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Monday, July 9, 2012

As Tri-Met fails, other options spring up

This article last week about the transit situation out in Forest Grove caught our eye. Then a reader sent us a link to this site -- a volunteer senior shuttle in Lake Oswego. It's surprising how easy it is to get the job done when you're not wasting everyone's time and money with streetcars, WES follies, and mystery MAX trains.

Comments (17)

Of course right now TriMet has a government mandated monopoly on providing public transit service. Seems like an easy no brainer first step to let others step in if TriMet isn't doing the job.

Intracity transit appears to be a challenge for Trimet. Limited bus routes abandon many people who need transpiration - and more and more this occurs in the middle of the metro area. Shuttles that reach into the neighborhoods fill that need. You can't tell me no one in government has thought of this before. This also tells me that Trimet ought to be scrapped so a new transportation system can be formed without the transit workers' union sucking it to death. They do it with schools and it is called "reconstituting".

Seems like maybe that legislative restraint on the people transportation trade may have proven itself to no longer be supportable and protectable as a compelling state interest in maintaining the gov't monopoly-- not even rationally related to a government interest in having a sustainable public transportation system. No reason it can't be made of various parts rather than a gov't monopoly. May be ripe for a constitutional challenge.

Mass transit loses money on every rider, everywhere. No business in its right mind wants it. It's got to be government-sponsored, but alas, along with that comes arrogance and stupidity.

I'm still a bit suspicious Tri-Met isn't being deliberately run into bankruptcy just to shake off unions and pension agreements, then come out the other end and restructure.

It's an excellent point you make, Jack. Mass transit has to be a government operation. I just wished TriMet cared about moving people around like they care about their silly development goals. For the inevitable privatize transit chatter here's an excellent post from former TriMet planner Jarrett Walker on deregulation of buses in Oxford:

It's been a while since I spent any time in Hong Kong, but I always found the best way to get around was the 16 passenger minibuses. My understanding is that they are privately owned, but limited in number by taxi-badge type licensing, and have to follow designated routes. They line up at stops until the driver feels they are sufficiently full to head out, then zip you along at a good pace, making less stops than the average bus. The fares are a little bit more than bus fare, but the frequency and convenience makes them worth it.

I don't see why these couldn't be successful here, with Tri-Met scaling back bus routes on an arbitrary basis, leaving so many people with bad options. Full size buses driven by public employees might make sense for a few main routes during peak traffic hours, but for the rest, individual entrepreneurs in minibuses would quickly figure out where the need and demand is.

Hong Kong minibuses:

There have been suggestions that Metro take over TriMet, but the assumption usually seems to be that Metro would largely preserve the status quo, which means keeping the hub-and-spoke model which benefits the central city of Portland at the expense of the suburbs (and Portlanders who want to travel north or south without being routed through downtown). What if Metro did take over TriMet, but rather than actually operating buses and trains devolved that responsibility to cities or county-level transit agencies. Metro would administer the payroll tax and distribute it proportionally to the cities/counties based on population density, ridership, employer representation, or some other objective measures. Cities or counties would be free to design public transit options and routes that best meet the needs of their citizens. Instead of a single board accountable to the Governor and not the people who actually use the transit system (i.e., TriMet), there would be multiple boards with local control and local accountability. Washington County wants WES? Fine, they can spend their share of the payroll tax money on it. Portland wants a streetcar? Fine, they can build and operate it (and take responsibility for the fact that doing so will mean fewer buses).

Metro could make and enforce certain mandates -- like having ADA-accessible vehicles or requiring all systems maintain connectivity and transfers between each other. It could even keep a certain percentage for transit projects of regional significance.

Maybe a little far-fetched, I agree, particularly with the entrenched special interests (i.e., developers, the transit union) who like things just they way they are, thank you very much. But with more communities like Wilsonville, Canby, Boring, etc. opting out of TriMet or considering it, the dismantling of TriMet and growing local control of the delivery of public transit is already effectively underway.

I disagree that Metro would be any better than the status quo; it is Metro that has pushed TriMet towards what TriMet is today - focusing on rail (at the expense of bus), funding expensive new Streetcar lines while claiming it can't provide service elsewhere, the WES debacle... Metro is as much to blame, and despite Metro being more-or-less directly elected - the majority of Metro's councilors still represent part of Portland, yet Portland makes up less than half of the urbanized tri-county population (and only 25% when you factor in the Census Bureau's metropolitan statistical area population).

Further, Metro has made it clear it refuses to fund any transit investment that is targeted for bus service - Metro has not done anything to improve bus stops, access to bus stops, or even provide local matching funds for the desperately needed bus fleet renewal - TriMet operates buses that are now over 22 years of age, when federal guidelines call for buses to be replaced at just 12 years of age.

