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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 19, 2010 9:09 AM. The previous post in this blog was Pull the plug. The next post in this blog is Invitation to charades. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Why Tri-Met can't give up on WES

A reader has what sounds like a plausible explanation:

Under federal law, if a transit agency decides a transit project is a failure and stops running it, it has to return the federal grants back to the feds. So if TriMet admits WES is a failure and quits running it, it would owe the feds at least $59 million. They might consider it to be less expensive to keep running it.
Go by streetcar!

Comments (23)

Why don't we turn the WES line into a "sharow"? Cyclists can shake their fists at the train, proclaiming their God-given right to "share the rails."

There are a lot of snarls like this in transit. Basically, just like school lunches were more about helping USDA dispose of commodity surpluses (of things that the feds caused to be oversupplied thanks to subsidies) than child nutrition, federal support for transit has never been about thoughtful support for helping localities provide transit.

Rather, it's been about helping manufacturers sell buses -- the feds provide essentially no operating help, but fund nearly all of bus purchases, with some big strings on the type of vehicles purchased, which is why you see so little variation in what transit operators run in their fleets, despite the huge variability in local needs across this huge, climatically diverse country full of cities of different-sized cities and towns.

The "you can't admit failure" rule applies in lots of federally-funded activities. When the grantee is a private, folding is possible; but when the grantee is a public entity, failure must be continued, unless the entity has a nice reserve on hand to buy its way out of the commitments made to start the project.

It seems WES is failing, and that's OK. The only way never to have failures is to never try something new. But being forced to continue a failed operation is what's maddening.

Keep WES, screw bus service to low income neighborhoods. WES it's a feature not a bug! Where's the snark button on this machine?

Rail will be the death of monopoly public transit. That probably is a feature not a bug.

Nice find. Someone foia some emails and memos to find the analysis comparing the cost of keeping wes running and the cost of deeming it a failure

Didn't I see that WES is losing ~500k/month? At that rate they can run it for almost 10yrs before passing up what they would owe the feds.

Good thing Congress shoved that legislation through that made WES exempt from the cost effectiveness rules that the FTA had in place at the time.

Oh, those were just scrapped last week? Get ready for more WES failures all over the country...

Looks like this is a job for http://www.oig.dot.gov/inspector-general

The problem was and is that TRIMET did its budget projections on an ongoing increase in the payroll tax!

In other words, Trimet management projected that its income in sequential years would be higher than last years income.

They had no idea that payroll taxes would actually decrease!

As far as I am concerned that is just bad management, pie in the sky management.

You do not make budgets on projected increases in revenue, at the very least you make budgets based on current revenues, or if your given to caution, which every public agency should be, you actually construct your budget on slightly lower revenues, then make a list of "contingencies" if the revenue comes in higher (or lower).

The real shame of this is had Trimet not gotten into this WES debacle, most of Trimet current services might have not needed cuts, which would have made this transit agency a real winner around the country given the current state of transit everywhere right now.

It was just bad luck and pie in the sky management, which by the way is continuing.

Fred wants another $20,000,000 in CUTS at the same time they are expanding light rail and street cars.

Bye bye bus service.

al m -
What BS! Most all businesses develop annual budgets based on increasing revenues. That is NOT "pie-in-the-sky" management. That IS setting a goal. If the added revenues do not arrive, the budget is revised. Many businesses / organizations review their budgets, projection, revenues, costs, etc. on a monthly basis.

Snards -
Great idea! Share the rails - the bikers new cause!

Bankerman that may be the case but there have been a number of srewups over there. This isn't the first one.

However with virtually every war the U.S. has fought there has been some economic problems. If those people at Trimet did not know to ask some basic questions then they should not have been in management.

