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June 25, 2022

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In Our View: Drop hyperbole in bridge-transit discussions

The Columbian
Published:

Regardless of which mode of public transit is selected for a replacement Interstate 5 Bridge, security will be a paramount concern. Safety on vehicles and near transit hubs is likely to be one of the primary talking points surrounding the transformative project.

A recent article by Columbian reporter Sarah Wolf examined policing options if TriMet’s MAX light-rail system is extended from Portland to Vancouver. It also touched upon one of the major concerns about the bridge.

To be clear, nothing has been announced regarding transit across a new bridge; light rail and C-Tran’s bus rapid transit system are possible options, considering that some of the infrastructure is already in place. But the question about policing highlights one of the largest roadblocks to construction of a new bridge.

Before the Columbia River Crossing proposal was scuttled by the Washington Legislature in 2013, one of the favored arguments from critics claimed that inviting Portland’s light rail into Clark County would also invite a criminal element. The theory says that light rail would make it easier for criminals to cross the river, perform nefarious acts, and leave the area.

References to the “crime train” became part of the vernacular, with the incendiary phraseology overshadowing any rational discussion of the issue.

Indeed, construction of new transit facilities can lead to an increase in local crime. A hub that attracts large numbers of people for any purpose will have the same impact; people are necessary for crime to occur, and transit hubs spur development and increase density. But defining the rate of criminal activity – and how much is acceptable – can be difficult.

In 2015, research from the University of Akron found the establishment of a new bus line in Cleveland “caused an increase in the mean property crime rate in the census tracts touching that line by about 1.4 percent.”

But studies following the opening of light-rail lines in Denver and Los Angeles found that surrounding neighborhoods did not experience an increase in crime rates. An analysis of those studies concluded, “it is the neighborhood’s characteristics – demographic, socioeconomic, and land use – that influence crime rates. When those neighborhood factors, such as population density and the amount of commercial lands, are accounted for, having a transit station does not result in more neighborhood crime.”

And a study from the University of Pennsylvania looked at the Los Angeles transit system over a 27-year period that included two extended strikes by transit workers. The conclusion: “We find no evidence that new transit station openings or a disruption in transit due to strikes result in changes in crime in surrounding neighborhoods.”

While it is difficult to find a definitive answer to the relationship between crime and public transit, the issue warrants thoughtful discussion. But there are problems with suggestions that light rail will lead to an increase in crime from bad actors traveling north of the Columbia River.

One of those problems is the premise that we don’t have our own criminals in Clark County. This is provably false.

Another problem is the idea that would-be criminals currently are unable to cross the river. Public transit will enhance mobility between the states, but it’s not as if there currently is a wall between them.

Public safety will, indeed, be an important aspect of transit plans. But in assessing that safety, we would be better off to take a sober look at the issue rather than to engage in hyperbole.

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