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Monday, January 14, 2013

A grim thought

Whenever we get exasperated with the inept board of directors of Portland's insolvent transit agency, our initial thought is that the board should be elected by the public, rather than appointed by the governor. But in thinking about this over the weekend, it dawned on us that electing the board may not do any good. For example, Portland has an elected public school board, but look at the mess that system is in. Or Metro -- all the electoral machinery in the world probably couldn't put anyone but bobbleheads on that board.

There's no guarantee -- maybe not even any likelihood -- that electing the Tri-Met board would correct any of the agency's many managerial defects. You'd probably get the same level of competence in an elected board that you do in an appointed board. Which ain't much.

Comments (20)

This line of thinking usually provokes ideas about having the private sector run the transit system. The biggest city I know of that does this to the general exclusion of public transit is Manila, with a result that is not exactly the sort of thing that's worth emulating.

I think the best solution is for publics-spirited citizens to hold these public and quasi-public boards accountable, if necessary (as in the case of the Water Bureau) by taking them to court, and for other public-spirited citizens (an example or two leap to mind) to shed light on their goings-on.

Best that can be hoped for with a board like this is to have some appointed by the Governor, others named by varous local officials/jurisdictions -- creates competition, including some productive sniping at each other when it hits the fan. That kind of dynamic resulted in key changes in the DC area WMATA Board, and has resulted in some significant moves towards addressing long neglected safety issues.

"You'd probably get the same level of competence in an elected board that you do in an appointed board. Which ain't much."

Why is that...oh, yeah...6B.

"...and for other public-spirited citizens (an example or two leap to mind) to shed light on their goings-on."

Yes, that does seem to be the best solution to help the electorate (even a very 'tarded one) make more intelligent choices. And it may not seem so, but I am grateful to those one or two examples that leap to mind.


Always vote. Vox Populi Vox Dei. The solution to the problem you mention is a vote on the annual budget.

Voters don't hold boards accountable. However, one elected executive may be easier to hold accountable than an unaccountable board.

Maybe requiring voter-approval of all revenue rate increases (employer tax and fares) would force efficiency.

Or splitting the TriMet tax between employers and employees so it shows-up on paycheck stubs would get more attention. I suspect most folks don't realize that much of TriMet's funding doesn't come from fares, but from employers.

Unfortunately you are correct but there is accountability in an elected board.

Currently they have zero accountability.

It's can't get worse, look at it like that.

There was a suggestion that Trimet be prohibited from issuing bonds without voter approval. That would at least stop the agency from putting itself into intentional bankruptcy which is what's its doing at the moment.

When corporations are "chartered" they supposedly have to state their intent, their purpose, their method of generating revenue. I don't know the legal structure of TriMet, but providing transportation for the public falls far below being a mechanism for the redistribution of wealth to the construction/real estate speculators. As I've also said about ODOT, "we're not customers, we're cargo." Annoying, distracting cargo that gets in the way of their plans.
And before you accuse me of hyperbole, just call 'em up and see how patronizing they are. An old friend from back east -- a credentialed journalist -- came out for a visit a while back. And tried to get some access for some photos of the skyline and the infrastructure of the trolley and MLR. He was told, "Sure, we'll give you the tour -- leave your camera behind: We'll show you around and provide any photographs you want." Something between a jitney ride at Disneyland and a cultural tour in North Korea.

There are times when I think that a random drawing of lots from a pool of qualified citizens would be the best way to go.

Maybe they should require all TriMet board members to use the system as their primary form of transportation.

There is nothing wrong with a publicly elected TriMet Board. The biggest issue would be getting one elected and not giving the majority on the board away to people that only represent Portland. Getting the putz in the Governor's office to give up some prime political patronage jobs would also be difficult without a fight. Washington and Clackamas Counties would deserve adequate representation, especially since they contribute major sources of TriMet taxes yet often get marginal services.
Bay Area Rapid Transit has had an elected Board for several decades; and it's worked fairly well.
Another obsticle would be getting people other than the usual area political hacks and hangers-on to run for office. A few business people that actually know how to read a balance sheet would be good start.

