Why Is Portland’s Transit Chief Advocating for More Highways?

TriMet's Neil McFarlane is perfectly willing to undermine transit with highway expansions. His agency will get a light rail expansion in the bargain. Photo:  Bike Portland
TriMet's Neil McFarlane is perfectly willing to undermine transit with highway expansions. His agency will get a light rail expansion in the bargain. Photo: Bike Portland

After suffering an embarrassing defeat a year ago, the Oregon highway lobby is rattling the can for more money again. They have a list of highways they want to widen, and they say Portland’s economy depends on it.

In addition to the usual suspects like the Portland Business Alliance, the highway cheerleaders include Neil McFarlane, general manager of TriMet, the regional transit agency. Why would a transit chief support road projects that weaken the transit system? Michael Andersen at Bike Portland has the answer:

The top executive of Portland’s mass transit agency said this week that the Portland region has four top transportation priorities, and three of them are to expand capacity of urban freeways.

“These are projects we’ve known we need to do for some time,” Neil McFarlane told the Washington County Public Affairs Forum on Monday, according to the Portland Tribune. “They are necessary to keep our region moving and our arterials flowing.”

Why is the head of a transit agency actively promoting freeway expansion projects?

The fourth project, McFarlane said, is a proposed light-rail line through Southwest Portland into Tigard and Tualatin, along either Barbur Boulevard or Interstate 5.

Contrary to the warnings about impending economic failure, Andersen points out that Portland’s economy is outperforming the rest of the state by just about every metric, despite its relatively low number of freeway miles. In fact, since 2008, Portland’s GDP has grown faster than any other metro area in the nation. Andersen says:

Traffic congestion is not a cause of economic collapse. It is an effect of economic success.

In fact, the choices that lead to congestion — a relatively compact urban area that hasn’t been sliced up by freeways, and has spent its money on things like mass transit and libraries and parks and restaurants instead — might actually be a cause of economic success.

It is true that the Portland area’s auto congestion is annoying. But attempting to “fix” it — at least in the way that Courtney and apparently TriMet are urging us to — is the last thing Oregon’s economy needs.

More recommended reading today: Systemic Failure criticizes the bipartisan consensus around funding infrastructure by repatriating overseas corporate profits. FABB Blog explains how a British county is enforcing safe-passing rules to protect cyclists. And Modern Cities shares photos of recent walking and biking improvements in Tampa.

40 thoughts on Why Is Portland’s Transit Chief Advocating for More Highways?

  1. This is truly crazy. Is he getting some $$ for his support? Supporting bigger highways is perhaps the quickest way to destroy a transit system’s ridership and sprawl out a region. Get rid of this guy!

  2. Congestion is a sign of the public taking advantage of a government subsidy. If roads were priced based on their value, there would be no congestion. Instead, we would have a system that rewards more efficient vehicle transportation. We would have private/public on-demand comfortable vans, shuttle, and buses moving around on uncongested roads. Rail lines would only go where the transportation corridor demand causes pricing to reach a level that impedes increased density. The worst thing governments do is expand on an already heavily subsidized system, which lead to further addictive behavior for more subsidies. Road pricing to control the number of vehicles on the road is the only way forward for a healthy transportation and economic future.

  3. Last year when I visited I took the light rail/streetcar whenever possible. However, when I looked at a map of the city I was really amazed that

  4. In SF, the vision is to tear down portions of freeways and dump traffic on surface streets. Meanwhile, investment in transit upgrades continues to stall.

  5. He’s ‘shilling’ for roads because he wants a tax increase. The easiest way to get that approved is to offer something for the 90% of residents that dont use public transportation.

    It’s common sense

  6. 2 of the highway projects actually make sense (217 and 205 widenings, because they get rid of short stretches of 2 lane highway in between 3 lane stretches of highway, but his proposal to expand the 5 through Rose Quarter is horrendous–that is a stretch of freeway that should be removed altogether. Furthermore, he ignores the very real need for several new LRT lines (Oregon City MAX, Vancouver MAX, and Downtown Subway LRT.)

