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Local elections show that light rail has become a great divider

rose quarter MAXLight rail was supposed to bring us together.

MAX beats bus in every opinion poll and every consumer survey. Powered by the conviction (supported by plenty of data) that light rail is the key to recruiting new transit riders, TriMet has spent $3 billion on its rail system, customized its agency from top to bottom to maximize federal rail construction grants and, two years ago, hired its top rail-builder as its chief executive.

But Tuesday’s elections showed that the growth of light rail has become perhaps the deepest and most powerful disagreement between Portland and its suburbs.

Nobody loves rail transportation more than “Choo-choo” Charlie Hales, godfather of Portland Streetcar and Portland’s next mayor. His No. 1 campaign donor? Stacy and Whitbeck, the local company that’s built every Portland rail project for 20 years.

But if you were making a list of light rail haters, you’d have a hard time choosing among presumptive Clackamas County Chair John Ludlow, presumptive Clark County Commissioner David Madore or presumptive Clark County Commissioner Tom Mielke.

Combine that with a very solid defeat of C-Tran Proposition 1 in Clark County, which would have paid for operation of light rail across a new Interstate 5 bridge, and you’ve got an increasingly clear majority of suburban Portlanders who seem to see light rail as a luxury they don’t find worth the price.

There’s little question that most people who use public transit like the MAX and are happy to be paying for it on their own local payroll and federal income taxes.

But even in greater Portland, transit riders are far from a majority. And tonight’s results clearly show that in Portland’s suburbs, the majority is ready to fight back against things transit riders like.

Update: Excellent point on Facebook from reader (and former TriMet employee) Thomas Le Ngo: “The problem does not necessarily lie in the suburbs as it lies in the exurbs. Both Clark and Clackamas Counties cover huge amounts of rural areas. That’s where the Tea Party fanaticism has its stranglehold on Portland and its suburbs.”

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