Friday, May 28, 2010

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

Looking the light rail “gift horse” in the mouth

On June 1 and 2, meetings in Vancouver and Hayden Island held by the Columbia River Crossing’s Independent Review Panel will look to find public consensus for a final replacement bridge design – one that is likely to include a light rail component.

While other aspects of the new bridge, such as the number of lanes, possible tolls and ramp locations have received their fair share of public scrutiny, light rail has received something of a pass from even some stalwart anti-CRC groups on both sides of the Columbia River.

During last year’s Vancouver mayoral campaign, the proposed extension of the MAX Yellow Line into Vancouver seemed the only CRC issue incumbent Royce Pollard and then-councilmember Tim Leavitt agreed on.

And why not? Light rail train cars produce little-to-no emissions, run quietly and look like something right out of the LEGO mini-city I got my 4-year-old nephew for his birthday.

But let’s inject some badly-needed skepticism into the light rail conversation for a moment.

Light-rail is expensive. Planners estimate the cost of the extension of the Yellow Line south to Milwaukie at $36,000-per-foot – a figure likely to be comparable to other areas of proposed MAX expansion, including Vancouver. If the long-term goal of ODOT and WSDOT is to reduce vehicular traffic along the I-5 corridor, almost any other method of transporting commuters on both sides of the river – including vanpools – would be more cost-effective.

The Yellow Line extension “stub-way.” If reducing the amount of vehicular air pollution is the light rail project’s goal, the proposed Yellow Line extension might miss the point. With a terminus at Clark College, the line will likely fail to make a dent into the commuting habits of residents in neighborhoods like Hazel Dell and Salmon Creek – people who in all probability will drive alongside half-empty light rail cars on their way to work in the morning.

Clearly, there are benefits to be gained from the construction of light rail, especially for downtown Vancouver, adjacent neighborhoods and Clark College.

However, the imposition of a costly light rail system with perhaps questionable value for outlying areas of the C-Tran district should not be a foregone conclusion. In the coming months, as district voters weigh a likely sales tax hike request to pay for the project, a sober accounting of the cost vs. benefit of this undeniably sleek, silent and sexy light rail system will have to be made.


Anonymous said...

I travel overseas alot and most recently to Tokyo. Most industrialized nations have rail transit systems that are light years ahead of those in our country. They zip past traffic and are mostly clean and comfortable.

I ask myself why do all these countries invest in rail infrastructure? I don't know the answer but I have more than a niggling feeling that we are missing something. One of these days we are going to be hit by oil prices that will make us wish we had some efficient alternatives.

Anonymous said...

As a previous commuter from Downtown Vancouver to Downtown Portland, I would have used light rail in a heartbeat had it been available. But, the current terminus made it ridiculous to use. Why?
1) The worst traffic was between Mill Plain and the Delta Park exit. I just couldn't justify waiting through the worst congestion in my car and then getting off to take a longer route the rest of the way. If I could have hopped on in Vancouver, I would have. I also could have commuted into Downtown Vancouver with my husband and hopped on the rail.
2) I didn't feel safe getting off at Delta Park or the Expo Center at night. I often worked late and neither of those stops had much rail traffic after 6pm. While nothing bad ever happened, I never think it is wise to be in an isolated parking lot by yourself.
If I could have hopped on the train in Vancouver, I would have. I probably would have gotten home sooner, and I would have caught up on some sorely missed reading time.