December 30, 2011
The Oregonian's Molly Harbarger reports that a group of activists in Clackamas County, opposed to the Milwaukie MAX project, is seeking to place a referendum on the ballot to prevent the county from contributing any money to "finance, design, construct or operate" the project. The petition, approved by the Board of Commissioners, will be reviewed by the county district attorney within five days, and if it passes legal muster, petitioners will then be able to start collecting signatures. Nearly 10,000 signatures is needed to put the matter on the ballot.
Assuming that a petition drive is successful--given how recent votes in Clackamas County have gone, I suspect it would be, passage of such a measure would bring about many questions:
Could it pass?
Given the past two years of ballot returns in Clackamas County, I'd say the answer to this is a definite "yes". The TriMet funding measure on the November 2011 ballot was defeated by a 2/3-1/3 majority. The rescinding of the $5 motor vehicle fee for the Sellwood Bridge, and the recent urban-renewal initiative, also passed easily--it's safe to say that there is a backlash against spending money on public works projects, especially those perceived to be beneficial to transit. In addition, were the petition to be successful, it would appear on the May ballot, not the November one--given that most of the primary action will be on the GOP side (I don't expect a primary challenge to Rep. Schrader), a more conservative electorate is likely to show up at the polls.
A more interesting question concerns the make-up of the Board of Commissioners itself; quite a few commissioners, including the chair, are up for re-election in November. It is possible that the current pro-smart-growth majority on the county commission could be ousted. On the other hand, this will happen in the November 2012 election, which will undoubtedly attract a more liberal electorate; despite the "red wave" in November 2010, the pro-transit majority was not displaced.
Is it legal?
There's a chance that the district attorney might declare the petition as written to be out-of-bounds, or require revision--an unusual maneuver which would provoke its own fight. I'm going to assume, however, that this does not happen, and that any substantial inquiry on the legality of such a proposal would be deferred until after it passes.
The position of the Board of Commissioners of Clackamas County is that in 2010, the County executed a contract with TriMet to provide funds to build MLR, and that this is an obligation legally binding on the county which cannot be undone by referendum. There is ample case law to support this opinion: the so-called Contract Clause of the US Constitution prevents states and their political subdivisions from passing any law "impairing the Obligation of Contracts". The purpose of the Contract Clause was to prevent the states from passing bills granting "private relief" to parties in a contract--in particular, laws forgiving debtors. However, the Contract Clause (or the Contracts Clause--both forms are widely used) has been interpreted more generally than that; one major consequence is that governments cannot pass laws (either via direct legislative act or via popular referendum) which undo its own contractual obligations. In Fletcher v. Peck, the Supreme Court held that even blatantly-one-sided contracts entered into in bad faith by corrupt government officials (in this case, selling public lands to speculators for pennies on the dollar) may not be rescinded by subsequent reform-minded legislatures.
Based on this, a good argument can be made that an attempt by the citizens of Clackamas County to cancel the MLR contract (or to abrogate the County's obligations) is not valid. On the other hand, the County has not enjoyed the bulk of the benefit(s) of the contract--construction of the MLR line between the Park Avenue station and the Multnomah county line--so if Clackamas County voters were to block the County's performance of the contract and TriMet were to sue, it's not clear that TriMet would be entitled automatically to payment of the full amount, given that they haven't performed the bulk of their obligations under the contract.
What could happen to MLR?
If the initiative passed and were upheld, meaning Clackamas County's share of funding were rescinded, what would happen? As Harbarger notes, it's unlikely that this would result in the cancellation of the project--Clackamas County's contribution is less than 2% of the overall project budget. But a couple of obvious possibilities:
- Construction of the MOUS (minimum operationally usable segment) to Milwaukie As part of the NEPA process, planners designated a MOUS for the project--a subset of the full project which could be done as a scaled-back version, if financing for the full project were reduced. The MOUS, in this case, eliminates only one stop--the Park Avenue Park-and-ride--and that's in Clackamas County; instead, the line would terminate in downtown Milwaukie. Given that an expensive viaduct is needed to cross OR99E to reach the Park Avenue station, elimination of Park Avenue would probably more than make up the gap. A downside is that it would eliminate a major park-and-ride on the line, making MLR less attractive to Clackamas County commuters. (The question of park-and-rides is a controversial one, but given that much of Clackamas County is lower-density development that can't be easily served by transit, a P&R is probably a necessary compromise)
- Construction of the line only to Tacoma Street. This is probably not a viable option, as this alignment is not considered in the EIS, and thus would require significant amounts of additional review to get federal funding. It would have the "advantage" that the project would no longer cross into Clackamas County, but it would also severely compromise the viability of the project.
