From Portland’s TriMet to Atlanta’s MARTA
Originally published in the San Diego Free Press on March 31st 2016
Not all public transportation systems are created equal. Across the country, there’s a huge gulf between bumper-to-bumper black holes like Los Angeles versus cities like the subway-happy New York City, which boasts 660 miles of rail transit.
Many of the cities we now see as pinnacles of functional transit became that way out of utility. New Yorkers, for example, have come to see their expansive subway system as a way to escape fierce blizzards and even fiercer rush hours.
Today, however, many cities have come to see public transit as an important tool in growing in a sustainable, environmentally conscious manner. The 2015 and 2016 climate change reports increased the importance of efficient transit.
Thankfully, there are several shining examples of what local and state governments can accomplish when they wisely invest. Perhaps no region is better served by public transportation than Portland, Oregon, through its TriMet system. This kind of planning is essential to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
The size of the TriMet system (short for the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon) and number of people who ride it are small in comparison to large U.S. cities, but its impressively comprehensive system, continually modernizing technology, and its integration with active transportation make it a model for similarly sized cities (hint, San Diego).
TriMet fills downtown Portland with public transit options, but it also spreads out wide into the surrounding suburbs and cities, and its trolley system runs parallel to many of the region’s busiest highways, pushing the incentive for commuters to abandon their cars. Plus, TriMet is well integrated with Portland’s reputably amazing system of bike paths and walking trails, making the city a full-scale example of low-emission transportation.
TriMet isn’t a perfect system. Indeed, the scale doesn’t come without considerable cost which, in recent years, has overwhelmed TriMet’s budget. An Oregon Secretary of State report found that TriMet had more than $1 billion in unfunded financial obligations in the wake of the recession. To put this in context, TriMet has a 2017 budget of $511 million, and notes “Generally, the Forecast for the periods covered projects a relatively positive financial future for TriMet.”
A 2014 “telephone survey of 1,000 residents” showed TriMet’s “MAX [light rail] approval was 84 percent” and “Bus approval was 78 percent.” By contrast, in San Diego no MAX exists, and the most recent data easily available online showed “The professed satisfaction of transit [ . . . as ] 60 percent in 2009.”
San Diegans should take note of what a transit system like Portland’s can accomplish, and just as importantly, what such a system costs. Residents throughout the San Diego region have a chance to begin realizing both facets of improving our public transportation—ambitious planning and proper funding—through SANDAG’s proposed increase to the TransNet tax increase, which the region’s voters will approve or reject on the November ballot (assuming SANDAG formally decides to pursue the ballot measure on April 8).
To maximize the potential of a favorable TransNet plan, environmental, labor and other progressive voices in San Diego (SanDiego350 included) have formed the Quality of Life Coalition, advocating for the TransNet revenue to be spent in an environmentally friendly way that protects the region’s most vulnerable communities. That means revitalizing and growing our public transit system.
On the other hand, if we’re not careful, rather than a transit system like Portland’s, we could end up with one that more closely resembles the notorious MARTA system in Atlanta. According to the August 1, 2012, Atlantamagazine article “Where It All Went Wrong,” exclusionary transit mapping has led to suburban decay and worse, transit service deficiencies drawn along racial lines.
Public transportation isn’t something the region should delay for the next generation. The more we build out with roads, the more expensive and burdensome it becomes to weave transit routes within the urban sprawl.
In the wake of white flight, many Atlanta suburbs negatively viewed light rail development as a force that would connect the suburbs to the downtown cities they were trying to escape. Because of these unfortunate attitudes and compromised planning efforts, Atlanta’s transit system is struggling.
Of course, San Diego County doesn’t have the entrenched racial tension that Georgia did in the 1970s, and no one accuses those opposed to public transit in San Diego as being motivated by racial prejudices, but the lesson to take from Atlanta is that we should see public transit as something to create a united, interconnected region, as a force to prevent the isolating urban sprawl seen in areas like Atlanta where poor transit planning caused the “suburban decay, declining home values, clogged highways, and a vastly diminished reputation” also noted in that August 1, 2012, Atlanta magazine article.
Public transportation isn’t something the region should delay for the next generation. The more we build out with roads, the more expensive and burdensome it becomes to weave transit routes within the urban sprawl. According to SANDAG, sixty-nine percent of San Diego County residents work outside the region where they reside. It’s time to give them a practical alternative to Interstate-8 during rush hour.
SANDAG planners have already stated that if this TransNet increase isn’t passed—barring the introduction of another funding source—forthcoming transit projects will be left without funding. And that’s just to accomplish the bare minimum.
San Diegans deserve a TransNet increase that will allow the region to set a course toward a truly ambitious public transit expansion. Looking at Portland and Atlanta, the choice is clear. Which city our transit system will resemble two decades from now depends on decisions we make today.