Regional policies to increase transit ridership are unevenly funded — and may not produce the desired results anyway.
Those are among the findings of an audit released by Metro Auditor Suzanne Flynn on Wednesday. It was unveiled as regional planners are preparing to approve further study of the next high-capacity transit corridor in the region, a new line between Portland and Tualatin that could cost up to $3.1 billion.
Flynn’s audit focused on three MAX stations. It found that public investment in the quarter-mile around the stations varied tremendously during the past eight years, and that the station with the lowest investment nevertheless experienced the greatest ridership increase.
Furthermore, the audit found that most frequent riders at the stations were not influenced by other public efforts to increase transit ridership. In fact, the audit found, different factors were more likely to influence their decisions to ride public transit.
“This is the first time anyone at Metro has looked retroactively at how these policies have worked out. We are recommending that Metro do more of this instead of only predicting the results its policies will have in the future,” Flynn says.
The three stations were North Killingsworth in Portland, which is along the Interstate MAX line; East 162nd Avenue, which is along the Eastside MAX line at East Burnside on the border between Portland and Gresham; and Tuality Hospital/Southeast Eighth Avenue in Hillsboro, which is along the Westside MAX line near Tuality Hospital and Pacific University’s College of Health Professions.
The audit found that $28 million in public funds had been invested in the quarter-mile around the Killingsworth station since 2005, compared with $12 million around the Tuality station and just $900,000 around the 162nd Avenue Station. The funding came primarily from local governments and was spent to encourage the construction of transit-oriented developments, such as apartment buildings with ground-floor retail spaces, and to improve pedestrian and bicycle access to the stations.
“Although we only looked at three stations, the audit suggest there are inequities in the region when it comes to public investments around MAX stations,” Flynn says.
Despite receiving the least amount of public investment, the 162nd Avenue station experienced the greatest ridership increase over the past eight years. The growth rate averaged 4.8 percent a year there, compared with 4.3 percent of the Killingsworth station and just 2.9 percent for the Tuality station.
Flynn’s office also surveyed residents around the station about various strategies to increase ridership. They included fare-reduction programs, marketing campaigns and crime-prevention efforts.
The effectiveness of the strategies varied by station areas. Although the 162nd Avenue station had the highest ridership increase, only 34 percent of its frequent riders said they were influenced by the strategies. Despite experiencing the lowest ridership increase, 52 percent of Tuality station riders — the highest percentage — said they were influenced by the strategies. The Killingsworth station was in the middle, with just under half the residents saying they were influenced by the strategies.
The audit speculated that ridership increased the most at the 162nd Avenue station because far more people live around it than the other two stations, and that population also is making them more dependent on transit.
The audit released Wednesday, “Tracking Transportation Project Outcomes: Light rail case studies suggest path to improved planning,” is a follow-up to a 2010 audit that found Metro lacked the information to determine whether the transportation policies it approves are actually helping to achieve its regional growth management goals.
The new audit found that although the regional light-rail system is owned and operated by TriMet, it is a key component of Metro’s regional growth management plan intended to reduce fuel consumption, air pollution, drive-alone trips and distances traveled by cars. It cost about $3 billion in today’s dollars to construct the MAX lines that currently operate in all three counties and more to operate them every year.
The system is scheduled to expand in 2015 with the opening of the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line, which is budgeted at around $1.5 billion.
Metro already is undertaking the planning for the next high-capacity corridor in the region, the Southwest Corridor. An advisory committee decides next month whether to study linking Portland and Tualatin with a light-rail line, a bus rapid-transit line or some combination of the two. A light-rail line with a tunnel under the Oregon Health & Science University is currently estimated at $3.1 billion.
In its written response to the audit, Metro says it agrees that the results of its transportation policies have been inconsistent within the region and should be retroactively studied. The response, written by Metro COO Martha Bennett and Planning and Development Director Robin McArthur, says the Southwest Corridor project is proactively involving the communities along the potential line to better site the stations and increase their development potential.
Flynn says she is pleased with the response, but did not see a commitment to study the results of the Southwest Corridor project retroactively. She also believes Metro should still study the results around the completed MAX stations, as recommended in the 2010 audit.
According to Flynn, Metro has a role to play in ensuring more equal treatment for the 162nd Avenue station. The audit found its location is a major reason why it has received so little public investment. The station is located on the border between Portland and Gresham, and neither city is committed to investing in the area around it. As a result, the audit says, there is little new housing or improved sidewalks and bike paths near the station.
“The unequal treatment of the Southeast 162nd Avenue station is striking. Metro is the only government that can bring Portland and Gresham together to address it,” Flynn says.