Look on our light-rail system, ye Austinites, and despair.

The city council of Austin, Texas, is trying to persuade city voters to fund a $600 million light-rail line. So the local newspaper, The Austin American-Statesman, came to Oregon to conduct an in-depth examination of the rail system that's given Texan transit wonks a case of "Portland envy."

Their findings? Portland's transit system is pretty darn desirable—except when it isn't. (Today offers an example of the latter, with MAX trains running an hour slow in the 100-degree heat.)

For PDX readers, the article has a "de Tocqueville on a train" quality. It's an outsider's perspective from an ally in weirdness, telling Portland what we've gotten right, and what nobody would want to copy.

The good news: People ride public transit in Portland way more than in Austin.

"Transit ridership [...] is easily outpacing Portland's population growth," reporter Ben Wear writes. "And the current level is almost three times the ridership that Austin's Capital Metro tallied last year while serving, primarily with buses, an area with a population only about 15 percent smaller than Portland's."

Even better: Because Portland scotched the Mt. Hood Freeway and started planning light-rail lines in the 1970s, it got its system at a relative bargain.

The cost of light-rail projects to regional transit agency TriMet and Portland City Hall has been about $4.1 billion so far. It would cost Austin more than double that amount to build the same system now.

The American-Statesman explains:

Light rail construction costs nationwide have been increasing at a rate far outstripping inflation for reasons that aren’t really clear. Portland’s Orange Line will cost more than $200 million a mile. Based on the $1.4 billion cost estimate for the initial 9.5 miles of Austin light rail — $147 million a mile — building a 60-mile system comparable to Portland’s would cost $8.8 billion.

Not all the American-Statesman's findings are so rosy: The paper runs into the usual litany of unintended consequences, including reduced bus service, hemorrhaging driver pensions and questionable spending of urban-renewal dollars along the rail lines. 

Our visitors also found this stat in the ointment:

"And despite all the alternative transportation options, about seven in 10 people in greater Portland use a car to get to work, six of them driving alone."

Keep Portland carred!