- Reduced funding for county highway projects. Another possible outcome would simply be that Metro or other regional actors makes up the funding shortfall, transferring the money from some other Clackamas County project down the line. The Regional Transportation Plan project list contains many projects in the County which are eligible for regional funding. Were Metro to do this, it might further inflame already tense relations, particularly if a Metro-hostile board were to be elected. Similar maneuvers might also occur at the state level, with the Oregon Legislature appropriating funds to make up the difference, and deleting a corresponding amount of funding from county highway projects.
December 29, 2011
Daniel Friedman, writing on behalf of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, has an op-ed piece in today's Tribune, arguing to keep the Streetcar in Free Rail Zone.
The core of the argument is that downtown has unique characteristics that support a unique fare structure. Here are the four main bullets:
- Most of the people who live downtown are not wealthy.
- Most of the people who travel without charge in the FRZ do not live downtown.
- Rather than being a special amenity for poor people or downtown residents, the FRZ is a valued public service available to everyone who travels downtown for work, shopping, school, recreation, or business.
- A prosperous downtown is essential to the well-being of the entire region.
It's a pretty good argument. But my concern is that the boundaries are wrong. I would suggest you could take the four points above and in each case substitute 'Central City' for downtown, and they would remain equally true.
The City's comprehensive plan does not have a 'Downtown Plan', it has a 'Central City Plan'. The Streetcar Loop is a transit service responsive to the entire Central City, on both sides of the river, and needs to have a consistent fare throughout the Central City.
December 26, 2011
This morning the Oregonian editorialized against further development of the Lake Oswego to Portland streetcar project, citing the cost. That's the new cost estimate of $208M (not including the value of the right-of-way we already own), not the $400M+ estimate that came out of the last round of the NEPA process.
Without getting into an argument about whether the project is a good idea or not (we've done that before, multiple times), I do want to take a moment to explain the math that keeps local policymakers intrigued.
Let's assume for the moment that both numbers above ($208M construction plus $80M right-of-way) are accurate.
That gives us a total project "cost" (by the Federal way of reckoning) of $288M. Assuming a successful New Starts application, the Feds cough up half, leaving the locals with a $144M tab.
But wait! We get to count the value of the right-of-way toward the match - so suddenly for $64M in local cash, we can potentially have a $288M transit line.
There are still a lot of hoops that this project has to jump through, but that value proposition will continue to compel local electeds to look for ways to get through those hoops.
December 19, 2011
How might TriMet apply this? I'm not entirely up-to-speed on the TriMet budget. How do the section 5307 funds get spent today? Bus purchases? Would it be a win to defer bus purchases to reduce service cuts or fare increases?
December 16, 2011
Joseph Rose has more information about a TriMet passenger who was injured in the "panic stop" incident earlier this month. As you probably have heard, on December 2nd, a bike darted directly in front of the #9 bus, which was standing-room only, forcing the driver to panic-stop. The driver narrowly avoided missing the cyclist, who rode off off and is to this day unknown to authorities; but several passengers on the bus were injured. Including one whose injuries appear to be serious; he is reported to still be in ICU at OHSU, though hospital officials are unable to comment much more on his condition beyond that.
And he may be in an area of insurance "no-mans-land". TriMet's own liability policies only cover incidents where the TriMet operator is liable, given that the operator did the correct thing to avoid a collision, the insurance carrier will likely argue that they are not liable for the man's injuries. TriMet also has an uninsured motorists' policy, but that kicks in only kicks in when an "uninsured motorist" is at fault. Under Oregon law, bicyclists are not "motorists" for insurance purposes, so apparently that coverage doesn't apply either. (Also, there's ample case law that motorists who may cause collisions, but aren't involved in them, have zero liability).
While I don't want to start yet another debate about Should Bike Riders Be Licensed And Insured--the balance of harms suggests not, IMHO--but this brings up some interesting issues:
- Should bike riders be treated as "motorists" for the purposes of uninsured motorist coverage?
