2007 Light Rail Follies #1: State Troopers Ride Max (Portland’s Light Rail)

December 10th
By Randal O’Toole
Posted in Antiplanner, Transportation

We have a spate of light-rail follies this week. First up: Crime on Portland’s “MAX” light rail has gotten so bad that, in November, Oregon’s governor directed state police to ride the rails regularly to protect passengers from assaults. “I am absolutely adamant that its citizens feel safe at all times in using a fine mass transit system,” said the governor.

Grateful representatives of TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, expressed confidence that the troopers would be able to solve the gang-related crime problems that have plagued the light-rail system. The troopers “will allow us to better work out a long-term solution with local law enforcement people,” said TriMet’s public services director.

While potential passengers might look upon this action with relief, the only problem is that it happened in November, 1988. When TriMet opened the light-rail line in 1986, it eliminated its transit police because it did not have enough money to both operate light rail and offer passenger security. The light rail gave drug dealers and other inner-city criminals easy access to the suburbs, and soon they were intimidating and assaulting riders.

“Once we had verbal assaults,” said TriMet’s general manager in November, 1988. “Now we’re talking about knives and guns.”

Oregon’s governor in 1988 was Neil Goldschmidt, the man who, a dozen years earlier, had decided to build the light-rail line because he had a hundred million federal dollars that he had to spend on transit capital improvements–or lose the money to some other city. Buying buses wasn’t an option, because TriMet didn’t have enough money to run that many new buses. So Goldschmidt selected the light-rail technology precisely because of its high capital cost.

Goldschmidt failed to foresee that the cost would be far higher than originally projected. To make up some of the difference, TriMet cut bus service and raised fares, with the result that transit’s share of commuting fell from 9.8 percent in 1980 to 6.7 percent in 1990. Plus, of course, it cut its budget for transit police.

How well did the state troopers work out? For nearly six months, at a cost to state taxpayers of $31,000 a month, seven troopers rode the light-rail cars, ejecting riders for failing to pay their fares and discouraging members of the Crips and Blood gangs from bothering passengers.

The program hit a snag when Portland’s transit union complained that TriMet was engaging in unfair labor practices. The union was upset that TriMet cut its own transit police (who would have been transit union members) and was relying on state police instead. A labor relations board rejected the union’s complaint.

In May, 1989, Portland police took over from the state troopers, their costs being offset by a $552,000 annual payment from TriMet. Initially, only five police officers would ride transit vehicles, but they planned to increase it to seven in a few months.

This didn’t stop gang members from stealing brightly colored jackets and expensive parkas from light-rail riders in the fall of 1990. In October and November of that year, gang members would assault riders and threaten to knife them if they didn’t hand over their coats. The gangs especially favored jackets in their colors or with the logos of popular sports teams. “They’re so sporadic, there’s no way to guard against them,” said a Portland police officer.

The next step to fix MAX’s crime problems was to pair police officers with “safety teams” of teenagers wearing powder blue jackets. Beginning in May, 1991, groups of five to ten 13- to 18-year-olds would ride MAX together, joined by a police officer, to “act as a deterrent to anyone who wants to commit a crime.” I bet that worked out real well.

All of the above information is from the Oregonian, archives of which are available to subscribers of NewsBank. If you have acces to NewsBank, you can look these stories up by searching the Oregonian for the key words “light rail state troopers” in 1988 and 1989 and “light rail Portland police” in 1990 and 1991. Thanks to ORTEM for alerting the Antiplanner to this information.

Of course, as the Antiplanner has reported several times in the past few months, Portland’s light-rail crime problem is worse than ever today. TriMet’s solution: end the downtown free-fare zone. If people have to pay to get on, TriMet officials reason, criminals will be less likely to use the system.

“Fareless Square provides a free ride for panhandlers, who go back and forth between downtown and the Lloyd Center, and drug dealers and rowdy gangs of young people, homeless people and drunks who are using the train as a shelter and a place to do their business,” says TriMet’s general manager.

Even if TriMet gets rid of the free-fare zone, it is still going to have to hire a lot of fare inspectors to make sure everyone has paid their fare. Like most light-rail systems, fare payment in Portland is more-or-less on an honor system: most people never get checked to see if they are carrying a valid fare. TriMet promised to hire more security officers, but again the union is protesting because it is contracting out security to a private firm instead of directly employing police who would become union members.

The mayor of Gresham, the Portland suburb that has become the scene of a lot of this crime, argues that turnstiles and other physical barriers are needed to keep out criminals. Few if any light-rail systems rely on such barriers, mainly because most light-rail lines operate at least part of the time on ordinary city streets. However, TriMet said it would experiment with a gated entry at one of Gresham’s rail stations.

Light rail is supposed to be more efficient than buses because one driver can move far more passengers at a time. But that efficiency (which is questionable anyway — rail has lots of costs unrelated to the driver) disappears if transit agencies have to pay for security on board every rail car and at every rail station. Unless agencies do this, light rail is inherently less safe than other forms of transit, which is why federal data show that light rail is the site of far more than any other kind of transit.

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