March 31, 2012
PSU Urban Planning expert (and former Planning Commission President) Ethan Seltzer suggests some ways to collectively think our way out of the current Columbia River Crossing mess.
March 30, 2012
One of the interesting developments of the past few weeks is that the organizational efforts of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon seem to be bearing fruit. TriMet's recent scaled-back service cuts seem to take many of OPAL's concerns into account (notwithstanding the warning that additional cuts may be back on the table if labor negotiations don't go TriMet's way), and now OPAL has managed to recruit some more serious political muscle into its advocacy, with its new campaign, We All Ride The Bus. In this organizational effort, OPAL is joined by several heavier hitters, including Gunderson (a railcar manufacturer in NW Portland, adversely affected by proposed reductions to Line 17 service) and SEIU Local 49, to campaign for improvements to TriMet's basic transit service, primarily the bus system..
This past week, We All Ride The Bus held a press conference in which they released their proposed Alternative Solutions for the TriMet budget, which are reproduced after the jump. (They can also be read at OPAL's Facebook page).
First, TriMet must ensure full transparency and accountability by using the most current projections for next year's budget. TriMet should update its analysis of the payroll tax revenue and federal grant projections so everyone can be more fully informed of the situation.In general, I agree with the substance of these proposals. While I'm hopeful that rapid transit can be added to the SW Corridor in the mid-term, and don't object to planning activities now underway, I think that in the nearer term, strengthening the existing transit system, in particular our bus system, is vitally important.
Second, instead of resorting to fare increases and service cuts, TriMet should fully analyze alternative cost-savings and revenue-generating options. Some initial alternatives include:
- Premium Fares for Premium Service: Portlanders currently have access to a variety of free and convenient services that come at a high price to TriMet and its budget. Charging a reasonable user fee for Park-&-Ride lots can generate $1.5 million per year, while charging a premium fare for the Westside Commuter Service (WES) can generate $500,000. Services that cost the region more money to build and operate should be proportionately priced.
- Portland Streetcar Subsidies: TriMet should trim payments to the City of Portland (currently $6 million each year) to subsidize the expansion and operation of the Streetcar. Although the city's investment in the Streetcar has brought many new businesses and economic opportunities to the area, these investments shouldn't be at the expense of bus service or affordable fares for other areas of the region.
- Performance Efficiency Measures: It is imperative that TriMet start investing in our bus system for the long term. TriMet should be looking at ways to get buses moving faster, such as installing ticket validation machines to expedite the boarding process and maximizing the use of bus jump lanes and traffic signal prioritization. A more efficient bus system will save money, allow TriMet to increase frequency and will give its customers reason to believe in - and ride - the bus again.
- Reevaluate Future Capital Rail Project Investments: Keeping our current commitments is important, but in a budget crisis, future capital investments in rail expansion projects should be put on hold until current services can be funded sufficiently. As with any business facing operational cut backs, TriMet should exhaust all options to postpone future capital expenses if they are restricting operating expenses for the bus system.
But beyond the above suggestions, there's a few other things I think need to be on the table.
A conversation about the purpose of transit
A big disconnect that I've long noticed is that TriMet, and many transit wonks, are convinced that the current program of building out light rail is fundamentally a good idea--yet many existing patrons, who may not use the new services but see their own bus lines being cut--beg to differ. Cameron Johnson of Bus Riders Unite (another OPAL project), in testimony before the TriMet board meeting, compared the agency to a slumlord that neglects his rental properties (the bus system) and instead concentrates his resources on building the nicest swimming pool on the block (MAX) to impress friends and outsiders. The analogy reveals a fundamental belief about rail expansion that some hold--that it's a frivolous boondoggle, unrelated to the agency's primary mission. On the other hand, about a third of all TriMet boarding rides are on MAX--so clearly, it can be argued, it's providing living space, to continue the analogy. (A better analogy might be that MAX is shiny the new apartments going in next door, while the old ones are being neglected).
Why the disconnect? Different people have different beliefs about the fundamental mission of TriMet.
Two years ago, I did a post over at Dead Horse Times on the different missions (and anti-missions--go read the article) that a transit agency might seek to fulfill. OPAL, BRU, and other rider organizations are generally most concerned about mobility-oriented missions: comprehensive and thorough basic transit service, with a particular focus on social justice. Making sure people can use the system to get from point A to point B, in a reasonable fashion and at a reasonable price. And if one is primarily concerned with these ends, a comprehensive, distributed bus network is one of the best ways to achieve it. Concentrating resources in dedicated corridors, which is what rapid transit necessarily involves, doesn't serve these missions very well.
Many in our political leadership, however, have environmental-oriented missions in mind: Attracting people out of cars. Transforming the built environment to a more sustainable form. Reducing emissions, including of transit rolling stock. And the way you support these missions is to build electric-powered rapid transit (which generally means rail, as trolleybusses are not effective in rapid transit roles), build out to suburbia, provide amenities to so-called "choice" riders who might otherwise choose to drive, curtail or shorten "low-performing" routes, and encourage (or even invest in) transit-oriented development--including providing transit service to new developments on a speculative basis.
This, I think, is a big part of why the two sides in this are not communicating well. People trying to get to their jobs and live out their lives are not as likely to be sympathetic to more abstract environmental concerns, which frequently are found higher up on the hierarchy of needs. It's easy to conclude that rather than being driven by an environmental agenda, leaders are being driven by pork-barrel politics or other base motives (a desire to make Portland appear more cosmopolitan or "European" is often suggested as a hidden rationale for capital transit investment). Of course, leaders, for their part, are in many cases following the law--regional plans include environmental goals (reduce VMT, reduced emissions) that leaders have to adhere to.
Rather than continuing to talk past each other, the political leadership of the Metro area and OPAL and other ridership groups need to come to an understanding on this. And rather than diverting resources from existing to new service as an operations detail, a public conversation ought to be had as to how much of our transit dollars will be spent on providing basic service, and how much will be spent on projects with a primary environmental rather than mobility bent.
In Part 3 of our recent interview with Neil McFarlane, he noted that TriMet board policy limits the agency's debt ratio to 7.5% of operating revenues. (I suspect that this policy excludes the unfunded pension and OPEB obligations, which are closer to 200% of operating revenues--albeit most of this debt will not come due for years if not decades). And there's a good reason for this policy, beyond the obvious one of not getting too far into hock: operational dollars are the most scarce kind. The FTA will happily throw money your way for capital projects, but operating grants are rare--most operating revenue comes from fares, the payroll tax, and a small amount from other sources such as advertising.
One of the major criticism of the Milwaukie MAX project is that TriMet is issuing $60 million in bonds backed by payroll tax revenues to get to $745 million dollars. While the FTA matches that $60M, the bonded money represents revenue lost to operations until the bonds are retired. The Oregon Legislature has approved a small hike in the payroll tax to offset this, but that's money that could go to service (or to funding the aforementioned pension and OPEB obligations).
Not funding operations has been a longstanding FTA policy. It's a dumb one in my opinion, but it's unlikely to change soon.
However, Uncle Sam only provides half of the capital costs for MLR--the other half is provided by local sources: Metro, municipal governments, and the state of Oregon. And these local governments don't have a set-in-stone policy of only financing capital costs.
Thus--rather than going to the Oregon Legislature and asking for lottery dollars to build the next MAX line; what about instead asking for money to start an endowment--a pool of money which sits in a safe place, possibly managed by a trustee? Having such a thing in place could solve several problems:
- First, the interest on this could be used to fund operations, or short-term capital needs (like bus replacement).
- Second, the endowment could be nominally pledged to the pension/OPEB obligations, helping TriMet clean up its balance sheet.
- Third, the money might be drawn down (borrowed from) in lean times as a way of tiding the agency through recessions, to help avoid service cuts at a time when additional service is often needed
The downside of this sort of an endowment is large piles of money tend to attract people looking to capture it for themselves: Labor might try to use it to justify pay/benefit raises; anti-tax groups might try and demand a reduction in payroll taxes, etc. So this has to be managed carefully. But all else being equal, I'd rather TriMet be earning interest rather than paying it.
Separation of operations and capital planning
This next suggestion is as much a political suggestion as anything else. In many ways, TriMet is two agencies, joined at the hip. One is a transit operations company, which provides bus and train service to the general public. The other is a capital projects agency, which designs and builds stuff. Many of the things these two halves of the agency do are separate--operations are mostly funded as noted above, capital projects are mostly funded through grants--but this distinction is not often well-understood.