I could see some type of a replacement for TriMet that provides regional service only; not unlike the Puget Sound's Sound Transit organization, while local transit remains with the counties (or in the case of Everett, the city). Likewise, there are examples of the Bay Area and Los Angeles which have commuter rail fall under a different agency than bus service. However, Clackamas County probably would not go for the latter - given that MAX makes only a token entrance into Clackamas County and the southernmost WES station; while MAX is largely a Multnomah County operation with the line to Beaverton and Hillsboro.

This much is clear: TriMet, as it is, is broken. Portland has too much power and thus uses TriMet as it sees fit; while the suburban jurisdictions seem to be unwilling to serve their constituents. Andy Duyck finally made a comment that if Sam Adams gets his way to extort TriMet, that any service cuts to fund it should come specifically from service in Multnomah County. This is well overdue; when TriMet hands over close to $10 million a year to the City of Portland for its streetcar. However Washington County isn't innocent; it supported the WES debacle which is now sapping $6 million a year that could fund a lot more bus service and serve a lot more people than the choo-choo to nowhere that after three and a half years of operation, has yet to come close to meeting its first year ridership goal.

If TriMet had a backbone, it would be an easy solution, one that Sound Transit uses. ST is divided up into "subareas" which is guaranteed service based upon funding from within the subarea. It also guarantees capital investment is spread out - thus, fewer light rail lines, but they have nice buses and nice transit stations throughout the region. Imagine riding an express bus with cushy seats, reading lights, luggage racks and wireless can have it in Seattle but not Portland. (You can if you ride WES...but that's it.) Imagine...if Portland was forced to choose between citywide bus service, or its Streetcar. Washington County - countywide buses, or WES. Clackamas County - Milwaukie MAX, or countywide buses...

Sure, the planners will be upset because there's no MAX. Then again, transit will have to be planned based upon actual need, rather than political overtures, backroom dealing, bribes and paybacks to contractors, developers and light rail suppliers.

I'm still a bit suspicious Tri-Met isn't being deliberately run into bankruptcy just to shake off unions and pension agreements, then come out the other end and restructure.

This is easy to explain.

See, the whole situation with TriMet has nothing to do with the unions. Nothing at all. It's made up.

How can I prove this?

TriMet could balance its budget just by cutting funding for the City of Portland Streetcar and WES.

TriMet strangely doubled its contingency line item from $10 million to $20 million. This isn't even an actual's just a budget item.

TriMet's interest expense (bonding) has skyrocketed.

TriMet could cut its Capital Projects, Marketing and I.T. departments for another $10 million in savings. TriMet has an army of 60-some-odd software engineers and programmers...why? TriMet could largely outsource its H.R. department as many corporations have done.

And whose fault is it that TriMet intentionally inflates the cost of operating buses, by operating one of North America's oldest, least reliable, and least fuel efficient buses - on top of the miserable fuel hedges that cost TriMet millions?

Why did TriMet bail out Colorado Railcar? WES was only supposed to cost $80 million...the "final" budget was $121 - WES ended up costing $165 million. TriMet - not the feds, not local governments - picked up the extra cost. I don't remember TriMet raising a stink about, TriMet kept writing the blank checks.

But above all...what would a bankruptcy filing really mean for TriMet?

Yes, it could jettison the labor contracts, the pensions... But, there's one thing TriMet would have to give up: The ability to sell bonds. Who will buy bonds from a bankrupt transit agency? And without bonds...there's no light rail.

That, my friend, is why TriMet isn't declaring chapter 9...and that is also why TriMet has declared war on its employees. TriMet knows that the light rail expansion is unsustainable. TriMet keeps proclaiming that light rail is "cheaper" than buses; yet why is TriMet's operating budget far greater now than in years past - shouldn't it have gone down with all the light rail? Of course not. TriMet knows that. TriMet knows it's about to get caught in not truthfully reporting its operating expenses appropriately. So blame the unions, blame the employees. Not its management. Because if it can crack the unions, who cares if there's no bus service - there's light rail to be built.

TriMet could declare Chapter 9. Frankly I wish it would. But it won't, because with bankruptcy - that means the end of light rail expansion. And that's not acceptable to the former Director of Capital Projects, now the General Manager of TriMet - Neil McFarlane. Why else would TriMet hire a manager who has absolutely zero experience running a major public agency - McFarlane has a lot of experience building projects (such as several light rail lines and the Convention Center), but not one day of experience operating a public service. Until he got the head job at TriMet, and he's managed to make the reign of Fred Hansen even worse.

But he knows...chapter nine is off the table, because that means no more light rail.

Creative destruction at it's finest.

I look forward to dancing on Tri-Met's grave.