  7. Portland’s economy depends on reigning in the housing prices, population growth and hate groups more than anything else at this point.

  8. Actually the section that needs to be removed worse would be the Mile 300 interchange that was added early last decade (or was it in the late 1990s?) connecting I 5 Northbound to I 84 East. Really I 5 could be removed between the current Mile 299 and Mile 300 (basically the Harbor Freeway/Stadium Freeway/Marquam Bridge interchange) to the I 84 interchange, including the Marquam Bridge. Before the Mile 300 interchange opened, the whole loop actually worked better with traffic going to I 84 East having to do so via I 405…

  9. Freight makes sense in Portland. It’s one of the west coast’s largest ports and the one best connected to rail.

  10. Are there two lanes out of the city? Yep. Freight has plenty of space. Arguing Freight needs more lanes is like arguing your opioid drug addicted cousin needs more pharmacies around the corner.

  11. Freeways are surface streets. Just without access to anything but exit ramps. Plus they are great places to die-often. Many cities around the world do just fine without highways bisecting them..

  12. If you’re defining Portland proper as “anything within a 40 mile radius of the Burnside Bridge”, sure.

  13. Maybe Portland should get an economy that isn’t based entirely on heroine, meth and the damn port then.

  14. I think TriMet lacks the will to increase the capacity to deal with that. The Banfield mainline’s needed express tracks since the Red Line opened to the airport. Not to mention the shit bus capacity on the feeder lines since they keep cutting bus routes, frequency of service and the size of the buses.

  15. As someone who has worked in the freight industry in Portland, it’s just fine. Quit shilling for Trump

  16. Widening will simply move the gridlock into the void you just created. Widening is pointless and Oregon has proven over and over this point.

  17. Of course he is getting something. He isn’t stupid. He, for whatever reason, is trying to kill trimet by eliminating buses in favor of very expensive trains.

  18. If Portland were truly visionary, it would be to take down 405. Dig it under, sell the land to commerical and residential developers.

  19. I’m not shilling for Trump. Portland’s just a transportation hub. It was briefly more in the 90s, now it’s just a place Seattle sends it’s homeless on greyhound and a place to load things from ships to trucks and vice versa. Nothing wrong with that so long as Portland realizes it’s going to be another hundred years before it’ll be more than that again.

  20. Would not consider a town that consumed more transportation dollars on a single project as visionary. If they truly would have gotten rid of the freeway, then maybe.

  21. They are already gridlocked. Highway expansions are “reactive” meaning they should have been done years ago.

    But, we have WES Commuter Rail, a system that hardly anybody uses, because it goes nowhere, requires multiple transit connections at BOTH ends of the trip, doesn’t serve any destinations on its own (despite passing within a mile or two of several very large transit destinations, but with absolutely poor or non-existent connections), and doesn’t operate when the transit need is greatest.

    205 and 217 needed to be widened in 1990. That’s why they are gridlocked today, and if we simply add one lane of travel to each highway, they will still be gridlocked.

  22. “Nobody drives in Portland. Too much traffic”

    Wow…70% of people is “nobody”.

    Actually 80% of trips taken in Portland are single-occupant motor vehicle trips. Transit accounts for about 6%. Carpooling is miniscule; and the increase in cycling trips mirrors the drop in bus trips.

  23. Do you want to live in a 10 story building directly underneath the flight path to a major airport that also hosts an Air Force base with fighter jets on 24/7 alert?

    I’ve stood inside that Target store when four F-15s take off on an alert mission. I’d rather live next to a railroad yard.

  24. Why should a DOT head give up their driver’s license?

    Now, the head of a transit agency, sure…

  25. Just because WES sucks doesn’t mean the freeways need to be widened. You nailed the real problem: The whole transit network sucks.

    Freeways work great in rural areas, but suck for cities and suburbs.

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