If TriMet had a dollar for every time somebody suggested solving the budget crisis by laying off planners or engineers, it wouldn't have a budget crisis. The fact of the matter is, though, most of the folks on the capital projects side of the house are being paid by funding sources that simply can't be diverted to operations.
Given that--might it be useful if the capital planning function was housed elsewhere (Metro, perhaps), or at least treated as a separate agency with separate books?
There would be many consequences to such a re-org, so at this point I'm mainly proposing it as an area of further study--but it might be worth considering.
March 29, 2012
In the final segment of our conversation with TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane, we discuss a range of issues, from regenerative braking to electronic fares.
A transcript of the interview, prepared by Engineer Scotty, follows the jump.
CS: All right, our final area of questions is sort of a potpourri area, so excuse me for skipping around a little bit...
NM: Is this the speed round?
CS: Well I don't know, we're doing pretty well on time, so I don't really have to rush. A couple years ago, TriMet received a grant to put regenerative braking energy storage system on, I think 20 MAX vehicles. What's the progress on that?
NM: Actually, we had a pilot installation, more earlier this year. My understanding is we're monitoring it, and it's progressing well. I haven't had a full report on it, it's.. some of our vehicle engineers continue to work with it. It was kind of a thing where I think there was going to be a certain level of tweaking associated with it, and so that tweaking was going on with the prototype installations that we had. But moving ahead, and will be in place before long.
CS: OK, I'm sure our readers would love to hear about it. A question that comes up, probably every time you do service planning. Today we have an Alder-Washington couplet, I'm sorry, an Alder-Salmon-Washington couplet, very far apart, people keep asking why can't we do Alder-Washington instead?
NM: Well, that's a really excellent question, and it probably goes to more history than I have, about why these routes are on these particular streets they have. I do know that the 15 that we're talking about here, the number 15 line, also serves the Goose Hollow station (sic). Well, there's a lot of transferring that goes on between the 15 bus line and the MAX line, and so then... once you get that far, where you're really providing a close transfer connection to the westside portion of the MAX line, then Salmon is about the first street you get to that heads east, so that's one notion. And, you know the other consideration I think we've got is that Alder is a pretty busy street, a lot of businesses, a lot of parking, it's kind of an onramp to the bridge, at one end, so I think there'd have to be a little bit of research and study as to whether or not it's worthy of really looking at. I'll ask Service Planning the question again, if they'll actually look at that. I guess the other observation I've got is that there's a pretty excellent couplet one block over at Morrison and Yamhill, or two blocks over at Morrison and Yamhill, which I think serves that east-west travel through downtown pretty well, it's almost a moving sidewalk of trains these days, with all the different combinations of lines on it.
CS: TriMet's been a pioneer in real-time arrival, and services around that, I personally participated in some of the software development around that, but the question we get is that while the busses have GPS, as I understand it, the predictions for the MAX trains come from circuits in the tracks, and are not always as accurate. Our readers would like to know, is there a prospect for better accuracy on the MAX arrival predictions?
NM: Great question, and I'm afraid that I don't know the answer. But I would tell that in the, over the rest of this calendar year, we will be updating our AVL (automatic vehicle location) system and our radio system on the bus system, so rather than having what is now I think is a satellite update every three minutes, we'll be compressing that, it will be even shorter. So for the busses themselves, we will be getting more accurate information here out to customers, probably by the end of the year. That's combined with another one of our major, frankly, re-investments in the bus system, which is a new automatic dispatch system, new radio system, and new consoles on the busses themselves. Part of that, again, later this year, we'll begin to see a new printer for transfers as well. And one of our long term.. a lot of people say, well how come you have, as I call it, the best of the 19th century technology for our current transfers on the bus, whereas we have much more elaborate printing devices for the MAX, and this will begin to equalize between the modes, and I think will be a great asset, both for our riders and for our operators, particularly who right now have to be careful how they tear that little piece of paper.
CS: And our last question is also a technology question. Last month, you released a white paper on electronic fare technologies. What's the timeline in which our readers can look forward to seeing some of that technology deployed?
NM: Well, believe it or not, it's probably about five years. Later this year, and the budget does include a little bit of a stipend for this, is that we'll be releasing an RFP (request for proposals) looking for some technical assistance for this. Meanwhile, we'll be continue our conversations with many others in the transit, many of our peers in the transit industry. And this is a really hot topic in transit industry nationwide. I think one of the great advantages of moving from, as I say, from the 19th century to now, to the cutting-edge technology that's out now, is we'll be skipping whole generations of technology, and the old smart card technologies that frankly, a couple years ago, we would have thought was cutting edge, may not be cutting-edge by the time we actually implement this. But believe it or not, five years is probably about as fast as we can do this, just given the need to develop the specification carefully, to do research for some of the different providers, to actually begin to prototype some things, and then do the actual procurements related to the contract, and the installation. I'd also expect that as we start, we'd do some pilot projects where we might not do the whole system all at once, we'd try a segment of it, maybe give Portland Transport readers access to it, and TriMet employees, and begin to see how it works for us, subset, before we make it ubiquitous across the system. It's a big deal. There's nothing more difficult for a transit agency than fare technology, because it, it is literally touches every element of our operation, from our operations, to our finance division, to the legal division, to the IT division. It takes incredible coordination and communication to be able to pull this off well. We're committed to doing that, and as you know, I've made this a bit of a priority, that we begin to really focus on this as an agency.
CS: So what do you see as some of the key benefits to riders, from the transfer to electronic fares?
NM: Well, I think ease will be one, first of all, if one is using either a proximity credit card or a near-phone, near-field connection from a cell phone, I think it would be very easy for both regular riders, as well as occasional riders, to use the system. The other thing is I think there will be some advantages in terms of fare evasion, and I think we'll be able to catch it, because what happens in these systems is you walk on the bus, you flash your device, and you get a green light or a red light, and it's very clear, and there's no level of interpretation on the part of the operator, about whether or not the fare instrument is right, because the computers make, defines the rules, in that regard. So I think there's some advantages to that as well. It will reduce the leakage, I guess you can say, in the current fare system. I also think that there will be incredible advantages to us, to those of us think about planning and transit development in terms of information that will be available. We get incredible origin-destination data from those systems, so I think will be very help to planning systems in the future. So I think there are really some substantial benefits. Another one, and I've asked our project staff for the Portland-Milwaukie project to look at this, is whether or not we can begin to prototype a closed station design, much like you see at the Washington Metro or the New York City subway, and begin to prototype that at the Bybee station, on the Portland-Milwuakie line. And that might be a prototype for other stations in suburban areas, particularly where there's accesses, we can actually constrain the access to the stations, so only paid fareholders can access the platform or the station.
CS: So, if I recall the City Club discussion--I think you got that question at the City Club about open vs closed platforms, and you made the point that certainly in the central city, the stations are part of the urban fabric, and it would be very hard to segregate them. Is there a value to being able to close some stations without being able to close all of them?
NM: I think there is. I think for example, some of the stations that where they're a bit removed from the street, like along the Banfield, I think people would feel more secure if they knew only other fare-paying passengers were there. And while we have done a lot of work in terms of cameras and lights, the access control would be one additional improvement related to security. And I think, in some of those situations, you know, frankly, just making sure that anybody who's able to access the trains, or get off the train, because it's the same situation, has paid, is, will help with the leakage question, that I raised earlier.
CS: We're talking about the benefits of potentially closing some platforms. I think in the past, 82nd Avenue, I think, has been a suggested location for security reasons for that. Any comment as to whether that would fit within this scheme?
NM: It would, in the future. I might note that we've completed a pilot project for 82nd Avenue, working with the neighborhood, and Portland Police, and Portland Department of Transportation, and ODOT all part of that, and what we did was improve lighting, we made sure that the platforms are clearly marked as fare-paid zone, that allow our fare inspectors and transit police to do more inspections to make sure that people who are on the platform are, do have a legitimate fare, i.e. and a legitimate reason to be there. So a number of improvements were taken, have taken place, but that's a little different than having the closed physical barrier, and we obviously just don't have the technology in our fare system to allow that right now, and that would be the innovation that we improve.