Erik - so if more cities withdraw from Trimet to develop their own transit systems (or not), will TriMet be forced into Chapt. 9? Or just limp along with increasing debt? At what point does the agency cry "uncle"?

There may be no more new light rail in any case. Metro/Trimet has already hinted at this. Powell corridor will be BRT-Lite. SW might be a form of BRT-only. After they had to scrape up funds to built MLR in SE, thyere just isn't much cash available.

Erik - so if more cities withdraw from Trimet to develop their own transit systems

Here's the rub with that one: ORS 267.250 defines an "affected area" that can be petitioned out of the district to be "a contiguous area of not less than one square mile in which 200 or more district electors reside and which is within the boundaries of a district, but is outside the boundaries of any city with a population exceeding 10,000"

So, we have an issue: Forest Grove's population is 21,275; they can't petition for deannexation. Even Cornelius tips over the limit at 11,915. Fairview and Wood Village could conceivably de-annex from TriMet, as could the insignificant-but-incorporated communities of Durham, Johnson City, Maywood Park and Rivergrove. As could unincorporated areas like Aloha, Cedar Hills, Cedar Mill, Garden Home, Oak Grove...

So a city that wants to de-annex from TriMet would have to probably take it to court. (Which I would love to see happen.)

Then, it is up to the TriMet Board to decide whether to permit the deannexation or not. Thus, the unelected Board could conceivably supercede the public and force a taxation-without-representation matter. (However, in the case of Boring, the required study actually recommended against the deannexation, and yet the Board overruled its staff and approved the deannexation.)

I could very well see a theoretical situation where enough cities vote out TriMet to where TriMet simply exists for the pension obligations - and nothing else. But do you really think Portland wants to run a bus system? Or Beaverton, which can't even muster to run its own fire department, water/sewer system, or park system? Milwaukie seems to be loving TriMet at the moment, and Lake Oswego seems to like its relationship with TriMet.

What I can envision is Forest Grove/Cornelius splitting, and then Hillsboro splitting (but remaining at arm's length due to the MAX line.) Then I could see Tigard, Tualatin, Sherwood, and West Linn splitting, and forming a new transit district that would also include Wilsonville (and take on the SMART name). This could potentially also include Oregon City and Gladstone, and would also include Durham and Rivergrove.

Then, Gresham, Troutdale, Wood Village and Fairview would form an eastside district.

Estacada would split and form its own service.

Another scenario I have would have Washington County split and form a county-wide transit district that would include all cities (even Banks, North Plains and Gaston which currently have only the Ride Connection buses). However, Wilsonville then becomes an issue as North Wilsonville is in Washington County but the rest of the city is in Clackamas County. (So is Tualatin east of 65th Avenue, but the current TriMet bus only crosses the county line to enter the parking lot of Meridian Park Hospital; and only a small part of the city east of I-5 at Lower Boones Ferry Road.)

Clackamas County would be a bit different, but it's possible the county could create a transit district of its own. Milwaukie and Lake Oswego, however, may not be interested given TriMet's lavished attention on those two cities.

That would leave TriMet serving the City of Portland (who clearly doesn't want to run those gawdawful buses...they aren't "streetcars"), possibly Lake Oswego and Milwaukie, and possibly Beaverton and the surrounding unincorporated areas.

With the inability to push light rail out, at that point it would be logical for TriMet to declare Chapter 9. Portland would have to deal with the Streetcar by itself, and probably by then Metro would not want to engage in a regional funding fight - so Streetcar expansion would be dead. And with the City of Portland now having to pay $10 million that TriMet used to provide...that would get interesting for the city's finances to argue that downtown deserves $10 million more in transit than the rest of the city...

There may be no more new light rail in any case. Metro/Trimet has already hinted at this.

Nick, Metro/TriMet is just going through the motions. It's become evident they are pushing light rail over any other option so they are trying to cover it up by claiming it will be BRT. Just like Milwaukie MAX. And then later on, they'll say "community support demands light rail" - not because the community wants it, but Metro wants it, and Metro will blackmail the community by saying "we'll fund light rail but nothing else" and the local communities will say "well, Milwaukie got light rail money, we want light rail money too."

METRO=TRIMET, they walk hand in hand like twins.

All I know is that something has to be done to change the status quo.

It's very simple, trimet does not function as a transit district anymore-its a capital projects, IT, and propaganda agency.

Take a look at THIS

It's not the union benefits, its EVERYTHING!

This place should have gone belly up years ago. It's really a disgrace, believe me I listen to the operation via their dispatch center whenever I have the chance. It's just unbelievable. I thought it was bad when I worked there, but its much worse than I even imagined.

And the arrogance of the management along with that board of sock puppets just want to make me gag.

Abolish bike lanes, add many bus-only lanes, run buses on natural gas and equip them with video poker.


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