PORTLAND – There are benefits, Mary Fetsch said, to riding the light rail system that runs from Portland International Airport to downtown. She’s seen motorists barely moving in rush hour traffic while the train glides past them, without delay.
“You look out and they’re stuck in traffic,” she said. “You’re reading a book and doing something else. While transit takes longer, typically, for most types of trips, you do get the benefit of being able to do other things while you’re riding it.”
Fetsch is the communications director for Portland’s TriMet transit agency, which operates the MAX Light Rail line. It’s a system that draws in riders, she said, who want an alternative to fighting traffic, hunting or paying for parking, and shelling out for high gas prices.
“We are basically in prevailing speed zones, so if we’re adjacent to a highway, we’re going 55 miles an hour,” she said. “But in downtown Portland, the trains make multiple stops, so they don’t go faster than 15 miles per hour.”
Four Central Florida counties – Volusia, Orange, Seminole and Osceola – are gearing up for the start of construction on a light rail system called SunRail. It’s a 61-mile commuter rail line that would run from DeBary to downtown Orlando, and then continue on to Poinciana, with several stops along the way. It’s a project — which just won the approval of Gov. Rick Scott — designed to offer transportation alternatives in a region where the car has traditionally been king.
The project has been controversial. Critics have warned that not enough people will ride SunRail, and the local communities are going to be forced to cover the maintenance costs in the years ahead. Local taxpayers, they’ve warned, will be saddled with long term debt if nobody rides SunRail.
At least in Portland and its suburbs, though, the investment in a rail line appears to have paid off.
“We’ve been running the MAX system for 25 years,” Fetsch said. “We have built five segments of it, and we’re just starting construction on our sixth MAX system. It serves the three county area and covers 52 miles, and carries 32 million trips a year. The first line opened in 1986 and the Red line from the airport opened in 2001, so it’s been 10 years now.”
Supporters of SunRail envisioned a system where other modes of transportation – buses, shuttle vans – would pick up passengers coming out of the train stations and take them to their next destination, eliminating the need for cars altogether. MAX has already done just that, Fetsch said.
“It integrates with the bus system,” she said. “So when you put that all together, we have about 100 million trips a year on our transit system. Obviously the recession has impacted everybody across the counry, but we’re still gaining ridership.”
It’s also a lot more affordable, she noted, than paying at the pump, or for urban parking fees.
“The operating cost for a bus averages $3.21,” she said. “The average cost for MAX light rail is $1.89. We run about 22 and a half hours a day. It’s intended as a service and we’re not focused on the sole return on investment. Most of our riders use both, the MAX light rail system and the bus system. About a third of the trips are on MAX, and two thirds on buses.”
Portland also invested two years ago in a new system. Westside Express Service is a 14.7 mile commuter rail line between Beaverton and Wilsonville in the Portland metropolitan area which mainly follows the Oregan Highway 217 and Interstate 5. This service opened in 2009 on upgraded existing freight rail tracks operated by the Portland 7 Western Railroad. TriMet manages and funds this service, and residents can transfer from it to MAX.
“It’s the first of its kind in the country in that it’s suburb to suburb,” Fetsch said. “It’s active freight tracks that opened in February of 2009.”
This extensive intermodel system has been a success, she said, and has succeeded in drawing people out of their cars.
“You put the right mode for the right corridor,” Fetsch said. “It’s good to carry people over longer distances.”
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