CS: I'd like to thank you very much for sharing this time with our readers.
NM: All my pleasure. Thank you, Chris.
A few years before starting this blog in 2005 I channeled my wonkery hours into serving as the lead neighborhood representative in trying to develop a parking plan for NW Portland.
I still have the scars from when that effort crashed and burned. At the time I predicted that we had poisoned the well for another decade.
Well, 10 years have passed and the Mayor is taking another run at it, with more or less the same pathologies at play.
Part of the disconnect in the debate is that the merchants on NW 23rd are convinced that metered parking will drive their customers away to Washington Square or elsewhere. The Mayor and others argue that metered parking will result in greater turnover and more traffic for the shops.
Shoup essentially says yes to both points of view. Pricing will create turnover, but by using dynamic pricing, if the price is high enough to leave too many spaces unfilled, it would be lowered until we hit the magic 85% occupancy point.
It's actually a pretty reasonable approach to getting the two sides on the same page. Although my gut says that there is sufficient demand that dynamic pricing would not result in a rate much lower than downtown meters anyway.
March 28, 2012
In the third segment (of four) of our conversation with TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane, we discuss the Portland-to-Milwaukie Light Rail project.
A transcript of the interview, prepared by Engineer Scotty, follows the jump.
CS: Let's change topics a little bit... Portland-Milwaukie. We're under construction now, you're building a bridge in the middle of the river... some observers have noted that if you look at the cost of the project, on an inflation-adjusted basis, it's about the same price tag as the Westside line, but the Westside line is something like twice as long. You came up through capital projects within TriMet... why is this project so expensive on a cost-per-mile basis?
NM: Well, there's a couple of things that factor into that. One is that the cost of this project also includes the financing cost, so it's an all-in cost including the interim financing associated with the project, sort of the construction period financing. That wasn't the case with the Westside, partially that's just an accounting difference that the federal government has instituted. I would say the other piece of is that the federal government also now carefully reviews all the estimates, and wants a very comfortable contingency on most of their projects, and I think there is a very comfortable contingency, and it's much more comfortable contingency than I'm used to seeing when I was managing capital projects at TriMet. That might mean that there will be some opportunity for re-investment along the project toward the end, but that will be up to FTA because they control that dial right now.
CS: So if you come in with unspent contingencies, what are some of the things on the wish list that might go to?
NM: Well, there is, actually, a deferral list associated with the project, part of it is some of the pedestrian overcrossings over the UP line in the SE Portland area, additional capacity at park-and-ride, particularly at Tacoma station, and a few other accoutrements aligned for stations and other things along the line. I don't have the full list in my brain, but those are the biggest ones. And there are other kinds of investments that we always like to make with our projects, including sustained transit oriented development to occur around our station sites, so that we actually begin to build the neighborhoods that we want to see around our stations, and begin to see that development in the right way. So there's some hope, again, but very early in all of that. The other factor about this project, that I just wanted to note that's different with some of the others, is that it really needs to carve its own right-of-way out of SE Portland, and so that meant a lot more property acquisition, more than any project we've had since the Westside.
CS: So that's the upside, if we have some contingencies left over. Let's talk about the downside. There's some interesting ballot measure activity going on in Clackamas County right now... is the Portland-Milwaukie funding secure, and are there any conditions under which you might consider terminating at the MOS and dropping the Park Avenue station from the project?
NM: The funding is secure. We have signed contracts with all of the governments along the line, starting with Portland all the way down through Milwaukie and Clackamas County, and those agreements were agreed to by all the partners. The other thing I'd say is, the federal government when they approve and consider these projects, are considering the thing as a whole. So they're considering a project that starts at Portland State University, at the transit mall, and ends in Oak Grove, and that's the part they evaluated, and that's the project they've agreed to fund at the level that they have, about $745 million of discretionary federal funds coming to Portland with this project. So, my view is that it secure, and we have the strong support of the federal government, the federal transit administration. They're moving this project forward, and we've been very honest with them about these issues in Clackamas County and Milwaukie. Both those bodies have voted twice for the project, for the Locally Preferred Alternative as well as for the funding agreement.
CS: So if there were some circumstances in which you'd have to consider the minimum operable segment, you'd have to go negotiate with the FTA to be able to do that, is that what you are saying?
NM: If there were that circumstance ahead of us. I'm not anticipating that.
CS: Okay. We've talked about the potential of some contingency funds being available at the end of the project. One of the ways of funding Portland-Milwaukie is issuing bonds against future revenue, which is revenue which could be used for operations otherwise. Is there any consideration that if we do have contingencies left, we could reduce the level of bonding, or preserve future operating capacity?
NM: Probably not. The FTA does require that the scope of the project be defined in the Full Funding Grant, so the use of any funds, really, is contingent upon FTA approval, so they would have to look at that themselves. And so at the end of the day, we'd be petitioning to Portland, to the Federal Government to perhaps suggest an improvement of one or another in the project. But it would be specifically related to the project, and that's the nature of those discretionary capital dollars from the FTA. Just to note on those funds. Up to now, we have not put any TriMet money into the Portland-Milwaukie project. The funds have been partnership funds from the State of Oregon, and some grant funds that were available to us from the MTIP funds that Metro allocates. So, if you look at the difficult time that we've gone through, from a budget standpoint, Portland-Milwaukie has not contributed to that at all, up to now.
CS: First payments on the bonds will hit what budget year?
NM: I think they will actually will hit in fiscal 13, the way we have it right now. And so, one of the other things I would just note about TriMet and capital bonding is that we have a very low debt ratio associated with the agency. The Board has adopted a debt policy that limits our overall debt to about 7 1/2% of our overall payroll tax. So if you think of that as a homeowner's budget, you know that's a pretty low debt ratio, and if you compare us to other transit districts around the US, you'll find that that's a pretty low ratio. Now that's intended, because we, with all of our partners, recognize that's incredibly important to preserve as much operating dollars, out of the TriMet payroll tax as possible, so it's only a little bit of leverage from the capital side that we ask for from TriMet, and we look for patnership funds to do the balance, and that's quite intentional. If you look at the history of projects that we've done, all the way from the Banfield through, you'll find first of all that the Federal Government's contributed about 60% historically, of those funds, as much as 83, or 82 on the Banfield, 80% on the Interstate, to 50% here, but then other partners have contributed the balance.
March 27, 2012
In the second segment (of four) of our conversation with TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane, we cover the status of TriMet's contract with ATU (Amalgamated Transit Union).
A transcript of the interview, prepared by EngineerScotty, is after the jump.
CS: So let's shift over to the labor issues. So you made a presentation to the City Club a couple of weeks ago, where you very strongly indicated that the labor contract was going to be an ongoing issue for TriMet. I guess my first question is, obviously that the union has a different position, in terms of independent analysis I've seen, there seems to be some agreement among the independent views that the post-employment labor costs are disproportionally impacting the budget, and that's likely to get worse before it gets better.
CS: So the first question is, how did we get here. Did TriMet management not see this coming? I mean, we seem to have gotten ourselves into a bind, that's going to take a lot of work to get out of--how did we wind up here?
NM: Well, I'd say--my experience, not even as a TriMet employee, and certainly not as a TriMet manager, goes back no more than about thirty years, and so I would say that I think it took two parties thirty years to get here. But I'd also say that this is not a uniquely TriMet problem. I think TriMet is an extreme example when it comes to the post-employment and medical benefits, and also the level of medical benefits, and as I outlined in the City Club, the average Regence price for an ATU employee right now is $22k a year. For TriMet management employees, we have a much more market-based plan, 80% coverage, 20% co-insurance, some deductibles, sort of normal, some premium co-share, we're about half that, in terms of TriMet management, so we're leading with the management staff. That's... those are stunning numbers, and partially, those numbers and that plan design is what also drives the post-employment benefits. So if we were able to bring those costs down to what I think is a reasonable market response, and what our peers in the public sector have, and what our peers, frankly, in other transit districts have, you'd see both the current active employee levels of expense, as well as those for retirees, go down. So that's sort of Step 1. But I would also say that it is absolutely essential that we get ahold of this. And it's very hard, and it's very painful, and obviously I don't have a cooperative, willing partner with the ATU. But I would also come back and strongly say that it's in everybody's interest to make sure that TriMet's finances are sustainable. What TriMet does is absolutely essential to the region. You know how committed I am to public transit, and to making sure that we can meet the kind of needs that this region is counting on us to do. Right now, with that contract, with the level of employee benefit associated with it, we can't. That's pure and simple. We can't.