al m -
What BS! Most all businesses develop annual budgets based on increasing revenues.

~~~>Your entitled to your opinion. Obviously I disagree.

If a real business engaged in such a stunt, people would be fired, all the way up to the C.E.O.

Why does Fred Hansen still have a job? His inept brand of so-called leadership has cost our region dearly in declining service and fiscal mismanagement - and the absentee Board of Directors just takes it over and over again without any oversight.

Yes, terminating WES would cost $59 million. Problem is: Operating WES costs $3 million plus annually. So does that mean we're going to run WES for 20 years, and hope by then it'll be a success? Meanwhile, I had to wait for three buses before I could get a ride home today because the buses were so popular. A full bus with 60 riders earns TriMet a nice profit - $138 in revenue, on an operating cost of about $70.

It's TriMet's form of transit services that actually encourage it to provide rail-based service, regardless of the fiscal or community impact; versus providing a reasonable bus system. Rail is great when it serves people. When it's clear that the 12, 76, 94 and 96 buses are immensely more popular than WES - something is terribly wrong.

WES was advanced under as many distortions and misrepresentations as SoWa amd the Tram. All of which were pointed out by opponents just like with SoWa and the Tram.

The ridiculous propaganda used to get WES approved was as bad as it gets. And no one in the "government" who perpetrated it will face any accounatability or consequences. Nice system.

"It will be great with a stop at Washington Square"
Oh so sorry we meant nearly a mile away and across a freeway.

"It will be a good deal because we're going to use an existing rail line"
Oh so sorry we meant we'll have to replace every rail, every tie, all of the ballast and add multiple spurs. Plus maintain the line in an agreement ith the Freight RR who onws it.

I get the fed issue and the $59 million but I call BS on it panning out that way.

Would the feds actually sue TriMet if they halt the falied WES? Or would they blatantly withhold new funding because TriMet refuses to keep operating a worthless boondoggle?

That would play real well in the press and public.

Something new I've seen lately is the WES double car with a front on each end has been reduced to just one car. It now looks like it's running in reverse when it goes one of the two ways.

Could it be TriMet mothballed a bunch of the empty WES cars?
Why not when many of the runs have only a couple or few people onboard.

Now here is an INTERESTING ARTICLE from the "TransportPolitic" that voted TRIMET
#6 MOST INTERESTING TRANSIT NEWS for the year.

"If a real business engaged in such a stunt, people would be fired, all the way up to the C.E.O."

Hahahahahahahaha!!! Good one!

"If a real business engaged in such a stunt, people would be fired, all the way up to the C.E.O."

Hahahahahahahaha!!! Good one!

Well, under NORMAL conditions.

Except that thanks to our newfangled "Capitalism", we reward those who make mistakes, and fire those who do an honest job.

Thank you, Presidents Bush AND Obama. How many companies did the First Bush and Clinton bail out?

Something new I've seen lately is the WES double car with a front on each end has been reduced to just one car. It now looks like it's running in reverse when it goes one of the two ways.

Could it be TriMet mothballed a bunch of the empty WES cars?

It's not new at all.

There are four Colorado Railcar cars. Three of them have engines; the fourth is just a car without any propulsion system. TriMet was supposed to have purchased a second trailer, but that car got cut when the WES costs were beginning to go over budget.

The WES schedule requires three trains to run. At Beaverton the train lays over for about ten minutes, and about 20-30 minutes in Wilsonville. (Yes, this is ridiculous, but that's another story.) So with three motored cars, 100% of the motored fleet is in operation. The extra car can only be added to one train - so if they use it, the other two trains are single-car operations. Obviously ridership has not dictated consistent use of the spare car, so I don't know what the consideration is into using it or not.

TriMet did purchase two Budd RDCs from the Alaska Railroad; these are not yet in service and will only be used as spare vehicles. I doubt the RDCs will work in conjunction with the CRC vehicles (incompatible control systems), but both of them have engines so they could couple together or run independently.

So, if TriMet wanted to, it could couple two of the motored CRC vehicles, one motored + unmotored car, and the two Budds, and run three two-car trains. But I doubt that'll happen anytime soon.

I think the situation is particularly bad for WES because the cars were custom-ordered from a now-defunct company and are somewhat proprietary to the system (e.g. floor height and station height). Also much of the capital cost is tied up in things like track, ballasts and ties which are essentially worthless and have practically no resale value. So TriMet would probably be lucky to recover any significant amount of money with a WES fire sale. And since TriMet is already heavily in debt (a lot from streetcar and recent light-rail expansion) and is suffering from a massive decline tax revenue-based funding (which cover ~80% of operational costs), I would bet that taking on anymore debt to the feds is, for all intents and purposes, impossible. Looks to me like TriMet is stuck between a rock and a hard place financially, so it's bye-bye bus service. Go by WES!

