March 31, 2013
In the O last week, Maxine Bernstein writes about a campaign to encourage civility downtown, including on MAX.
What kind of encouragement would help promote civility (presumably including less swearing) on transit?
As you know, Portland Transport places a high value on civility.
As regular readers may recall, I have argued before that we should liberalize the onerous and anti-competitive regulations surrounding taxi service in Portland. Last year, the city took an important first step in revising those regulations and expanding service when it undertook a series of reforms aimed at improving worker conditions and approved new permits, mostly for a new cab company called Union Cab.
The Portland Mercury reported last week on the progress of these reforms. They characterize it as "slow going," but of course instituting new performance measures and enforcing them is bound to take time. In a year from now we should have a better idea of the effects of the reforms. As far as Union Cab goes, it sounds like they are ready to hit the streets in the next month or so. It will be good to see more competition and more cabs on the street!
Zef Wagner is a student in the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at Portland State University, specializing in transportation planning.
March 28, 2013
Portland's 200-foot blocks have made us famous for being pedestrian-friendly, but they also mean that alleys are not common in Portland. Alleys can provide a lot of valuable use for access to things that we don't necessarily want to put by our front doors - parking, dumpsters, etc.
In some cities, alleys have become opportunities for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Our northern neighbors in Vancouver, BC call them "laneway homes".
But in fact, several neighborhoods in Portland DO have alleys, and an article in today's Trib talks about how in many cases they have become attractive nuisances and focuses on an effort to revitalize them.
March 21, 2013
The question of whether or not Metro should take over TriMet has come up again, with state Rep. Chris Gorsek (D-Troutdale) sponsors HB3316, which would mandate that Metro exercise its authority to do exactly that.
Metro councilors expressed a lack of interest and doing so, and have expressed an opinion that a Metro takeover of TriMet would not fundamentally address the issues facing the agency, with Tom Hughes calling the idea a "solution that doesn't solve the problem".
TriMet critics such as OPAL's Jonathan Ostar disagree, stating that the current board is not responsive enough, particularly to the needs of the transit-dependent.
This is an issue which has come up several times before. With Tiffany Schweizer's impending departure (her term expires at the end of June, and she is prohibited by term limits from any further service on the board), and another vacancy on the board waiting to be filled, there will be soon two openings for Governor Kitzhaber to fill.
The interesting questions, of course, are as follows:
- What should the board do differently? Some have advocated replacing the current GM; others would require him to pursue different policies.
- How would a change in the appointment structure of the board, cause the board to do those things differently?
Both questions are important.
In the past several years, Portland Transit has taken looks at the TriMet board. The former post is woefully out-of-date as to the personnel (the current board roster is here), but still is accurate with regard to the legal requirements.
What could a new board do differently?
While I'm frequently critical of TriMet and of its management--and of Metro President Hughes--Hughes is correct in that many things that constrain TriMet would do so no matter who occupy the board seats. While some of TriMet's wounds have been recently self-inflicted, many are based on decisions made years ago, which TriMet cannot easily undo. Even if you think that the past eight years of rail projects (everything after the Yellow Line) were a bad idea, TriMet is more or less stuck with them; a new board would not likely be able to, without outside help, mothball WES, for instance.
A new management might adopt a different mix of tactical measures than the current one--such as a different fare structure, a different allocation of service, or further cuts to administrative functions.
One other possibility would be a dismantling of TriMet's capital projects infrastructure--essentially, a layoff of the bulk of the capital projects division. Most (but not all) work that is done by capital projects is funded by grants and other constrained sources, and some of the work that is done would be necessary even in a transit agency that only provided local bus service and existing rail; but there might be some operational benefits to not doing capital projects. On the other hand, if you are of the view that most of TriMet's capital projects (or at least the recent ones) are pork-laden boondoggles, or represent an unacceptable diversion of service from the transit-dependent to those who have alternative modes of transportation (including driving), salting this particular earth might be an attractive option.