CS: We've already mention the binding arbitration, decisions coming up. I think some of us have been watching this process, and find it interesting that at least a couple of times, the Employee Relations Board has ruled against Trimet; either that something you are trying to do is not procedurally allowable, or I think in one case, that it is an Unfair Labor Practice. I think for some of our readers it begs the question: Does TriMet really understand the binding arbitration process, or are you in a field that you're not familiar with and we're having problems because of that?
NM: Well, I, as you know, in public statements I've referred to what I have described as a bit of a Byzantine process, related to the binding arbitration process, and to the regulations associated with that, that come out of the Employee Relations Board. That said, I'm not at all defensive about where we've been. I'm also very willing to admit that we've had some missteps along the way and that we can do things better. To that end, over the last few months I've hired a new labor relations executive, a fellow by the name of Randy Stedman who is a real pro in this, and will be providing I think great leadership as we move forward on the labor relations issues. I, again, noted that this took thirty years to get us where we are, and two parties, it's going to take those two parties to get us out of this. I think we just have to step up to it, as a region and as a community, if we really believe in public transit and what TriMet does. So, you know, certainly, we've not been perfect in the past in terms of our procedurally-driven responses to all of these things. I think we're on the right when it comes to actually describing the math associated with this. I want to emphasize, and I try do this every time I bring up this topic, is this is not anti-union, and this is with full regard for how hard our employees work. They work incredibly hard; they do a great job, as you well know, on a regular basis. And they deserve good compensation and they deserve good benefits. This is really about the math, about the current program. It just needs real market reform. I would also, for a moment, add that TriMet is not alone in this, it's the same problem that the Federal Government is facing with Medicare expenses, it's the same problem that, to some extent, the state government faces with PERS, but it's an extreme example, and it's really focused not so much on pension, in the case of TriMet, it's really focused on these medical benefits that just need to get to be real, in terms of the market.
CS: So we have the ruling coming up, some time in the next budget year. After that, what are the steps? What else needs to happen to get this under control?
NM: Well, there is in any situation, we're immediately back into negotiations with the union, so we start again. Immediately. In the case of the union winning the arbitration, their contract proposal actually ended last November. In the case of a TriMet proposal, it actually ends this November. So in any case, we'll be asking the union to come back to the table to address these issues with us immediately. And we'll be readying ourselves, if indeed, to move the arbitration process just like we did this time. Hopefully we can get there sooner than two years, two plus years, really two and a half years by the time we're actually done with this, since the contract was expired by the time we get to the solution.
CS: At the City Club presentation your co-panelist was David Knowles who chairs the Transportation Committee for the Portland Business Alliance. I know David as a planner, he mentioned that he was trained as a lawyer, and he said that as a lawyer he felt like binding arbitration favored the status quo, and that it was going to be difficult, in the binding arbitration context, to make the kind of changes that may be necessary. And so I guess I'd ask the question: Will it be part of TriMet's legislative agenda to change the classification of your employees so they are able to strike, rather than being classified as essential employees and requiring binding arbitration?
NM: Well, it's a good question, and I'll be very honest with you, it's a great topic of debate right now. Nobody wants a strike, obviously. A strike is a bad thing for everybody--the employees, the employers, and obviously the economy of the region and the service to our riders. That said, as I said at the City Club, I do believe our current contract is slowly strangling TriMet, and I actually think that we need to get this resolved. The history of labor relations in the country is that the way those kinds of issues do get resolved is you come to a cliff, which is called the end of a contract, and a decision on one party or another to either accept it or reject it. So, now, we've moved away from that sort of status quo, or a standard labor relations environment, into what is now, was created for police and fire. And while I think transit is important, I'm not sure that transit union employees are the same sort of life-sensitive, life/safety sensitive that police and firemen are. And I think that, frankly, nobody is going to die if your bus doesn't show up, but you may if your police or fire doesn't show up.
CS: Hardships if the bus doesn't show up, but I think you're right, probably not in the same category.
NM: Not kind of the same category. So I think there's a reasonable debate to have on that. We haven't come to a final conclusion on that. I would love to see the arbitration process work. Candidly, I guess I'm sharing pretty candid, that I'm frustrated with it, and I'm not sure that it is working to the benefit of the district, or even to the employees in the long run, because these are really long-term financial issues that really deal with the security of our employees, and their benefits over the long term as well.
March 26, 2012
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to sit down with TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane to pose questions on behalf of Portland Transport readers.
We'll be releasing videos of this conversation in four parts, starting this evening with Part 1, focusing on TriMet's proposed service cuts. This conversation happened on the day of the release of TriMet's revised proposal. All questions which were recorded are included in the interview series, however, the order of the questions has been changed somewhat to group questions by subject. (In today's video, Neil makes reference to a comment he made earlier in the interview, but which which will appear in a later release. The reference isn't to anything substantial, and doesn't affect the quality of the interview series).
A transcript of the interview, prepared by EngineerScotty, is after the jump.
CS: Well thank you Neil, for sitting down to do this with us, to keep the Portland Transport readers up-to-date on what's going on...
NM: My pleasure.
CS: So let me start with the service cuts, since that's on everybody's mind. Often our readers will frame the issue as rail vs bus. And I guess, the way I think about it, having been involved in some of the policymaking is, we have, in this region, a pretty aggressive agenda of building a high capacity transit system, not necessarily cutting either the frequent service or the local busses, but when we do get into down periods in the economy, because we've made long-term commitments to high-capacity transit, that tends to be the effect. The only things that's fungible during a time of cutting is, typically, the local bus service, the high frequency bus service, and I see with the latest revisions to the cut package this morning is that while the cuts are greatly reduced--the service cuts are greatly reduced, the revenue pieces are still there, certainly I think people will appreciate that the service is not being reduced as much, but all the service cuts are on the bus side, as I understand it there are no service cuts planned for MAX at this point, a little bit for Streetcar. So how do we think about that from the equity point of view, transit-dependent riders vs choice riders, lower income vs higher income, a lot of people feel that the bus cuts may impact more the more disadvantaged populations more. So how does TriMet look at the equity impacts of that?
NM: Well we look at it, first of all, there's an equity lens on everything we do, whether it be a fare issue or a service issue. The first thing I'd emphasize in relation to your question is that the cuts have been reduced. We have heard that loud and clear from our public surveys, is would say that people are in favor of fare increases, what I'd say is there's a tolerance for fare increases, if the service can be kept whole. So now we're down to a limited $1.1M worth of bus service reductions, which out of a $432M budget is pretty small. I would tell you another of the moving pieces within the overall budget, and you can talk further about this, is there actually are some service increases on other bus lines, that are part of this overall budget. In particular the 9 and the 12, and there's a couple others that we absolutely have to add service to in order to deal with current crowding and service numbers that we've got right now, so the first thing I'd say about the bus cuts is that we have put it through an equity lens, and the other part of it is that they are very surgical, so for the most part, there's some attempt at looking at individual trips, and if we've got a bus carrying one or two people, that's not what we do very well, so we need to look at that, because that's inefficient service. And so that's what we've done, in terms of these bus cuts. In addition, there's a couple other service changes that are proposed, one in northwest Portland were we deal with Line 17 and the number 16, and our current proposal, which I urge your readers to look at, on the trimet.org, is to actually have the line 16 to serve the NW Industrial area, Linnton, and Sauvie Island, rather than number 17. That does save some money, also avoids some duplication in NW Portland, which we think is a smart change, but there also some other changes that are on that list. One is Line 47 and 48 being combined in Washington County, to provide a better east-west connection between Hillsboro Transit Center and Cedar Hills area. That's a nice, continuous route that I think builds a great base for improving service in the future. A similar change is to connect the 73 with the 70, the 73 is on 33rd avenue in NW (sic) Portland, the 70 on 11th and 12th, and so connecting them provides opportunity and access to a whole series of connections between Northwest (sic) Portland and Southwe, Southeast Portland that frankly are hard to get to with the current configuration. So they all have been very studied, and I would tell you there's another, I'm sure we'll get into the union contract at certain points...
CS: We will.
