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By Willoughby Mariano June 12, 2012

Transportation tax foe says transit-friendly city rarely rides rail

Georgia temperatures are beginning to heat up. And so is the rhetoric over the proposed 1 percent sales tax hike to fund metro Atlanta transportation projects.

Transportation tax opponent Steve Brown recently told metro voters that Portland, Ore., is a cautionary tale for fans of public transit.

Yes, Portland. That town whose residents are so in love with its buses and rail that others mock them for it.

An attendee at a forum hosted by the Republican Women of Cherokee County called MARTA a business failure and asked panelists why the 10-year tax would fund a slate of projects that include public transit.

That’s when Brown, a Fayette County commissioner, brought up Portland. He called it "the most transit-friendly city in the United States of America."

"And they’ve never gotten over 12 to 15 percent ridership in the past 12 years," Brown said.


The metro Atlanta tax, which is up for a vote July 31, would raise about $7.2 billion for road and transit projects, or as much as $8.5 billion after inflation. It would fund 157 projects in metro Atlanta, including roads, bridges and rail. No rail is slated for Cherokee County.

Brown opposes the tax for a number of reasons. One is that he thinks it would fund too much mass transit.

First, a word on "ridership." Transportation policy wonks use this term to refer to a very specific thing, and it’s not what Brown described.

"Ridership" is the number of times a passenger boards public transportation. In metro Portland, that number is rising.

Fourth quarter 2002 data show there were about 288,000 boardings on Portland’s TriMet public transit system on an average weekday, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Ten years later, it was 323,000. That’s an increase of about 12 percent.    

(This does not necessarily mean more people are riding TriMet. Ridership can increase if passengers make more transfers.)

We realize, though, that average folks might not care about the technical definition of "ridership." Brown spoke in percentage terms, so we think it’s fair to say that the audience got the impression that he was talking about the percentage of Portland-area residents who ride transit.        

Brown backed up his point by sending PolitiFact Georgia data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s yearly American Community Survey. They describe what forms of transportation commuters use to get to their jobs.

They showed that from 1997 through 2008, between 12 percent and 15 percent of Portlanders mainly used public transportation to get to work. The most recent ACS data showed this percentage remained near 12 percent from 2006 through 2010.  

Brown sent us other surveys by the city of Portland that show similar results.

The share of commuters shrinks to about 6 percent when you include metro workers who live outside the city’s boundaries, according to ACS data. This number has also held steady in recent years.

But commutes are only one part of the story. Riders also use it to go to school or events, to run errands, or to take trips to the airport.

We talked to Jarrett Walker, a public transit expert whom Brown suggested we contact. Walker’s website is where Brown got his ACS numbers. We also talked to Alan Pisarski, an expert on road congestion and how people use different forms of transportation.

Pisarski said the "lion’s share" of trips on public transit are for work, and the percentage of commuters who use it during the height of rush hour can have the greatest impact on traffic congestion.

But, Pisarski said, the ACS measures commuter behavior only.

Walker thinks it’s a bad idea to predict the effects of an expanded MARTA system based on Portland’s experience. The success of a planned system depends more on how the land around potential stations develops.

"It doesn't matter much how many people use it occasionally or the balance between regular and occasional riders," Walker told PolitiFact Georgia.

Nationally, commuting trips make up about 60 percent of transit rides, according to data from a five-year study by the American Public Transportation Association that was released in 2007.

A 2010 survey by TriMet found that 80 percent of adults in the system’s service area ride it. Some 43 percent use the system occasionally, regularly or frequently.

Of TriMet’s frequent and regular riders, 44 percent use it primarily to travel to work while 26 percent use it primarily for school.

These percentages have held steady for the past 10 years, TriMet data showed.

The survey’s sample size of 1,000 adults is small and the research was conducted by an agency with a big stake in the results, but we think TriMet’s findings are reasonable. We compared its results with the ACS and found they square with each other.

Our ruling:

If Brown said that the percentage of Portland adults who use public transit to get to work has stayed between 12 percent and 15 percent, his claim would have been accurate.

But that’s not what he said. Brown said Portland has "never gotten over 12 to 15 percent ridership" of its public transit system "in the past 12 years."

This gives the impression that only a tiny percentage of adults in TriMet’s service area use the system. But a credible source of data shows that about 40 percent use it a couple of times a month or more. Include infrequent riders and that number climbs to 80 percent.

Furthermore, "ridership," as transit experts understand it, is up.

Brown’s statement would be correct if he were just talking about Portland commuters.

But the actual "ridership" (Brown’s word) increases substantially when you include the people who use rail a few times a month. Throw in infrequent riders and the number skyrockets.

Brown’s statement is misleading and needs a lot of context to move any higher on the Truth-O-Meter.

He earns a Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources, "Mike Alexander, ARC, Tells the Truth about T-SPLOST Taxes Going to MARTA Operations and Maintenance," May 23, 2012

American Public Transportation Association, Ridership Report Archives, Fourth Quarter 2002 - 2011

American Public Transportation Association, "A Profile of Public Transportation Passenger Demographics and Travel Characteristics Reported in On-Board Surveys," May 2007

Cherokee Tribune, "Local officials voice opposition to TSPLOST," May 23, 2012 

TriMet, 2010 Customer Profile, June 2011,

Human Transit blog, "Portland: A challenging chart," Jan. 9, 2010

U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, accessed June 6, 7 and 8, 2012

City of Portland, 20th Annual Community Survey Results, Nov. 2010

Telephone interview, Alan E. Pisarski, transportation consultant, June 7, 2012

Email interview, Jarrett Walker, transportation consultant, June 7, 2012

Email interview, Steve Brown, commissioner, Fayette County, June 6 and 8, 2012

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Transportation tax foe says transit-friendly city rarely rides rail

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