- How much liability should TriMet assume for passenger safety, particularly in no-fault incidents such as this? (TriMet has indicated that its insurance carriers are not likely to pay; but whether the victim or his family could sue TriMet regardless, I have no idea).
- Given the no-win nature of the incident--the bus driver was essentially forced to choose between striking a road user, and placing standing passengers at risk, should any changes to safety measures be made? (No, I'm not suggesting that mowing down bikers to protect passengers is a viable option--I don't want to go there; I'm wondering how better to protect passengers in panic-stop situations).
December 15, 2011
As TriMet prepares for a projected budget shortfall of $12 million to $17 million for the next fiscal year, the agency has launched an excellent on-line tool where people can see the budgetary choices involved. This is a great way to force people to think about the real tradeoffs inherent in any budget-cutting exercise, getting us beyond simplistic one-size-fits-all proposals.
Before I dig into the proposed budget cutting mechanisms and lay out my choices, let's just make one thing clear: these cuts will be painful no matter how they are carried out. After major service cuts two years ago and rising demand for public transit, this is not the time to be cutting once again. Transit advocates need to forcefully push the legislature to support new taxing authority for transit, especially options that do not rely on the payroll tax, which is so susceptible to the currently stagnant economy. Voters need to support these new taxes if they want to maintain, restore, and eventually expand the transit system that allows so many people the choice to travel without a car.
TriMet has identified three main reasons for the current budget shortfall. First, payroll taxes lag behind projections by $3 million as the region has failed to add as many jobs as expected when the tax was instituted. The payroll tax rate increases a tiny amount each year, but it's not enough to make up for the huge number of jobs lost in recent years or the decline in average wages.
The second reason is uncertainty about future federal operating grants. The deficit-obsessed US Congress is looking for any way to cut their own budget, and transportation grants will certainly be on the chopping block. TriMet really doesn't know by how much these grants might be cut, but they are estimating $4 million to be safe.
The third and most important factor is the failure of TriMet and the union to come to terms on a new contract. TriMet projects a $5 to $10 million shortfall due to the rising costs of health care and wage benefits, and notes that these costs will continue to rise over time if the union does not accept some kind of benefit reduction. I believe the union needs to be willing to make a shared sacrifice to preserve service levels. Last year Seattle King County Metro's union agreed to a three-year contract that preserved 130,000 hours of bus service by reducing automatic wage increases and allowing more part-time drivers to cover peak-only service. Metro employees also pay 20% of their health care premium, while TriMet employees pay 0%. We can argue (and I'm sure we will) about the need for generous worker benefits, but on the other hand there is little point in having good benefits for a shrinking number of workers driving a shrinking number of buses and trains.
OK, on to the show! The budget tool identifies a number of ways TriMet could save money, and invites users to choose options until they hit $17 million in savings. Here were my choices:
Raise Fares by 25 Cents = $6 million
After so many fare increases recently, this seems like a terrible idea, but the fact is raising the fare is still the most effective way to raise a lot of revenue without a huge impact on ridership. The tool has options for 20 cents and 40 cents as well. 25 cents seems the most reasonable to me, since the resulting fare would be $2.35 for a 2-zone trip, well in line with major transit agencies nationwide. As much as we complain about fare increases, transit is still pretty cheap in Portland compared to many cities. This does have a major equity impact, but I would prefer to see a greater focus on distributing free or reduced tickets to those in need than provide a low fare to everyone regardless of ability to pay.
Eliminate Transfers and Add a New Day Pass = $3 million
This is an interesting idea. Basically with the base fare you only get a single trip with no transfers. Any transfer requires purchase of a new day pass priced at twice the normal fare. Since pretty much every trip requires a return trip at some point, this would basically have zero impact on most people and would actually benefit heavy users of the system. It would cost more for people making one-way trips with a transfer, surely a tiny percentage of trips. I suspect the main reason this would generate so much revenue would be the reduction in fare-cheating using old paper transfers and the faster boarding time from more use of the day pass.
Eliminate the Free Rail Zone = $2.7 million
Rumored to be eliminated for quite awhile now, I wholeheartedly support this idea. Transit is worth something and should not be free, even for tourists. TriMet has made it very easy to buy day passes and weekly passes for visitors to Portland, so there is little reason to keep this going any longer. Portland Streetcar will probably be removed from the Free Rail Zone in the near future anyway, leaving MAX as the only free service. The downtown business association has protested any removal of the FRZ, but if they want it so badly, they should really pay for it since they are the primary beneficiaries.
