In Our View: Light-Rail Lesson

Portland's MAX system learns that reducing security leads to increased crime statistics



Crimes have increased in Portland’s light-rail system, and many Clark County residents are understandably concerned, to put it mildly. The Columbia River Crossing’s plans for replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge include a light-rail extension into Vancouver, and as we noted in an editorial two years ago, light rail will never succeed here if safety concerns are not addressed and resolved.

This is not rocket science, and it’s not so much a transit issue as it is a matter of law enforcement. It is no coincidence that in 2010, when crimes on MAX trains increased 14 percent, TriMet also reduced the number of fare “supervisors” from 30 to 13 due to severe budget restrictions. (These are the security officers who patrol MAX trains looking for fare evaders and potential crime suspects.) So, rather than jumping to the conclusion that light rail is a crime conduit, it’s more logical to deduce that, when enforcement goes down, crime goes up. And that applies to most areas of our society.

If every decision revolves around the possibility of crime, then no one would do anything. No one should tolerate crime on light rail, and we should do everything necessary to prevent it. But the world can’t come to a halt because of it.

If you used the light-rail critics’ logic that we shouldn’t have light rail because there will be crime, then one could argue we should not be allowed to drive because we know there will be drunks on the road. No one should tolerate drunks on the road, and we should do everything we can to prevent drunks on the road, but the world can’t come to a halt because of it.

A close examination of facts will guide folks on this side of the river to a better understanding of what’s going on in Portland’s light-rail system:

When studying 2010 statistics, it helps to remember that crime rates on MAX trains actually decreased 19 percent in 2009, and that was after an 18 percent decrease in 2008.

A Thursday story in The Oregonian quantified what happens when security efforts are reduced. Last year, inspectors issued 20,139 verbal warnings to fare cheats and issued 5,102 citations. Those numbers the year before were 20,154 and 6,027, respectively. We say part of the answer is more citations and fewer warnings. Also last year, 3,319 repeat offenders of fare policies and other rules were banned from the MAX system, down from 3,816 in 2009.

Another explanation for the 2010 increase in crime on MAX trains: The system is bigger. Last year brought the extension of the Green Line 8.3 miles to Clackamas Town Center. As The Oregonian reported, take out crimes committed on that extension, and the system-wide increase in crime is 1 percent, still unacceptable but understandable in light of the reduction in security staff.

TriMet announced on Thursday that it will use a $1.9 million federal grant to add security cameras at nine more light-rail stations, which means 74 of 84 MAX platforms will be covered. But studies have shown mixed results on the effectiveness of security cameras.

The Oregonian quoted Shelly Lomax, TriMet’s executive director of operations: “We made some tough cuts in fare enforcement to preserve service as much as possible. Now we’re asking, ‘Did we go too far?’”

Apparently so. The lesson is simple: When you run out of money, cut service before cutting security. And that holds true for public transit systems on both sides of the Columbia River.