The bottom line, of course, is what should TriMet's overall mission be? Comprehensive transit service throughout the metro area? Quality transit service in the urbanized parts (but skeletal service to sprawl)? Service that focuses on the poor? Reductions in driving? Environmental outcomes, such as reduction in greenhouse gasses or overall energy consumption? Land-use outcomes? Is TriMet's fundamental purpose to be a social service agency, a transit agency, or a green agency? Much of the arguments over what its proper course of action seem to stem from unspoken disagreements over this.
How would a new board be certain to implement policies that are desirable?
Much of the criticism of the current board centers around the fact that it was a) appointed by a mainstream, pro-business Democratic governor (and confirmed by a like-minded Senate), who doesn't necessarily share the values and goals of either the political right, or of many on the left; and b) it is stuffed with business leaders and other "model citizen" types--folks who have demonstrated skills in things like management, law, or finance (and can be counted on not to pee on the carpet), but who may lack understanding of, or empathy with, communities that TriMet is charged with serving--particularly underprivileged riders. Many who advocate changing how the board is selected, do so out of a desire to alter the board's composition.
The advice "be careful what you wish for", arguably applies here--especially for TriMet's critics on the left.
A Metro Council takeover is the easiest means to imagine happening--the current Council's reluctance notwithstanding. Metro already has the legal right to do so. However, the Metro Council, after all, has a similar overall political lean as does the governor's office. Tom Hughes is (much like Kitzhaber) a pro-business Democrat who is not afraid to give the environmental community the back of his hand. Metro does have more ardent liberals like Bob Stacey on board, but it's political center of gravity is well within the Democratic Party mainstream, and more in tune with elite politics than the populist variety. (I'm actually surprised that no Tea Partiers have managed to get elected to the Metro council, particularly from the suburban districts--sooner or later, I expect AFP or similar groups to bankroll an insurgent run for the council--particularly in District 2). And keep in mind--many of the controversial decisions that TriMet gets blamed for were actually driven by Metro and the various municipal governments.
Depending on how district boundaries were drawn, a directly-elected TriMet board would likely have a similar composition as the Metro Council--and could potentially be gerrymandered to be dominated by the suburbs; the TriMet service district has a population of 1.5 million, but the city of Portland is only around 500k.
Other arrangements that I've seen proposed are likely unconstitutional. One such proposal is a board elected by pass-holders, but excluding those from participation who don't use the system. While this would undoubtedly produce a rider-friendly board, it also undoubtedly flies in the face of the one-man-one-vote principle. If TriMet were private (or quasi-private), it might have greater freedom on how its governance is structured, but going that route would deprive the agency of the plenary powers of government--most notably taxation; an agency that still depended on elected officials for revenue could not be truly independent of them.
One other possibility might be legal restrictions on who may serve on the board--other boards and commissions that the governor appoints may have restrictions on composition. (The Oregon Transportation Commission, who oversees ODOT, is required to be politically and geographically diverse, for instance). Legislating requiring that some number of TriMet board members be transit users (or even carless), or have professional expertise in transit planning or related fields, could be introduced. (Personally, I wouldn't mind a ban on anyone involved in real estate from being on the board, but that's not going to happen, and likely not legal). For a long time, the board traditionally had a labor representative, a tradition broken only recently when Lynn Lehrbach of the Teamsters was replaced with a nominee with no union background.
March 20, 2013
The recent article on the FY14 budget and the controversy over pay raises included therein, that many feel were not adequately disclosed to the community, has prompted a response from TriMet, disputing the claim that TriMet accounting procedures are improper. Agency spokesperson Mary Fetsch writes:
TriMet's financial statements are annually audited by Moss Adams. This audit is conducted in accordance with generally accepted auditing standards and the standards set for audits of Oregon public entities prescribed by the Secretary of State. The results of Moss Adams testing disclosed no findings of noncompliance, other than leaving off a webpage link to the FY12 budget. TriMet historically has kept funds in contingency for non-union wage increases until the specifics of the wage increase are known. Our CFO was involved in developing TriMet's FY82 through FY09 budgets and does not recall ever budgeting non-union wages differently. This is a common practice for public entities in Oregon. This is especially important for TriMet because our budget is much more detailed than many other public entities. TriMet is rare in the fact that our budget details salaries down the individual position. Many budgets just have a lump sum number for entire departments and a list of position that shows position grades with a wide salary range.