ATU 757 has waged a two decade long battle to have the Tri-Met board (and Lane Transit's board in Eugene) elected as opposed to appointed by the Governor. Now think about that for a moment...

I see one reason why an elected board for TriMet will be more successful than Metro or a school district:

Metro: Most people are not as immediately affected by Metro's decisions - most of what Metro does does not affect the day-to-day lives of us. And when they do, it's fairly high level policy matters, that still have to filter down (and with more public input at each level).

Schools: Most people only care about what's going on in THEIR school (or their children's schools), and the Board really doesn't affect them on a day-to-day level. Sure, spending issues, but not the day-to-day education.

TriMet: TriMet affects a good portion of the public, either directly through being a part of their transportation needs, or affecting their transportation. Transportation is one of the largest parts of government, that affects nearly every person daily. Even if you don't ride TriMet, their decisions affect your ability to drive places. You see their buses and trains every day.

Not only the board needs to be replaced, and preferably by something that is accountable to the public (who, by the way, finances the organization through taxes - and I know you all knew that), but also the entire management structure needs to be reworked from the ground up.

Front line employees receive zero support from their immediate supervisors and managers, who seek only to save face in the eyes of their corresponding higher-ups, and therefore major problems (rotted ties, broken rail, etc.) fester until they become serious issues, when if the higher-ups had listened to the front line to begin with they could have been dealt with with a minimized impact to the public (which the agency serves).

Unfortunately, almost 0% (I know it is some measure higher, but for all intents and purposes it is zero) of the capital budget is paid out for maintenance of current infrastructure. TriMet'll just take further indebtedness to build new infrastructure (to let sit and rot).

What is truly amazing (although off topic) is the fact that the Feds allow TriMet to lie about having the funds to operate their "new start" (a requirement of the grant program), before signing-off on, let alone paying out, on said grant.

The government can't run a business or do anything efficiently. The incentives are always wrong when one is dealing with other people's money. Unless there is something real at stake for the workers, management and even board members, nothing will change. Do you see anyone getting fired for losing money or making a mess out of Tri-Met? Thought so. Until this happens, until there is a some way to run this like a business, it's a lost cause. Same for all government services I'm sorry to say.

Alan's correct and if we could convince the local media that the people who use public transit should be classified as victims, the media could add this issue to it's agenda on championing victims rights.

the "appointed vs. elected" issue is a sideshow. TriMet is now ungovernable -- it's a service monopoly run by a labor cartel. All the incentives are wrong.

The legislature should begin dismantling the agency and create many new smaller ones, run by the communities they serve. In addition, competition from the private sector should be allowed and encouraged.

Denver's Regional Transit District (RTD) has a publicly elected board that didn't stop it from doing ridiculous things like spending $10 billion on light rail and commuter trains.

One good thing that has nothing to do with the board: The Colorado legislature requires RTD to contract out half its bus routes to private operators. The private operators have to pay property and sales taxes that RTD is exempted from for the buses it operates. Yet RTD spends $10.04 per vehicle mile operating each of its buses in revenue service, but pays the private contractors just $5.22 per mile for their buses.

Nationwide, buses that are contracted out cost taxpayers $6.55 per mile compared with $10.68 for buses directly operated by the transit agencies.

There is nothing wrong with an appointed board either, as long as the person making the appointments doesn't view it as a collection of convenient slots to drop campaign financiers into, and opportunity for political patronage.

If there was some form of regimen for confirming the appointees, then the appointees would at least have to have some kind of justification for their appointment to the position beyond gubernatorial favoritism, and have to answer questions that just aren't asked today.

A government monopoly will provide poor service at bloated costs no matter how the board is constituted.

Rather than tweak the board, let's end the monopoly.

If we want to help transit-dependent people get around, give them vouchers and let them choose from competing transit suppliers. Just like we do with food stamps.

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