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Light rail costs too much, does too little

Transportation: Planning or Procrastinating?

Jan 25


According to the Texas Transportation Institute’s annual mobility reports, traffic delays due to congestion have been growing at nearly 8 percent per year since 1982. Those who closely scrutinize urban transportation planning in the U.S. increasingly believe that planners are doing everything they can to avoid solving this problem.

Case in point: Portland, Oregon, which sits astride the Willamette River and has ten roadway crossings of that river. One of them, the Sellwood Bridge, is structurally unsound and in 2004 the county engineer has banned all trucks and buses from the bridge. I can testify that the bridge is also one of the least bicycle-friendly bridges in the city.

In 2005, Bechtel Corporation came to Multnomah County with a proposal to build a new bridge. The company would presumably recover its expenses by tolling the bridge. Such public-private partnerships have proven very successful in Europe. But Portland planners said they weren’t interested because they wanted to take lots of time to study the situation.

Planners now say it will be at least 2010 before construction on a new bridge even begins. Even though Portland’s population has grown by many times since the original Sellwood Bridge was built, the replacement bridge is almost certain to add no new capacity for autos.

This reminds of of the story of Henry Kaiser (scroll down to “7-syllable highway”), the great twentieth-century entrepreneur. In the mid 1960s, Kaiser was building a housing development about eight miles from downtown Honolulu. The only connection between Honolulu and Hawaii Kai was a narrow, two-lane road called the Kalanianaole Road. The state announced that it would do a study to see if expanding this road was feasible.

Kaiser, whose resume including building roads, dams, liberty ships, automobiles, housing developments, and hotels, among other things, visited the governor and offered to build the road for the cost of the study. The governor said that they would have to bid it out. Kaiser won the bid and finished the road in just four months, for less than both the cost and the anticipated time required for the study.

That couldn’t happen today. Instead, planners do endless studies before a spade of dirt is turned. Brookings Institution economist Clifford Winston reports, for example, that Washington Metro wanted to build a rail line to Capital Center, a popular entertainment venue. After ten years of planning and construction, the rail line was completed — three years after Capital Center closed.

Such nearly endless planning guarantees that transport systems cannot respond to congestion and changing travel patterns, even if planners wanted to (which Portland planners do not).


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Reprinted from The Antiplanner