With respect to specific claims concerning Neil McFarlane's salary, Fetsch continues:
In July 2012 (after the budget took effect) the board began its annual performance evaluation of Neil, but did not conclude until December 2012. Neil had turned down the previous year's salary increase, but the board wanted to give him a modest increase. The 3% increase matched the average given to all other non-union staff. While agreed to in December 2012, the increase was retroactive to the 2nd anniversary of his promotion. His salary rate noted in the adopted budget was accurate at the time it was voted on by the Board. His salary increase was approved in December 2012 six months after the budget was adopted. It was up to the board to make it retroactive to his promotion date of July 1.
Thoughts after the jump.
First off, if this indeed common practice among public entities in Oregon, and compliant with the relevant rules and regulations, then I retract the statement that it is "not acceptable", and apologize for suggesting that misconduct may have occurred. If TriMet did follow the proper procedures for accounting for pay raises, and is using the same practices that it has always used, then there's no basis for any legal complaint, or allegations of accounting improprieties. I've no ethical objection to treating raises that are contingent on some other event, such as a performance review, as a contingency--provided that the expense truly is contingent.
Of course, there's still room to complain.
Should the pay raises, even if contingent, have been better documented? From a public trust point of view, I would say so--especially in an environment of lean economic times. In ordinary years, TriMet awards pay raises, promotions, COLAs (cost of living adjustments), and other such things as a matter of course, and nobody bats an eyelash--these things are a normal part of doing business. But these aren't ordinary years--when coupled with the fare increases and service cuts that were awarded this past FY, pay raises--even if an overall drop in the bucket--become a bigger issue. Particularly after numerous public statements about how non-union compensation over the recession has suffered.
And the problem of the failure to disclose is amplified by the fact that the agency has been disclosing all sorts of things about its union contract, and how burdensome it is--and in particular, making statements on how significant parts of the contingency budget are there due to uncertainty around that contract. TriMet has been engaging in quite a bit of PR against the union recently; basic fairness suggests that if you are going to talk about operators' compensation, then disclosure about everyone's compensation is fair game.
As a general principle--and speaking as a citizen, an activist, a taxpayer, and as a rider, the more transparency out of TriMet (or any public agency), the better. Contingency funds are an essential part of any budgeting practice, as nobody can predict the future, and even the best laid plans can be changed by circumstances. But if a contingency budget includes specific items with specific estimated dollars attached--and pay increases are generally a predictable expense overall, even if it is not known who will get what during the budgeting practice--it can't hurt to call this out in the budget. The agency's critics would have likely complained then (they are certainly complaining now!), but wouldn't get to accuse TriMet of trying to hide the ball.
On the heels of an analysis that Streetcar farebox revenue was only about half what is expected, the Portland Mercury publishes an article further detailing the Streetcar's funding woes. One interesting tidbit is that much of the revenue shortfall is not due to fare evasion, but due to TriMet passholders riding the Streetcar:
According to Portland Transport's very own Chris Smith, who sits on Portland Streetcar's board of directors:
We're seeing more of our ridership be pass-holders than expected... If TriMet handles the sales, they keep the money. It's not necessarily a fare collection problem or a ridership problem.
While it's a good thing for TriMet if people buy TriMet passes (allowing use of the entire system) rather than Streetcar passes (good only on the Streetcar), this isn't necessarily a good thing for the Streetcar agency itself, which operates on rather tight budget constraints. Of course, TriMet does help subsidize Streetcar operations....