Erik,

All of the trains I witnessed until recently were two car with a nose on each end. Now there's single cars running with a nose and butt end. Are you saying they were running like that all along?

On another curiosity have you any knowledge of the long term agreement TriMet made it the fraight rail company who owns the line?

For instance, did TriMet comitt to long maintaining of the of the whole 14 mile line and all it's crossings?

I suspect TriMet gave up much to get the agreement and the freight RR company
saw an eager goverment ready to fork over whatever it took.

www.fta.dot.gov/documents/13-Master.doc

Section 11. Right of the Federal Government to Terminate.

Upon written notice, the Recipient agrees that the Federal Government may suspend or terminate all or any part of the Federal assistance to be provided for the Project if the Recipient has violated the terms of the Grant Agreement or Cooperative Agreement for the Project including this Master Agreement, or if the Federal Government determines that the purposes of the laws authorizing the Project would not be adequately served by the continuation of Federal assistance for the Project. The Recipient understands and agrees that any failure to make reasonable progress on the Project or violation of the Grant Agreement or Cooperative Agreement for the Project, or this Master Agreement that endangers substantial performance of the Project shall provide sufficient grounds for the Federal Government to terminate the Grant Agreement or Cooperative Agreement for the Project. In general, termination of Federal assistance for the Project will not invalidate obligations properly incurred by the Recipient before the termination date to the extent those obligations cannot be canceled. If, however, the Federal Government determines that the Recipient has willfully misused Federal assistance by failing to make adequate progress, failing to make reasonable and appropriate use of Project property, or failing to comply with the terms of the Grant Agreement or Cooperative Agreement for the Project including this Master Agreement, the Federal Government reserves the right to require the Recipient to refund the entire amount of Federal assistance provided for the Project or any lesser amount as the Federal Government may determine. Expiration of any Project time period established for the Project does not, by itself, constitute an expiration or termination of the Grant Agreement or Cooperative Agreement for the Project.

Ben:

All of the trains I witnessed until recently were two car with a nose on each end. Now there's single cars running with a nose and butt end. Are you saying they were running like that all along?

My only guess is that you just happened to see the two-car train, without seeing the two one-car trains. Since there are only four cars total and three trains in operation, and each train must have one powered car in it and there are only three powered cars total (not including the Budd RDCs)...

Early on I went to a TriMet meeting in Tualatin and raised my concern about the car, and questioned why TriMet was purchase the "Aero DMU" which had a more expensive nose and a couple fewer seats than one that had a "square end" on both ends. TriMet wanted the trains to look pretty. Seriously. Even though they would only look "pretty" in one direction, and "ugly" when returning the other way.

On another curiosity have you any knowledge of the long term agreement TriMet made it the fraight rail company who owns the line? For instance, did TriMet comitt to long maintaining of the of the whole 14 mile line and all it's crossings?

A little history:

In 1995, the Southern Pacific Railroad (since merged into Union Pacific) leased the railroad route from Milwaukie to Lake Oswego, Tigard, Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Forest Grove to the Portland & Western Railroad, which was a sister company to the Willamette & Pacific Railroad which leased a bunch of other ex-SP branchlines in 1993 west of Albany and from Corvallis north to Newberg.

Shortly afterwards, the Burlington Northern Railroad (now part of BNSF) entered into an agreement where it donated (yes, donated) the right-of-way of several of its routes to ODOT: Linnton to Astoria, the route over Cornelius Pass, and from Tigard to Keizer. (BNSF had already sold the right-of-way from Beaverton to Hillsboro to TriMet for the Westside MAX line.) The track structure was sold to the Portland & Western Railroad.

Fast foward to 2007. TriMet and Washington County got on the commuter rail bandwagon spearheaded by a little known company called Colorado Railcar. CRC did a great dog-and-pony show to showcase its new invention, and lots of communities expressed huge interest in the car. But most agencies were a little skeptical of this company, whose only experience was a handful of luxury railcars for the Canadian railroad VIA Rail, and the Alaska Railroad. TriMet originally entered into an agreement with the Triangle Transit Authority in North Carolina who was also planning a commuter rail system (the project since scrapped).