Sell ads on TriMet websites and TransitTracker by Phone = $0.3 milion
Sure, why not? They do this anyway on the texting service and it has never bothered me. Every little bit helps.
Charge for parking at high-use Park & Ride locations = $0.1 million
This is another no-brainer that is controversial for no good reason. If a public parking lot is filling up to the point where many people can't find a spot, it is time to start charging for that service. I'm not sure if this very low number is due to TriMet's unwillingness to charge very much or if it reflects generally low demand at most park-and-rides.
Run Red Line between Airport and SW 11th Ave only (except rush hours) = $0.9 million
TriMet offers three options here: do nothing, save $0.9 million by running the Red Line only from Downtown Portland to the Airport, or save $2 million by running it only between Gateway and the Airport. I thought about the third option, but requiring an extra transfer for pretty much all travelers seems like it would be a huge disincentive to taking transit rather than driving. Since getting to downtown is very easy by transit from most of the region, using the Red Line from downtown would only require a single transfer for most people. This would mainly have a negative impact on people traveling between Beaverton and Downtown Portland, who would be stuck with less frequency during non-peak times.
Eliminate redundant bus service = $1.8 million
Ah, music to my ears! TriMet's system is rife with redundant or overlapping bus routes that cater to a rather selfish desire for doorstep service straight to downtown at the expense of overall system usefulness. To pick one example off the top of my head, the 9 through Alberta is twelve blocks from the 8, runs much less frequently, and takes ages to wind through narrow residential streets on its way down to Broadway. Most people are better off walking or taking the 72 to the 8, and based on ridership that is what most people do. That segment of the 9 is very redundant.
Once on Broadway we have a case where the 9 and 77 overlap. My sense is that the 9 is much more useful than the 77 at this point. I appreciate that the 77 is a crosstown, but it is strange to have a route that comes very close to downtown but not quite (instead meandering painfully through the Pearl) sharing the road with a route that does go downtown by a more direct path. I say merge the 77 (Halsey, Broadway) with the 9 (Broadway, Downtown), eliminate the northbound tail of the 9, and eliminate the entire NW portion of the 77 (redundant with Streetcar, and NW 25th doesn't merit service when NW 23rd and NW 21st already have it). I don't know whether these are the kinds of changes TriMet has in mind, but in any case there are many other examples, especially in the SW.
TriMet offers a variety of other service-cutting options (less frequency and span on MAX, less frequency and span on low-ridership buses, and elimination/reduction of several routes) that sound like more of what we have had to endure the last couple years. At least they are not talking about cutting the core higher-frequency bus lines, but at this point they have already cut service too much. It is hard to ask for that 25-cent increase in fares while cutting basic service.
Adjust LIFT service to correspond with regular bus/MAX service = $0.4 million
This is the one I am most uncomfortable with, but I had to hit that $17 million mark somehow. This would reduce TriMet's role to what is required by law, which is to provide LIFT service only during the hours they run regular bus service to an area. Evening and weekend service would be cut to many parts of the region which only have weekday bus service. I do support the LIFT program and would hate to see it cut, but on the other hand there could be other ways to fund it. I have always thought paratransit should be funded by separate social service funding sources rather than being the responsibility of transit agencies. TriMet currently has what us planners like to call "multiple, conflicting, and vague" goals. They are charged with running an efficient, high-ridership service, but they are also told to run an inherently inefficient and low-ridership social service for equity purposes. This makes budgeting very difficult--how much weight should they give to each goal? I would like to see city, regional, and state leaders step in to find a separate funding source for LIFT service.
Reduce annual contribution to Portland Streetcar = $0.3 million
This one was pretty easy for me. The Portland Streetcar is a city amenity and an urban development tool, but it does nothing to enhance mobility, which is the primary purpose of TriMet as a public transit agency. For this reason I generally don't see why TriMet has any business supporting the Streetcar, and this seems like a reasonable reduction. The City of Portland needs to stand up to the short-sighted business interests who successfully opposed the use of parking meter revenue to support the streetcar, not continue to ask TriMet for operating funds.