NM: ..points in time, but there's another minor point of this, which is that when we look at current MAX service, we have to add some service in the next year, on the MAX, because of service numbers. We've got crowding going on during the peak hours. And under the union contract, rail operators are full-time only. So unlike the bus operators, where we can divide shifts, or have part time shifts split shifts in some different ways,we don't have quite that flexibility on the rail system. So once we bring an operator in, they're around, so it makes it very hard to do targeted reductions on certain rail trips in the mid day. Now we've done that to the extent that we can, that overlapping shifts can allow us to do that, but just as a technicality, it's a little harder to get to. I would also tell you that for the most part, the rail system is performing really well. If you look at our cost per ride on the rail system, this may be something you want to get further into as well, it's on the order of $1.64 per ride, compared to the bus system overall, about $3 per ride. Which begins to tell you that economically, it's performing well from a ridership standpoint and serving a lot of people, and so we have to be sensitive about that when we look at all of these connections.
CS: Right, I don't think we'd argue that the efficiency is not being achieved, but when we look at equity, the most efficient thing is not always the most equitable thing, I guess. Just to contrast, and follow up a little bit, in the first round of proposed cuts, I think there were two significant MAX reductions on the table, there was basically a frequency reduction in the main Banfield corridor, I think from 15-minute headways to 20-minute headways, and there was the question of turning around the Red Line downtown vs in Beaverton, and I can see where turning around the Red Line early would reduce a lot of capacity, I think the question is, if you look at that Banfield frequency change, which was outside of peak hours, so it's not during the period when it's most crowded, if you took those service hours and applied them to busses, how much bus service could you have kept on the table for people who have no other choice.
NM: And I think i all our our cases we're trying, and we'll hear, obviously, from the public about this, but I think that choice you're describing, I think, is a false choice. We're trying to keep this bus service full, but we're dealing with some very specific single trips where we have a very low level of ridership. And that, frankly, is not where mass transit should be working. We should be working where we can carry large numbers of people, and investing our scarce resources into those situations.
CS: If we could step back a little bit, we got into this because we are building high capacity transit aggressively, and have a downturn in the economy. As we look at the future expansion of high capacity transit, and there really isn't a next line in the mix right now, with the postponement of Lake Oswego, and Southwest Corridor is still very early in the planning phases, but should we be looking at different mechanisms to pace this so we don't open lines quite so fast, or maybe we have bigger reserves in the bank before we open lines, so we're able to weather a downturn without having to cut other service that we didn't plan to have to change?
NM: Well I think you raise a very good point. I would say that, one of the important things I think for us to learn, out of the last two recessions, really, and frankly to be honest with you one of the difficult things about the 2008 recession was that we hadn't fully recovered from the recession that was earlier, in the year 2000, in the early 2000s. So there's a number of things that I think we learned from that. One is the TriMet board long term policy of having 2-3 months of working capital, is not just a nice-to-do, it's an essential element of a stable system. So that's number one. Number two, is that we have to keep our capital stock, including our bus fleet, current. The situation we found ourselves in, when I became general manager, is that we had this dramatic downturn, we had postponed bus purchases during the worst part of that for a couple years, but because we had also done that in the earlier 2000s, we ended up with a very old fleet. And so now we're in a position where our back is against the wall, and so we have to replace busses, and so I have been, and part of this next budget will continue the aggressive replacement of our bus fleet, and recapitalization of our bus fleet, and there are other elements of the system's capital replacement that we have to pay similar attention to. With operating reserves, with an up-to-date capital plant that's possible to skip a year or two of bus replacement then, and use reserves to glide us over a recession. We weren't in that position. The other part of it is, as you well know, everybody knows, that this recession was much deeper, much longer-lasting than any that we've seen, really, since the 1930s. So I'm not sure that it would have been great public policy to base it on that worst-case outcome, we just now need to recognize that we need to grow out of that and be in a position where we can restore some of that service, which is, as you know, is one of my key priorities is restoring, particularly, our frequent service.
CS: Well, that's actually not the order I was going to ask the question in, but I'll ask it now since you've brought it up, when do you anticipate that we will be able to restore some of the service to the frequent service lines?
NM: Well, I have to think we have to look at some of the economic trends, and also, and I know we'll get into this more, is our labor contract. We have an arbitration that is scheduled for mid-May, on the table is about $5M of additional service reductions...
CS: We'll come back to that, let's hold that for now.
NM: So with that, that's key, if we win that one, and if the economy performs somewhat better than its intended, if Federal funds don't end up being cut, we actually could be back to a position where we're restoring frequent service the second half of our next fiscal year, 13. If those things don't line out that way, I can't predict, and we'll have to look at what the lines of revenue growth and cost tell us.
CS: While we're talking about the hard choices, there's a suggestion that our readers often make which was not in the mix, which is to make the MAX service more efficient by closing some stations. People have remarked that there are some stations which are very close to each other in the Lloyd District, in the downtown retail core, and probably the number one favorite that people mention is Kings Hill. Certainly, I know from Streetcar experience that if you can make any segment of the line go faster, you recoup a lot of service hours that you can redeploy as service elsewhere. Given that we are making painful tradeoffs, why wouldn't we put some of those painful tradeoffs on the table to look at? I know each station has a constituency, but there are constituencies that are going to suffer a lot of pain through these cuts, why couldn't we include that in the mix?
NM: Well, first thing I'd say is I think it's a valuable conversation to have, but it takes a broad community conversation to do that. As you noted, each station has its own constituency, and also it's not free to close a station. Just off the top of my head, it's probably $1.5-$2 million, because what is required is the re-wiring of the signal system, as well as the change in the physical environment, so there's cost, capital cost associated with closing the stations. And when you're in the downtown area, you also have to think about how that interrelates with the downtown signal grid, and the timing and the priority of all that, so it would take a certain amount of study and understanding of that before those proposals went ahead. I would tell you, and as you all know, on our newer lines, we have followed the standard of much broader station spacing, so if you begin to look at the Mall, roughly every four blocks we have a station, and I think that's working very well from a standpoint of both throughput and of time spent on the mall, and in terms of customer service, so I think there are better trade-offs, and you know, I've heard King's Hills, I've also heard Skidmore, which is often very busy during the weekends because of Saturday Market. So those are questions out there, but you're right, every station's there because of a constituency and a desire to do those.
CS: So, if a difficult time like this is not the time to have that conversation, what is the time to have that conversation?
NM: Well, I'd say that this is the time to have that conversation, but I would also say that it's not an immediate fix, given the capital costs, given the timeline associated with doing that work, a decision is probably, frankly, a couple years off before you'd see the results, so it's not a quick fix, it's not a fix to the next year's budget. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be looking at it as a community, perhaps we should, and I'd be very curious as to the views of your readership on that.
CS: We can spin off a thread on that, get some input. [edit point] Going back to the current package that's been activated for balancing the budget, eliminating Free Rail Zone is still part of the package. There's been a lot of debate about the impact on ridership. I think part of the discussion we've heard is that previously Fareless Square, now Free Rail Zone, have kind of an iconic role in the central city in Portland, particularly downtown. If Free Rail Zone does indeed go away, do you see anything that could replace that iconic value, and sort of help preserve the way people think about downtown, and mobility in downtown?
NM: I think that actually, that's a great question, and it's one, actually, I was chatting with the chair of the Old Town/Chinatown Neighborhood Association recently, raising that same basic question, and I think the answer to that is it is somehow the overall transit system here in Portland, now particularly that we've got light rail running east-west, and north-south, we have the Streetcar system that provides great mobility as well, I think it's this great transit access that we have in downtown, almost as I said before [see note above] almost a moving sidewalk of trains right on cue behind me, of course, is what we should be promoting, which is that we really have a great transit system, and we do, and that the center of service and the best service in the region is actually downtown. You know, I think about Free Rail Zone as well, and I think a lot of the conversation I have with people are, is the same feeling that I have, which is a little sort of recognizing that perhaps the policy reasons for Free Rail Zone have passed us, that it was originally air-quality related--mitigation--those air quality problems do not exist, thank heavens, anymore, and so, but it has been part of our life, so I mourn it along with everybody else, in terms of the Board's consideration of the final budget. But I do think that it is time, because the service is so good, so ubiquitous in downtown, I think it's worth the price. The other side of this is, I think, everybody I talk to about this also recognizes that having a fare-paid system downtown allows another level of security to be applied to the trains, and our fare inspectors do provide that by the ability to confront a customer and say, may I see your fare please? That is what, essentially, has been the broken taillight for us in terms of making sure that civil behavior, and a good standard of civil behavior, occur on our trains. So we're looking forward to increasing that presence of enforcement in downtown, and hopefully we'll see an improvement in the civility of the environment as well.
