transit agency found ways to continue the expansion and now operates five lines, with a sixth under construction.
Falling Transit Use
Although urban rail aficionados tout the success of the Portland system, transit use by commuters has fallen significantly in relative terms from before the opening of the first light rail line. At the same time, working at home, which does not need billions in taxpayer subsidies, has caught up to and passed transit.
Recent electoral events could severely limit future expansion.
In a September 2012 election, voters in Clackamas County approved a measure by a 60 percent to 40 percent majority requiring any commitment of funding to rail would need a vote of the people. Perhaps fearing a negative result in the election, the pro-rail Clackamas County Commission hastily approved $20 million to support the under-construction Portland to Milwaukie (Clackamas County) light rail line.
Things became substantially more difficult for light rail in the November election. In Clackamas County the two incumbent commissioners on the ballot, both of whom voted for the $20 million bond issue, lost their seats. Voters replaced them with anti-rail commissioners, leaving the Clackamas County commission with a 3 to 2 anti-rail majority. The Oregonian characterized the election as “a referendum on light rail.”
John Ludlow, who defeated Clackamas County Commission chairwoman Charlotte Lehan by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin, told The Oregonian newspaper, “I think the biggest boost my campaign got was when those commissioners agreed to pay that $20 million to TriMet” for Portland-Milwaukie light rail four days before the September election. “I think that put Tootie and me over the top.”
“Tootie” is Tootie Smith, a former state legislator who unseated Commissioner Jamie Damon in the same election by a similar margin.
Meanwhile, light rail has run into substantial difficulty in suburban Washington County. In September, voters in King City approved a measure to require all light rail funding to be approved by the voters. In the more recent November election, voters in Tigard, the sixth-largest city (50,000 population) in the metropolitan area, voted 81 percent to 19 percent to subject all light rail expenditures to a vote of the people.
Portland’s transit agency also had its eye on expanding light rail service across the state line and the Columbia River to Vancouver, in Clark County, Washington. The plan was to build a new “Interstate Bridge” (Interstate 5) across the river, which would include light rail. The voters of Clark County were asked in a referendum to approve funding for the light rail system, and they turned it down by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin.
But there was more. For some time, citizen activist and business leader David Madore has been working to stop both tolls on the new bridge and light rail service. Madore was elected to the board of commissioners of Clark County at the same time the light rail referendum was being defeated. Madore, like the two other Clark County commissioners, also holds a seat on the transit agency board.
Tri-Met’s dire financial situation could be another barrier to future expansion. Tri-Met is the public agency that operates mass transit in the Portland area. As John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute has shown, Tri-Met’s fringe-benefit bill is astronomically high, at $1.63 for each $1.00 in wages. This is more than five times the average for public employers, according to U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis data.
Charles refers to Tri-Met as being in a “death spiral” and says, “The agency is steadily devolving from a transit district to a retirement and health-care center, with unsustainable fringe benefit costs that now far exceed the mere cost of wages.”
A version of this article first appeared at Newgeography.com. Used with permission.