Independent CRC analysis critical of light rail

Comparison with buses performed by Calif. consultant

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

Updated: October 20, 2011, 7:14 PM

 

A trip from downtown Vancouver to downtown Portland would take more than twice as long on a light rail train as it would on existing bus service, a recent analysis of Columbia River Crossing plans found.

Oakland, Calif.-based transportation consultant Tom Rubin used CRC plans, plus C-Tran and TriMet schedules, to put travel times by each mode of transportation side by side for the same route — and questioned why the project’s final environmental impact statement didn’t fully do the same.

The results? Taking light rail from Vancouver’s Washington Street and West 15th Street to Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square would take 36 minutes on the train, according to Rubin. C-Tran’s existing No. 105 route makes almost the same trip in 15 minutes, if it’s on schedule. And bus rapid transit — another high-capacity alternative considered by CRC planners — could do it in 14 minutes, according to Rubin.

Project planners chose light rail as the preferred alternative in 2008.

“I’ve seen dozens, perhaps hundreds of studies, and I’ve never seen one where the travel time goes up, let alone more than doubles,” Rubin said.

Light rail is only a portion of the estimated $3.1 billion to $3.5 billion project that would also replace the Interstate 5 Bridge span between Washington and Oregon, plus expand the freeway on both sides of the Columbia River. For cars and buses, building the project would significantly cut down on travel times compared with leaving the bridge as is, said CRC spokeswoman Anne Pressentin.

“The paper that Mr. Rubin did didn’t really paint a complete picture,” she said.

Most travel time comparisons in the final environmental impact statement, or FEIS, look at how various modes of transit would fare in a build or no-build option, Pressentin said. She also pointed to the project’s Transit Technical Report that further explores those scenarios.

The only side-by-side comparison of bus to light rail to BRT in the FEIS, Rubin said, measures a trip from Mill Plain Boulevard to the Portland Expo Center just across the Columbia. Light rail comes out on top in that comparison.

But that’s a curious choice, Rubin said, and likely doesn’t reflect travel times to other, more common destinations like downtown Portland.

Rubin wrote “… this may be one of only a small number of trips where light rail may have a travel time advantage — and I am far from convinced if light rail even does have an advantage here.”

Pressentin said that example was likely used because a BRT line would have extended only as far as the Expo Center before passengers switched to either traditional bus or existing light rail — it wouldn’t have extended all the way into downtown Portland. That’s one of many examples planners looked at exhaustively, she said.

“It’s not like everybody is going from downtown Vancouver to downtown Portland,” Pressentin said. “We looked at a variety of markets.”

Much of the side-by-side evaluation of transit options happened as part of the draft environmental impact statement process, before the choice was made, Pressentin said. The FEIS further develops a preferred light rail alternative that was picked by local leaders more than three years ago, she said.

Rubin’s analysis adds to a list of critical voices that have weighed in on the megaproject in recent months. He spoke at this month’s “Bridging the Gaps” event, sponsored by the American Dream Coalition, a Florida-based group that on its website labels rail transit projects as “boondoggles.” Rubin said he then decided to look deeper into travel times and the FEIS, and was not paid for that work.

Forensic accountant Tiffany Couch, hired by Vancouver businessman and CRC critic David Madore to analyze the project’s finances, also presented at Bridging the Gaps. She said Rubin’s work only adds to the questions raised about the CRC.

“I consider Mr. Rubin’s findings to be another piece of information that is critical, informative, but also troubling,” Couch wrote in an email. “We have another expert who is pointing out a significant discrepancy in yet a different area of this project. Thus far, there have been experts warning all of us about issues with the cost of the bridge; issues with the financing of the bridge; issues with the bridge design; and of course, issues with the bidding, contracting and accounting process. This is yet a different perspective.”

Rubin acknowledged that the travel times in his analysis wouldn’t always hold true. Light rail schedules are fairly consistent, but buses can fluctuate widely depending on traffic. Still, he said even a bus stuck in a freeway crawl would rarely approach the time it takes a light rail train to make the same trip. Pressentin noted reliability as one of the key benefits of light rail.

Rubin questioned how many people would be willing to use a light rail system that’s significantly slower than existing bus service — and accounts for about $850 million of the CRC price tag.

CRC planners sent the FEIS to federal authorities last month. A record of decision is due by the end of this year, which planners hope keeps the project on track to secure funding and break ground by 2013.