An intriguing op-ed in the New York Times focuses on how much land is given over to parking our cars and how we might make it perform better for us.
March 25, 2012
The Portland Tribune is reporting that groups in four cities which may be affected by the Southwest Corridor project--Tigard, King City, Tualatin, and Sherwood, have filed initiative petitions with respective city governments. (This was previously mentioned in the open thread; now petitions have been filed). The petitions, if able to collect sufficient numbers of signatures by the respective deadlines, would place a measure on the ballot to require public votes to approve future city funding of light rail projects. Petitioners are hoping to place the measures on the September ballot.
The petitions are based on a similar petition which was recently circulated in Milwaukie. They don't attempt to ban light-rail outright (something which was tried in Damascus, but narrowly defeated) or prohibit funding for it altogether, they merely require a public vote for any municipal funding for such be approved.
The right time to speak up
No, I don't say this because I'm skeptical about the Southwest Corridor project--which at this point, is still in the planning phases. (Technically, no mode or alignment has been chosen for the corridor--though I would be surprised if light rail weren't the ultimate decision). Nor do I particularly care for the motives of the petition supporters, which include a few folks who hold positions that I would characterize as anti-transit. I say "good" because I'm a firm believer in democracy--if the good citizens of the affected cities don't wish to pay for light rail, that's they're right.
But more importantly, I say good because--unlike the Clackamas County efforts--these petitions are being circulated at the right time: when the project is still in the planning phases, and no commitments have been made. The Clackamas County and Milwaukie petitions, not circulated until the ink was dry on the intergovernmental agreements (and the project had actually started construction), are a bit late in the game. (There's a reasonable chance that the petitions, even if they pass, may not have the desired effects: I could easily see legal council for Milwaukie and Clackamas County ruling that they only affect future projects, not Milwaukie MAX as designed, as use of legislative power to abrogate public contracts is impermissible under the Contracts Clause).
If one or more of the aforementioned cities doesn't want a MAX line, or other type of transit infrastructure, it is good to know it now, so that plans can be made to accommodate these civic desires. That said, it would be nice to see a similar standard be applied to freeway construction.
March 21, 2012
KBOO Bike Show Special: Mayoral Candidates Howie Ruben, Loren Charles Brown, Shonda Colleen Kelley and Robert James Carron
Listen to the show (mp3, 23.8MB)
March 19, 2012
In Sunday's Oregonian, Steve Duin writes about the fundamental and compelling role that local economist Joe Cortright has had in underscoring the risks and failings in the Columbia River Crossing project.
[We also have to express gratitude to Plaid Pantry CEO Chris Girard for funding some of Joe's work on this.]
As Mr. Duin explains, Joe's latest devastating presentation was before the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee this past week. Here's a copy of the PowerPoint deck that Joe presented (PDF, 1.8M).
March 16, 2012
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood doesn't think the river clearance issue recently raised by the Coast Guard, will pose a problem from the Columbia River Crossing.
March 15, 2012
This evening a Transit Appliance application was awarded the Grand Prize in the TriMet/Travel Portland/City of Portland "Tour PDX" app contest. The presentation occurred at the Software Association of Oregon Ignite event.
Our app "Transit Board Hotel™" was the winner. The app was developed on top of the Transit Appliance architecture stack by my Transit Appliance co-developer, Matt Conway. Matt is a sophomore at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California. He is majoring in urban geography. He plans ultimately to get a degree in urban planning.
Here is Matt's description of the app:
Today, we are pleased to announce the introduction of a new application for the Transit Appliance Platform--Transit Board™ Hotel, a transit board designed to provide transit information to tourists and others not familiar with the local transit system, in locations such as hotel lobbies, convention centers and airports. It has won first place in TriMet's Travel App competition. Here's a screenshot:
It is destination-based, meaning the host of the appliance specifies destinations that their clients might be interested in, and the appliance loops through them showing transit directions to each. The application only supports TriMet for now, and restricts its searches to MAX and Frequent Service lines, to avoid making people wait a long time for their transit vehicle to arrive. The entire trip plan may be transferred to a mobile phone with the use of the short URL or QR code in the screenshot above (note: that short URL and QR code have expired by now). It degrades nicely to phones with only a basic web browser.
We recommend a large-screen appliance for Transit Board Hotel, but the application also works on our 8" device. The application is highly customizable, from the colors and fonts to the map.
The award includes a cash prize of $1,750 - We'll be reinvesting that back in the Transit Appliance project.
A big thank you to TriMet, Travel Portland and the City of Portland.
And a hearty congratulations to Matt, who is the real winner of tonight's event!
March 14, 2012
At yesterday's Transportation Safety Summit I had the chance to demo four different Transit Appliance models (neatly displayed on an Ikea-hacked display stand).
The new model that we unveiled is... an iPad in a wall-mount frame. This one is decked out in the logo and colors for Jefferson High School, where the summit was hosted.
The use case we're trying to hit is applications where you want to keep the display tightly mounted to a wall - perhaps at eye level at an elevator bank for example.
Turns out there are a number of nice frames on the market for iPads, both wooden and metal. We went with this metal one for our demo, but any could work.
No decision yet on whether we'll add this to our standard price list, but if you're interested in one, let us know and we can help you pull the pieces together.
For those keeping track, here's our current price list:
- 8"-screen Countertop Transit Appliance (WiFi or wired ethernet) - $299
- Flat-screen Transit Appliance (not including monitor) - $299 for the basic model with a wired ethernet connection (WiFi requires external hardware and is extra)
Note: A few minor updates have been made to this article since it was first published..
Based on rider feedback, TriMet has announced revised budget and service cut proposals for FY13. Unlike the prior plan, which contained $17M in cuts, this plan only contains $12M in cuts, with the caveat that $5M more may be necessary if negotiations/arbitration with the union do not go TriMet's way.
The executive summary is as follows, posted largely without commentary. We may (and likely will) discuss the proposals in greater detail in a separate post, and readers are encouraged to comment. Official announcement here. Oregonian coverage here.
Line 17 would no longer serve NW Portland; it may be combined with the NE part of Line 9 (more on that later). Much of its route would be replaced by Line 16, which would no longer serve NW Naito Parkway. Line 16 will branch at the St. Johns bridge, with one branch going to St. Johns and the other to Sauvie Island. Line 77 would be rereouted to avoid redundancy with the Streetcar, with NW 25th and NW 29th losing service. A new route would serve the Marine Drive between St. Johns and Jubitz.
Line 9's downtown alignment will be kept, however it will (possibly) be combined with the southeast half of the 17. The 70 and 73 will be combined; the southern half of line 9 (Powell) will end downtown. As with the prior proposal, Line 6 will be kept on NE MLK through Delta Park, rather than using Lombard and Denver. As before, Line 8 will be truncated at 9th and Dekum.
Beaverton service changes are mostly the same as before: Line 67 will be truncated at SW Merlo, rather than running along Jenkins, Cedar Hills, Hall, Center, and Lombard to Beaverton TC. Lines 47 and 48 will be combined with line 89; none of these will serve Willow Creek (a transfer to the 52 will be required).
Other bus changes
Fewer cuts to low-service routes would be made. Trip reductions would be made to 15, 18, 36, 37, 43, 50, 55, 59, 89, and 92. (Why 89 appears here when it is being eliminated as indicated above, I've no clue).
This proposal does not identify any cuts to MAX service.
The new proposal, like the prior one, would eliminate fare zones. However, the new proposal would permit round trips to be made on a single ticket, if the trip can be made in the allotted time. The previously-announced fare increases would continue to take effect.
Subsidy to the Portland Streetcar will be reduced, as before. Prior changes to LIFT service are also in this proposal. TriMet also claims $1.2M in "internal efficiencies" as part of the new budget.
March 13, 2012
Portland State University
Center for Transportation Studies
Winter 2012 Transportation Seminar Series
Speaker: Adonia Lugo (UC Irvine)
Topic: Bikes, Bodies, and Public Space: The Role of Human Infrastructure in Urban Transport
When: Friday, March 16, 12:00 - 1:00 p.m.
