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Seattle and Portland regional transit operating costs -- adjusted for size of service area, performance, and regional cost of living -- are remarkably equivalent

by John Niles

Revised May 3, 2013

The following analysis incorporates data reported to the Federal Transit Administration on transit operations.  2011 data is the most recent.  Capital expenditures for construction of facilities and purchase of rolling stock are not included.

Portland has one combined bus and rail agency, TriMet. It covers three Oregon counties with 1.5 million people.  The three counties of central Puget Sound have not one, but five agencies providing bus and rail transit for a service area population of 2.8 million, 85% more people than Portland.  These five agencies -- Sound Transit, King County Metro, Pierce Transit, Community Transit, and Everett Transit -- work together to coordinate service and revenue strategy.

Portlandís TriMet spent $393 million in transit operating expenditures in 2011 serving its citizens, and the resulting share of workers on transit was 6.3%.  Seattle does better with its five-agency system, with 8.1% of workers riding buses and trains to their jobs, according to the Census Bureau.  A transit market share of 8.1% calculates to being 29% better than 6.3%, a mark of Seattleís transit success.

At the same time, the five transit agencies of central Puget Sound in 2011 spent much more on transit operations -- $1.1 billion.   Thatís almost three times as much as Portland spent, which partially reflects a more populous service area, more riders, and a higher cost of living.

To see how Portlandís transit cost informs Seattle, we can take the TriMet expense number as a base and adjust it upward twice, first to reflect that central Puget Sound has 85% more people and second to reflect our 29% better market share outcome.  

Making Portlandís $393 million 85% larger to account for Seattleís bigger population, and then bumping up the population-adjusted cost by an additional 29% to account for Seattle-area transitís better commuter attraction brings us to a cost of $936 million that reflects Portlandís approach while adjusted for population and performance differences in the Puget Sound region.

We have thus begun to construct a model of Puget Soundís transit expenditures step-by-step from Portlandís.

Seattleís five transit agencies consume $1.10 billion annually, $166 million above the $936 million we have calculated so far. However, if we adjust the $936 million for a third time in this comparison, up by 23% to reflect the higher cost of living in Seattle, our transit cost derived from Portland's numbers reaches $1.15 billion, very close to what is actually spent in Seattle area.

This near equivalency is remarkable, or perhaps coincidental, when the differences in agency structure and rail-bus mix are understood.  Portland as of 2011 had a lot more light rail in operation than Seattle. By this analysis the greater rail network in Portland is apparently not creating more operational efficiency than Seattle is seeing with its still limited light rail operations.  Seattle's cost for each passenger boarding a train in its small rail network was higher than for its buses in 2011, while the opposite is true in Portland.

At the same time, the projected future operating costs for bus service around Seattle are alarming, as described here.

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Last modified: May 03, 2013

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