The Federal Transit Administration, wanting to see this car developed, funded a DMU vehicle for the South Florida RTA, or Tri-Rail. (They are the only other operator of the DMU, besides the Alaska Railroad who owns one car.) The DMU had mixed results down in Florida and was sidelined for quite awhile; had to be mated with a full locomotive at other times...today it's more or less in a backup capacity (in part because of demand with the system outstrips the capacity of the DMU trainset, which is not necessarily CRC's fault.)

TriMet, having no commuter rail experience, jumped in and promoted this vehicle as the right-size for our community.

Remember: Union Pacific owns the railroad north of Tigard; P&W and ODOT south of Tigard.

When planning and funding was lined up, the various governmental agencies thought they had a slam dunk. P&W was fully onboard (why wouldn't they? They didn't have to pay anything, but got a brand new railroad out of it; plus would be granted the operations & track maintenance contractt!) ODOT was fully on board. Union Pacific - not so much. UP is a shrewd real estate investor, and realized it had a valuable piece of real estate. It wasn't going to let it go cheap.

Washington County officials - scared that their project was about to fail, flew to Omaha, Nebraska to work out a deal. $24 million dollars later, Washington County found themselves the owner of a new railroad - which was promptly turned over to TriMet.

In the filings with the Surface Transportation Board, TriMet now owned the route from Beaverton to Tigard, but that a "permanent freight easement" was given to P&W. In other words, P&W has the full and unobstructed right to run freight trains on the railroad. But P&W is under no obligation to pay for it - TriMet is. A few more million dollars, TriMet build a brand new railroad from the roadbed up - new ballast, new ties, new rails, new signals, new trackside signs...it's all brand new, all the way to Wilsonville.

So if WES stops operating, you're right in that there's a huge problem: TriMet still owns that railroad, P&W still has a right to run freight trains, and P&W has no obligation to maintain it. TriMet, however, would have an obligation to maintain the tracks for P&W. Oops.

It appears that from Tigard south to Wilsonville, P&W still owns the railroad (with ODOT owning the dirt underneath the railroad) so while TriMet paid for it, P&W would be responsible for it in the event WES were to stop running. But for those six miles from Beaverton to Tigard - that's TriMet's baby, whether WES runs or not.

Now...TriMet COULD reduce maintenance on the track to save money, but TriMet would appear to have to maintain the track to at least FRA Class 1 condition (as there are hazardous materials shipments - namely, propane - that are shipped on the line and could not be routed if the track was maintained to FRA Excepted Class.)

So, the short answer to my long explanation is that TriMet did commit to maintaining this route long term. And there is no way out of it. TriMet legally can't kick P&W off the tracks. And P&W is under no obligation to purchase the line if TriMet doesn't want it. And even if WES terminates operations, this problem will still exist.

Meanwhile, there is little one can do to reduce WES' operating expenses. The WES train is equivalent to two buses in every way, shape in form - it requires two employees (Engineer and Conductor), has the capacity of two buses, and has two diesel engines that are identical to that installed in a bus. (Detroit Diesel series 60.) Yet it costs 11 times that of a bus to operate! TriMet could reduce the service frequency, or find a way to run the service with only two trains (with a three minute layover at each end, instead of the very generous smoke break given after every 27 minute run); TriMet could eliminate the wi-fi internet connection to save a few thousand dollars each month, turn off the electricity for the lights at the otherwise unused platforms; raise fares (commuter rail systems typically charge a steep premium to ride, while TriMet simply charges its regular "all-zone" fare of $2.30 - in most systems, riding WES would require a fare closer to $4 or $5 for an one-way trip), charge for parking...........,.


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David Sedaris - Me Talk Pretty One Day
Karen Armstrong - The Spiral Staircase
Charles Larson - The Portland Murders
Adrian Wojnarowski - The Miracle of St. Anthony
William H. Colby - Long Goodbye
Steven D. Stark - Meet the Beatles
Phil Stanford - Portland Confidential
Rick Moody - Garden State
Jonathan Schwartz - All in Good Time
David Sedaris - Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
Anthony Holden - Big Deal
Robert J. Spitzer - The Spirit of Leadership
James McManus - Positively Fifth Street
Jeff Noon - Vurt

Road Work

Miles run year to date: 377
At this date last year: 237
Total run in 2013: 257
In 2012: 129
In 2011: 113
In 2010: 125
In 2009: 67
In 2008: 28
In 2007: 113
In 2006: 100
In 2005: 149
In 2004: 204
In 2003: 269


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