Where: PSU Urban Center Building, SW 6th and Mill, Room 204
I'm now a member of three car-sharing systems.
Not that I use any of them very often. We're a one-car household, but generally I can arrange most of my must-use-an auto trips so that I can borrow my partner's hybrid (and she is very clear it's HERS).
But maybe a dozen times a year, I need a vehicle when hers is not available, and Zipcar (and before the merger, Flexcar) has been my go-to. In fact, I'll use one today to schlep my stuff to demo our Transit Appliances at the Transportation Safety Summit this evening.
I've just joined two new systems, neither of which I have actually used yet:
- Getaround - which offers the prospect of renting cars from your neighbors when they're not using them (no cars very close to me yet, but we'll see) and
- Car2Go, which is unique in Portland in offering one way rentals. Just park the car in any legal on-street parking space within the service zone (downtown and East Portland out to about I-205) and you're done. It's reservationless, you hope you'll find a car near where you are when you want one - the cars will be here later this month.
And PBOT is promising our bike-sharing system in 2013 (dependent on finding a private operator).
But there are more options on the horizon:
- Scoot Networks is piloting an electric scooter sharing system in San Francisco.
- And that's not the only thing being tried in San Francisco, reportedly a car sharing company there is offering e-bikes as part of the rental fleet.
I really like that last idea - offer a wide range of vehicle types from bikes up to pickups and vans, from one common reservation system.
Where will it stop - what other vehicles might be shared? What other sharing models could work?
March 10, 2012
Before I begin my weekend rant, I'd like to point all Portland Transport readers to a rather interesting and useful resource, hosted by our good friends over at Portland Afoot: the 2011 TriMet bus rankings page. This page summarizes performance data released by TriMet (data which is available upon request, though not hosted online by the agency) for all of the agency's bus routes, and includes information on ridership, reliability, crowding, bus age, WalkScore of service area, and fare evasion. It's included in nice tabular form, sortable by any criteria. Rail service isn't included--but service data for MAX and WES is easy enough to get directly from TriMet's website.
That diversion aside, it's now time for the meat of the post. It is useful, when speaking of transit planning, to divide different services into "ridership" and "coverage" routes. Ridership routes are those which are well-used, which serve dense, walkable neighborhoods, and have excellent patronage for most of the day. Coverage routes are those which have little ridership, and are instead provided for equity reasons--to serve a specific population along the line. Coverage routes cannot, and are not, expected to ever "run full"--they typically venture into low-density areas to provide lifeline service.
But there are several routes on TriMet's roster which are hard to justify on either ridership or equity grounds.
One example of this is the 55. This route, a peak-only service (with three inbound runs in the morning, and three outbound runs in the evening), starts near Jesuit High School, loops around the neighborhood, then takes Beaverton/Hillsdale to Raleigh Hills. It then heads north on Scholls Ferry, east on SW Hamilton, to Dosch and Sunset roads until it reaches Hillsdale. It then follows Capitol Highway and Barbur Boulevard downtown (in express mode) ending in Goose Hollow.
I only cite the 55 as an example; there are quite a few other routes for which this argument also applies. (Apologies if any 55 riders are reading this; and try not to throw too many tomatoes).
Looking at the rankings data, one sees the following bits of information on the 55:
- 500 boarding rides/week. (With 30 runs per week, six each weekday, that comes to an average of 16.7 boarding rides per run)
- 81% on-time performance
- 43% crowding (its busiest runs are on average, 43% full--not sure if that refers to seated capacity, design capacity, crushload capacity)
- On the plus side, fare evasion is essentially zero.
- Frequency is approximately hourly.
Clearly, the 55 is not a ridership service. How does it function as a coverage service?
- Many of the neighborhoods it serves are upper-class or upper-middle-class neighborhoods.
- Its service span is consistent with commuter service, not lifeline service (the latter is generally bidirectional, and provides midday service at minimum).
- Much of its run is duplicated with other lines--the only parts of the line that aren't duplicated by (or within walking distance to) other service are the stretch along Hamilton/Dosch/Sunset. And the service it is closest to, the 54/56 is a frequent service line.
- The neighborhoods it serves are for the most part low-density, residential-only, single-family neighborhoods--this is particularly true for the Hamilton/Dosch/Sunset stretch.
I don't know how the 55 is interlined with other busses; were we to assume that a single bus makes all the runs (deadheading back to Raleigh Hills in the morning, and back downtown in the evening, within the realm of possibility)--each shift of the service would only provide 90 minutes of revenue service, and 2 1/2 hours of deadheading (either back to the starting point, or to/from the garage, or extra time the driver gets paid to fill out a 4-hour shift).
Thus the question: Is this a type of service that TriMet needs to be providing? It doesn't serve any unique transit-useful corridors, it doesn't serve any economic equity purposes, its ridership is poor, and it spends a lot of time in non-revenue operation.
Of course, the dichotomy posed above is a false one. This is neither a "ridership" nor a "coverage" route, as traditionally considered--it's a commuter route. It's designed to get downtown workers to their Monday-Friday jobs and back again, and that's it. I've never been a tremendous fan of commuter routes--simply because they are expensive to provide--but many of the outer commuter lines do earn their keep or provide a unique service. The 55 only serves 50 about unique riders per day; whereas the 99, 96, and 94, on the other hand, serve thousands of unique riders per day.
TriMet has announced plans to take the saw to the 55 (and many similar routes) as part of the upcoming service reductions, eliminating one run in the morning (the early one) and one in the evening (the late one). Many other lines are being cut in a similar fashion. How much reduction in service hours (including deadheading) will be bought by these reductions in revenue hours, I cannot say. I can say that elimination (in particular) of the evening trip may make the service unusable by professionals who may have to stay at work later on certain days. You can never eliminate the last trip of the day, as then the penultimate trip becomes the last one, and riders often avoid planning to use the last trip, because if they miss it, they become stranded.
That said--how much benefit do these routes bring to TriMet? They aren't justified on ridership grounds, or on grounds of social equity. By keeping peak-hour commuters off of the highways, these routes arguably help to reduce congestion, and demand for downtown parking--but the 50 riders/day (100 trips/day divided by 2) served by the 55 is probably a drop in the bucket. The 55, which lies mostly within the Portland city limits, is not required to preserve any part of TriMet's taxing district. It is possible that TriMet derives political benefit from the route (i.e. its patrons would raise a big stink if the line were cancelled, and have sufficient clout to adversely affect the agency), but there's no way to determine that from the data. :)
So what to do? One obvious strategey would be to simply cancel these sorts of routes, and redeploy the service hours elsewhere. Another, though, would be to find ways of turning these routes into more useful corridors. Dead-end routes generally suffer from low ridership, but routes which connect two useful places--which have good anchors on both ends--are much more beneficial. As has been pointed out, service cuts provide opportunity to restructure a transit network in beneficial ways, by providing political cover for changes that would be otherwise unpopular. Could the 55 be meaningfully combined with the 51 or the 53 (for example), to provide a new east-west corridor route? Could a bus be run between Council Crest and OHSU to provide through service?
Or is sending three busses per day through the West Hills really a good use of our transit dollars?
March 8, 2012
I recently wrote an article for Portland Afoot in which I attempt to tease out some good news from the otherwise depressing TriMet service cuts. Much of it will be familiar to readers of my recent posts here on Portland Transport, but in any case, check out the article here. (Also think about subscribing to Portland Afoot if you haven't already!)
It's been a while since I talked about our Transit Appliance project. But after a period of relatively slow activity, things are starting to heat up:
- Last month we installed a flat-screen Transit Appliance at a major public sector employer in the Lloyd District. But since it's on the wrong side of a security checkpoint, I can't send you to see it...
- We'll be exhibiting several appliances at the Portland Transportation Safety Summit next Tuesday.
- At the summit we'll be showing a new appliance form factor for the first time (come see!).
- I can't share details yet, but next week the appliance will be getting some recognition...
March 7, 2012
Portland State University
Center for Transportation Studies
Winter 2012 Transportation Seminar Series
Speaker: Steve Gutmann (Getaround)
Topic: Car Sharing Trends
When: Friday, March 9, 12:00 - 1:00 p.m.