Finally, TriMet promises to continue to Find ways to improve internal efficiency, saving an unspecified amount. My sense is that they have already achieved most of what is possible through internal efficiencies, but I know many feel differently, especially when it comes to executive compensation. Shared sacrifice should be felt by all.
I would add a couple other suggestions. One would be to Charge a Peak Fare of 25 Cents. This is used in Seattle by King County Metro and it makes a great deal of sense. It charges more during the time when more service is needed, helping to pay for all those expensive peak-only buses and extra runs. It also encourages people who have some choice about when to travel to choose non-peak times, reducing overcrowding during the peak. Perhaps this could raise enough revenue on its own to reduce the need for a normal fare increase.
Another suggestion would be to Restructure the Bus Network. Much of this would be covered under eliminating redundancies, but there are other examples of short, relatively pointless routes that could be combined to get more ridership and possibly require less layover time. For example, why do the 70 and 73 both stop at the Rose Quarter Transit Center? Combined they would make an excellent crosstown route that would address the terrible lack of connections between inner SE and inner NE. This could probably be revenue-neutral or even revenue-positive.
Well, this was a fascinating exercise, and I encourage all of you to contribute to this interesting method of public outreach. I hope we can have a spirited and civil debate in the comments about our choices and about TriMet's budget woes moving forward. TriMet will also hold several open houses in February to get feedback on this process.
December 13, 2011
It appears Zipcar is getting a big of competition, of sorts.
KGW-TV reports that Getaround, a so-called peer-to-peer carsharing service, will soon be coming to Portland after receiving a $1.7 million grant from the Federal Highway Association. The Oregonian's Joseph Rose also has coverage of the announcement.
Unlike "traditional" carsharing services like Zipcar, WeCar, or Hertz On-Demand (the last of which presently does not operate in Oregon), where a business owns (and insures) a fleet of vehicles and makes them available to subscribers for short-term rentals, with peer-to-peer carsharing owners of automobiles make their cars available to others to rent, and receive payment for the service. The Getaround service essentially provides a legal framework for this to occur, and a means for owners and renters to get together. Getaround also provides insurance to renters; a recent change in Oregon law absolves car owners who place their vehicles into peer-to-peer carshares from liability if the renter is involved in an accident.
Getaround's website has more information on how the service, based in San Francisco, will operate.
Good news--anything which makes easier to not own a car is a good thing.
In case anyone missed it, Willamette Week published a short interview with transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker of Human Transit fame. He makes some great comments about the value of mobility and addresses the need for TriMet to restore their frequent service network, which was devastated in the last round of cuts. Mr. Walker has recently moved back to Portland, so hopefully we will get a chance to benefit from his ideas on transit network design. Readers may also be interested in his newly published book.
As we approach the holidays, and year-end tax deductions, it's time for my annual message.
This site, and our transit appliance project, operate as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Our expenditures are modest, but we do depend on the generosity of our readership for a portion of our costs.
So if you've enjoyed the discussion during the year, I would humbly ask that you click the support link and contribute any amount that feels comfortable. Even $5.00 contributions are greatly appreciated.
Thank you and have a safe and joyous holiday season!
December 12, 2011
I can't imagine a better way to kick off the holiday season.
December 8, 2011
Portland Streetcar will hold a public hearing on December 13th to help determine if the bridge plates for the new vehicles for the Loop pass muster:
Notice is hereby given that The City of Portland will hold a public hearing regarding its intent to request a finding of equivalent facilitation for the bridge plates of its low floor streetcar vehicles. The public hearing will be held at the following time and location:
December 13, 2011 Noon-1:30 p.m. City Hall 1220 SW 4th Avenue, Council Chambers
(second floor) Portland Oregon 97214. Persons who need sign language interpretation or other communication service should contact Andrew Bryans 503-823-4079, TTY 503-823-6868, in advance of the meeting. Requests for other accommodations can be made by contacting 503-823-7677. Written testimony and comments regarding the application or requests for accommodation can also be submitted by Friday December 14, 2011. Please submit to: Shoshanah Oppenheim Portland Bureau of Transportation 1120 SW 5th Avenue, Suite 800 Portland, Oregon 97204 or electronically at email@example.com
The bridge plates are essentially the same as the current vehicles, but the FTA takes this seriously (as they should).