Where: PSU Urban Center Building, SW 6th and Mill, Room 204
Listen to the show (mp3, 25.9MB)
We talk with staff from El Programa Hispano, Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), and Portland's Safe Routes to School program about walking and biking to school for our neighbors, particularly immigrants and refugees.
Listen to the show (mp3, 23.3MB)
March 6, 2012
This past evening in the Twitterverse, I had a discussion with several fine folks, including Michael Andersen, intersection 911, and our very own Al M, on the future prospects for major capital improvements in the bus system, up to and including BRT. (Planned purchases of replacement busses, tardy as they are, are excluded).
An oft-held viewpoint, also echoed frequently by readers here, was that it was unlikely to happen.
There has been quite a bit of discussion of BRT in Portland over the years. The original MAX line was originally conceived as a busway; a BRT solution for the South Corridor project (Portland-Milwaukie) was given serious consideration, and its being discussed for the Powell/Division and Tualatin-Clackamas corridors. Clark County/C-TRAN is also considering BRT. Last year, we discussed the prospect of BRT running parallel to WES; something which TriMet has not, to my knowledge, considered.
But talk, as they say, is cheap. The last five rapid transit projects constructed here in town have been rail, as is the Portland-Milwaukie line under construction. The next major rapid transit line in the queue, the Southwest Corridor, is widely expected to be rail as well (no decision has been made, and its still early in the planning process, but I would be shocked otherwise). And that's just MAX--there's also WES and the Streetcar as well. Past behavior is an indicator of future behavior.
Intersection 911 made an insightful comment:
@I-911: seems BRT is always "considered" before rail is chosen. I smell forgone conclusion + too much emphasis on choice ridersWhile I'll leave alone the "foregone conclusion" part, the "choice riders" part is dead on. FTA criteria for evaluating transit projects have, until recently, placed much emphasis on attracting "new riders", and on cutting down on travel times. New riders are invariably choice riders (the dependent riders are already using transit), and there's quite bit of them who won't ride busses, and the travel time requirement encourages high-capital projects. The Obama Administration has altered the criteria, but many think the new policy will instead promote streetcars. (In a must-read article, Jarrett Walker channels Socrates for an excellent discussion of the FTA criteria.)
However--blaming the FTA isn't the whole story. While the FTA isn't immune from politics, programs such as New Starts are designed to permit funding decisions to be made on technical rather than political grounds, and it works reasonably well. And more to the point--the FTA has funded quite a few BRT projects over the years, including two EmX projects in Eugene. (A third is in the works). Over a dozen BRT projects are presently in the pipeline, meaning construction has started, or is scheduled to start in 2012.
FTA programs such as New Starts don't pay for programs all by themselves, however--Uncle Sam instead provides a 50%-60% match on projects. (Larger projects like MLR get 50%, smaller ones can get 60%). Which means locals have to come up with the other 40%-50% of a project's cost. Transit agencies, such as TriMet, generally don't have that sort of money on hand--and indeed, TriMet has gotten raked over the coals for its contribution of less than 5% of the MLR capital costs, as this is money that could go to pay for better bus service.
Matching funds, instead, are often appropriated by state and local governments. Salem is paying for a significant chunk of the project, and local governments in the region are kicking in the majority of the rest. And unlike the FTA, many of the local governments lack effective bureaucracy to reduce the politics inherent in funding decisions. I have no doubt that the FTA would be willing to fund a suitable BRT project, and although it may seem like a leap of faith, I'm certain TriMet would have no issue building and operating one. My suspicion is that the biggest roadblock to this are the local governments providing the match--cities and counties are prone to seek prestige projects (since Hillsboro, Beaverton, Gresham, and now Milwaukie have LRT, don't expect Tigard to "settle" for BRT), and are subject to greater influence from local development and construction interests.
That said, I've long pondered the debate between federalism and localism of infrastructure funding. Sending the bulk of our tax dollars to DC only to go begging for it to be returned is rather inefficient. My biggest beef with the Feds, though is not what the FTA does, but with the broader transportation funding priorities--Washington still likes to build freeways more than anything else. However, the same is arguably true for Salem.
A Powell/Division BRT corridor actually strikes me as a politically tractable project. It would be built in cities that already have MAX, and lies in a corridor where rail would be expensive (and there's a parallel MAX line to the north). The existing bus corridor is well-used. The major question is--can the stars be aligned to pay for it?
March 4, 2012
University of Washington researcher Jerry Schneider points to a Swedish company (Elways) researching the concept of "electric motorways"--highways equipped with electric lines which can be used to energize and power vehicles traveling thereon. Elways proposed architecture consists of buried third-rail power, accessed by lowering a pickup shoe into a channel embedded in the road surface; to increase safety, the system also energizes those portions of the rail that are presently serving vehicles. It is anticipated that vehicles using such roads will be capable of disconnected travel, either from a battery or an internal combustion engine (certain maneuvers such as lane-changes will require disconnecting from one lane's power rail and connecting in another lane).
Using current technology, the speed limit for overhead powered road vehicles appears to be about 70kM/h (40MPH). Unlike electric trains that have fixed guideways and only one overhead connection needed (the rails provide the ground return path); trolleypole systems need to accomodate horizontal maneuvering of the vehicle (both within-lane and lane changes) and the bouncier suspensions needed to accomodate potholes and other defects/obstructions in the road surface; and the non-conductivity of rubber tires means a second wire is needed for the return path. Ground-level third rail, commonly found in grade-separated metro systems, is generally considered unacceptable for public roads due to the obvious safety hazard the third rail poses to pedestrians.
Right now, the major application of overhead-powered electric road vehicles is the trolleybus. The speed limit isn't a problem for many urban transit applications, the greater maneuverability of a trolleybus over a mixed-traffic streetcar is generally considered an asset, the lack of diesel pollution is also considered a major advantage, and electric trolleybusses have noted advantages on routes with steep grades (it's no accident that two of the North American cities which extensively use them are Seattle and San Francisco). However, trolleybusses are noted to have reliability issues, many object to the wiring, and as such, most transit companies in the US have abandoned them. (See this article for a discussion of the merits of the electric trolleybus in Portland).
Use of overhead caternary to power trucking (particularly long-haul trucking) though, seems to not be an attractive solution.
That said--rather than try to retrofit existing mixed-traffic highways with electrical sources, perhaps an alternate solution is in order? Places such as Adelaide, Australia and Cambridgeshire, UK have built guided busways--essentially dedicated BRT lines where the bus is physically guided down the busway, permitting it to achieve faster speeds and a somewhat more comfortable ride in a narrower footprint. This gives some of the technical advantages of rail, coupled with the greater flexibility of a bus--the busses can leave the guideway and maneuver in mixed traffic as appropriate. (Note that neither of these systems are powered--diesel vehicles, operating under their own power at all times, are used).
What if such a solution were build to handle trucks? A guided truckway, which kept vehicles traveling in fixed channel, could make the electrical interface needed to use well-known solutions like overhead caternary much more tractable and capable of higher speed, particularly if the guideway could also be used for return current. The truckway road surface could be optimized for heavy vehicles, reducing the amount of damage incurred by road surfaces elsewhere (heavy vehicles such as trucks and busses cause the vast majority of road wear). A guided truckway could permit either electric-powered or diesel-powered operation (i.e. diesel-powered trucks could use the mechanical coupling only), and driverless operation while in the guideway would be a more tractable problem with a fixed guideway. Unlike rail or water freight, which requires cargo to be maneuvered from truck to train/ship (a process made easier by containerization, though still expensive), guided trucks could use the local streets to pick up a load and drive to the truckway, use the truckway for the long-haul part of a journey, and then return to the local streets for the last mile on the other end--in this way, they would fill a niche between unguided trucking and rail.
Long haul bus service could also use guided truckways, especially in shorter corridors where HSR is not cost-effective.
This falls short of Elways' vision of a motorway where all the vehicles, including personal automobiles, are running on roadway-supplied electric power. But many of the problems involved are more tractable when limited to larger vehicles operated by professional drivers (or automated control systems).
March 2, 2012
The Columbian is reporting that the Coast Guard has indicated that the bridge needs to have a higher river clearance (perhaps as much as 125 feet, compared to the currently planned 95 feet).
This has potentially big impacts for Hayden Island and other aspects of the project.