The normal standard requires a side barrier to make sure you can't roll off the edges of the bridge plate. Streetcar (and TriMet on MAX vehicles) takes an alternate approach by making the bridge plates wider than required - essentially the full width of the doorway - which achieves the same effect and has been approved in the past.
You can get all the details here (PDF).
December 7, 2011
A pair of interesting articles showed up in the past week, highlighting a fundamental disconnect between various factions in the infrastructure wars. Ashley Halsey III of the Washington Post wrote an article bemoaning the lack of trust that much of the public has that their infrastructure dollars are being spent wisely, given the current state of disrepair of the nation's roads, bridges, and transit systems. This article prompted a sharp rebuttal from Stephen Smith at Forbes, arguing that the public is entirely correct in this perception--that money is being wasted, the authorities in many areas are corrupt, and suggesting that the only solution that is being proposed by those who oversee our infrastructure is to pass the hat to taxpayers.
Unfortunately, both sides have many valid points. Our infrastructure is in miserable shape, for a myriad of reasons. And yes, corruption and waste abounds. The question, then, is what to do about it?
In Halsey's article, she stated two things which are obvious, and also pointed to some research which seems to confirm these things: a) much of our infrastructure is functionally or structurally obsolete; and b) the public takes a highly cynical view towards politicians who point this out, broadly suspecting them of championing boondoggles and wasteful projects with heated rhetoric. She noted the huge funding gap between the need claimed by infrastructure leaders and the actual monies appropriated by Congress--a gap frequently cited as hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars.. She also suggested a few ways to break this logjam, such as localizing infrastructure spending--noting that people are more receptive to building things in their own communities, rather than supporting grand visions that will have primary benefits elsewhere; and that voters are less receptive to threats of doomsday. The article, it could be argued, was a puff piece, but it didn't contain, in my mind, anything truly outrageous or offensive.
Smith didn't see it that way. He's a writer I generally respect (although I disagree with him on much), but his article in Forbes was highly polemic, starting with the title: "Washington Post: Only Idiots Think Infrastructure Spending Is Wasteful, And Americans Are Idiots". Reading the article, I fail to see where Halsey ever stated--or implied--any such thing. Smith also chastised her for failing to address the real issue of waste and inefficiency in capital projects. Unfortunately, he then went off on an anti-transit tangent, acting as though mass transit was the primary source of the problem, even though Halsey discussed shortcomings with pretty much all modes of transportation, both passenger and freight. Smith pointed out the infamous inefficiencies with New York City transit, where union-mandated overstaffing is a longstanding practice and recent projects such as the Second Avenue Subway come in at pricetags which make even the CRC look like it was bought at a garage sale, referring to Alon Levy's excellent work documenting the issues with transportation projects in the US, rail in particular. He then concluded with this:
In many ways, transit boosters in America resemble self-destructive drug addicts who had rough childhoods. Yes, the past was difficult, but that doesn't make he bad decisions they're still making any less problematic. Like a drug addict, American transit "experts" will never get anywhere unless they acknowledge that they have a problem in the first place. They're like a heroin addict claiming that his live would be perfect, but only if stingy passers-by would just drop a few more dollars in his cup so he can buy another bag of dope.
Talking past each other
Unfortunately, such rhetoric doesn't help--and while Smith does identify a major issue that the US has with quality of governance, particularly in infrastructure, this sort of broadside does little to shed light on issues. Many transportation experts--by which I mean planners and administrators, as well as engineers and activists--are well aware of the problem. Levy is an adamant transit supporter, of course, and he's written extensively about this; I've written quite a bit here at PT. There's a couple errors that Smith make, either of omission or commission.
- As noted above, he focuses entirely on one segment of the transportation sector--transit--while broadly ignoring the rest. Waste exists, and it exists pretty much everywhere; there's just as much to be found in roadbuilding and aviation as there is in transit. The Big Dig in Boston. The Mercer Island tunnel. The CRC. The deep-bore tunnel. The Tappan Zee bridge replacement. The proposed tunnel under South Pasadena to complete the gap in I-710. Compared to these, the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" proposed for Alaska, which was mentioned by Halsey (this drew more ridicule from Smith) is peanuts.
- Even within public transit circles, the NYC subway system is a particularly notorious and inefficient case--New York is a highly-unionized city with abundant financial resources, which is well-known for a corrupt political culture and a highly dysfunctional relationship with the state government in Albany. Most cities in the US are not New York when it comes to waste and boondoggles.
- The solution space wasn't explored much, if at all.
That said, there were a few things which Smith gets right:
- Reform is needed.
- Throwing money at the problem probably won't help. It will eventually get things built, but it won't improve the fundamental issues.
What is waste, anyway?
One major area of disconnect, which wasn't explored by either author, is that terms such as "waste" mean different things to different people. Many (not all!) critics of transit, when they claim it is wasteful, often mean that they consider it undesirable at any price. Some critics are heavily invested in the automobile--owning one (or several) and living in auto-dependent places and having auto-dependent lifestyles--and believe that their preferred mode should be the one that receives investment. (This position is often justified with majoritarian arguments--most everybody drivers, only a few percent use transit). Others critics have reactionary attitudes towards transit and its users; and still others object to public subsidies of anything and consider transit to be an egregious offender. Smith is certainly not in the first two camps (being an urbanist); though he may be in the third (being a libertarian).
To Levy, however, waste means an entirely different thing. When he claims something is wasteful (in the US), it's because other first-world economies (with similar labor costs, access to capital, and technical expertise) have proven track records building the same thing for far less money. Levy's judgment of waste (in transit; he writes far less about roadbuilding, often considering that to be waste of the first kind) is not a judgment of the worth of the projects in question; but of how they are built. And in his writings, he goes into quite a bit of detail as to where the bodies are buried: inefficient or outmoded regulations and regulatory bodies (particularly the FRA); a lack of technical standards for things that ought to be standardized (in many countries, the same LRT vehicle will work unmodified in any city's transit system; something which is decidedly not true in the US); a political culture more susceptible to capture by special interests (including both vendors and labor); less economies of scale (particularly for transit) than in other countries which build much more of it. To that, you might add the common use of transportation projects as economic stimulus vehicles (even during good economic times); and a greater difficulty assembling political coalitions in support of projects, thus necessitating more compromises to satisfy the various stakeholders.
Its the politics, stupid
Unfortunately, our political culture tends to produce one of two responses to the problem (and many others in public-sector governance): Throw money at the problem, or blow things up. Throwing money won't solve the problem, and blowing things up solves the problem of waste, but does little to help with the more fundamental problem that our infrastructure is in decay. And while many voters may be correct in their suspicions that their money is often not wisely spent; there's ample evidence that our infrastructure really is in deplorable shape--that not all such claims of dire emergency are examples of crying wolf from corrupt officials and rent-seeking special interests looking to loot the public till. However, some are--and separating wheat from chaff is often difficult.
Ultimately, the long-term solution to this is not an easy one; likely requiring structural reform in the nature of politics themselves--and thus something that politicians groomed under the current system are unlikely to deliver. However, as Levy shows, there are many places which do manage to build public projects with far less waste and fuss than we manage here in the US, places which are wealthy democracies to boot. No particular political ideology seems to have a monopoly on good governance--it can be found in places as diverse as the various European social democracies, as well as in quasi-libertarian societies such as Hong Kong. The first lesson for US leaders would be to study what works abroad and emulate it--not-invented-here syndrome is far too present in US polity. The second lesson is to understand how to reduce the influence of special interests (both right and left) on the political process. This is a battle which must be continuously fought, as special interests sooner or later tend to figure out how to game whatever system is put in place to restrain them. And probably a third lesson is to get transportation back out of the culture wars--in many places, busses and trains and freeways are regarded by the public as boring old utilities that are only politically remarkable when they are badly screwed up. Here, it seems our transportation infrastructure choices are among the great social issues of the day, with the decision to build rail or roads carrying tremendous amounts of freight in some great moral struggle. Other forms of public infrastructure, such as the power grid (which is publicly-owned in many places) or the sewers, don't seem to generate anywhere near the same level of heated rhetoric.
The US Department of Transportation has just issued a record of decision for the CRC. This represents the final regulatory hurdle for the project, meaning that the state DsOT can go forward with acquisition of land for the ROW and of construction.
Of course, there's still the matter of funding the thing...
Listen to the show (mp3, 26.7MB)
Bike Sharing! Since December is the month of giving and receiving, we're looking at what it takes have a city with Bike Sharing. Tori and Michelle are joined by Jocelyn Gaudi, a main player in NYC's new system, Mitch Vars from Nice Ride of Minneaplois, and Ricky Rios of Caribbean Green Bikes in Puerto Rico to talk about different systems, different cities, and if Bike Sharing has a real future in Portland.
December 6, 2011
Two recent pieces worth note on issues of equity surrounding cycling:
- It matters where the facilities are and where they go - as areas surrounding London argue that the design of the bikeways favors the central city over local neighborhoods.
- The "elitist" cyclist is largely a myth
Both via Planetizen.
December 5, 2011
Last week, PBOT and Portland Streetcar Inc held two open houses regarding fare policy when the Streetcar Loop opens next year. Taking Streetcar out of Free Rail Zone is under serious consideration.
You still have one more opportunity to add your voice via a "virtual open house" (PDF).
This month we're taking an in-depth look at Bike Sharing programs and how they affect American cities. Is Bike Sharing a good fit for Portland? What do you want to know about Bike Share?
11AM-Noon, Wednesday, December 7th
KBOO FM 90.7
Streamed live at KBOO.fm
Podcast here later that day
December 2, 2011
This is a guest post from Michael Andersen of Portland Afoot, PDX's 10-minute newsmagazine for TriMet commuters.
TriMet's plan to build a $366,000 solar project near PSU that'll kick off $4,550 a year of electricity sounds like a nutty waste.
That's certainly how it played in TriMet's initial press release, and on the front page of The Oregonian Tuesday. When I saw those numbers (they've been slightly amended since the initial release) I was ready to pounce, myself.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the snarky news item I wrote up for our little commuting magazine: the more I learned about the project, the better I liked it. Now I think it's a seriously clever project that'll even sneak some much-needed money into the agency's bottom line.
First, four seemingly damning facts:
- It's a money-loser. Assuming energy prices rise 3 percent faster than inflation, the project won't "pay for itself" until 2051, five years after its predicted expiration date.
- TriMet's got lots of capital investment options with higher returns. For comparison's sake, a new bus costs the agency $426,800. Last year, scrambling to find cash for its next MAX line, the agency saved $100,000 by scrapping preparations for a future stop in Moreland, near Reed College.
- It could have been spent elsewhere. The project will shake the last drops out of a 2005 federal rail grant that built the Green Line, so I suppose it might have been available for (say) building spots for LIFT vehicles to stop along the Transit Mall, though not for (say) bus service.
- The public is paying the full bill. Though TriMet will probably only be on the hook for $134,000 of the $366,000 pricetag, the rest will come from state taxpayers (a $100,000 BETC subsidy) and utility ratepayers ($132,000 from the Energy Trust of Oregon and PGE).
Now, three additional facts that didn't, somehow, make it into the initial news release or the next day's newspaper:
- TriMet had already been required to dress up the buildings. The city permit for the new Transit Mall required a "gateway treatment," a potentially major decorative expense, at the otherwise sort of ugly MAX turnaround. Most of the ways to satisfy this requirement would not have generated revenue. This one does.
- The finished product is actually going to look pretty sweet. Note that this is not technically a fact. But that doesn't mean it's not true.
- It'll convert capital grants to operating revenue. $4,550 a year isn't much. But nearly every penny of electricity revenue that TriMet pulls out of these solar panels for the next 35 years will basically be a federal subsidy of TriMet's operating costs. In an agency that keeps digging its way deeper into a long-term cash flow crisis, that's a nice change.
That leaves one last problem: The solar panels are still heavily subsidized by the general public. But you know what? The public subsidizes solar power for a reason: It's a technology we've decided to put a bet on. We can fight about that another day. Let's not let it obscure the fact that TriMet found a clever way to stitch together a bunch of funding and save a little cash for its own constituents.
Though I am annoyed that I had to rewrite that snarky news item.
December 1, 2011
Christmas presents? Or coal? 'Tis time for the final Open Thread of the year.
- As pointed out in the comments of the last Open Thread, Clackamas County is trying to figure out where to come up with their $25 million contribution for MLR.
- The project to rebuild US20 east of Newport gets more bad news.
- Michael Andersen on lobbyist Ward Hubbell
- Jarrett Walker's new book, Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives will be going to press within a couple weeks.
Have at it, and happy holidays!