CL line ridership will probably increase in two years, when MLR opens and the line's OMSI terminus turns from transit no-man's-land to a major connection point, and ample transfer opportunities from both MLR and the various bus lines that use the new bridge. On the other hand, virtually all of these riders will have (or need) Trimet tickets and/or passes, and have no particular reason to buy a Streetcar-only ticket.
March 19, 2013
The Bicycle Transportation Alliance has an action alert out to ask committee members in the legislature to support increased levels of funding for active transportation.
March 18, 2013
TriMet has a new program for distributing fares to low-income system users via non-profit providers.
So for example if you were going to a non-profit medical clinic and were income-qualified, the clinic could provide with you with free tickets for your visit.
TriMet is putting about $300K into this program, with up to $25K in fares going to any one non-profit. Ride Connection will administer the program for TriMet.
March 14, 2013
Today, TriMet released a draft budget for Fiscal Year 2014 (which runs from July 1 of this year to June 30, 2014). The agency wants everyone to know that this year's budget doesn't contain the unpleasant news that was in last year's (no service cuts and fare hikes), albeit with the usual asterisk (a favorable deal against ATU Local 757). Ignoring the continual haranguing of the union (it's getting tiring, guys... really), this draft budget is good news.
Of course, TriMet's day in the sun was rather thoroughly undermined by the revelation early this week that it secretly gave raises to a whole bunch of management personnel last year--while pleading poverty--and tried to bury the matter in its contingency fund.
More after the jump.
The proposed budget
The proposed budget contains the following highlights:
- No fare increases
- Some service increases, particularly to relieve overcrowding in the peak. Service is still not anywhere near where it was before the Great Recession and all the cuts that occurred, but I would much rather write about adding hours than cutting them.
- A few items to respond to recent safety concerns, including some new operators to improve staffing flexibility and reduce dependence on overtime, and to improve inspection and maintenance of the rails.
- A small contribution to the pension fund for union employees and retirees, which TriMet claims it can have fully funded by 2031. This does not include OPEB--other post-employment benefits, such as medical, which remain unfunded.
- The bus purchase program will be accelerated, TriMet claims it can have an entirely low-floor fleet, and an 8-year average vehicle life, by 2016.
As noted at the top, however, TriMet's week was ruined somewhat by the near-simultaneous stories, one by Portland Afoot's Michael Andersen, and the other by The Oregonian's Joseph Rose, that TriMet had quietly awarded nearly $1M in pay raises to administrative staff, including managers and executives, at the agency--and buried this in the "contingency" line item in its last year's budget. At the time the budget was discussed and adopted, OPAL and others had objected to the unusually large amount of the contingency fund (about $20M, double what TriMet typically budgets for contingency). TriMet defended the large contingency fund as necessary to hedge bets against an unfavorable arbitration ruling (TriMet won, though the union is appealing), but at least $910k was concealing the pay raises. (In this year's budget, the contingency fund is about $15M).
TriMet spent much of the day apologizing for it, with both GM Neil McFarlane and board member (and downtown condo developer) Tiffany Schweizer offering mea culpas and pledging to "do better". While I'm not going to entertain any debates as to whether the pay raises are justified or not, and $910k is a drop in the overall bucket--this was not cool.
Nor was it acceptable finance/budgeting practice, by any standard. The adopted 2013 budget states rather clearly, on page 59, that the general manager's salary was budgeted to be $215,837. As it turns out, Neil's salary was actually $221,450. As this was negotiated well in advance of last summer, the discrepancy was known at the time the budget was adopted. In other words, the adopted budget contained knowingly false information. Likewise, contingency funds are monies held in reserve to cover unplanned or unforeseen expenses; using them to conceal known and planned expenses, is fraudulent. (Whether any crimes or professional violations were committed, I have no informed opinion on--though I would think that both the GM and whoever is in charge of finance, have some explaining to do beyond pleading a lapse in judgment).
The big problem with all of thus, is that on many recent issues, TriMet's position has been, essentially, "trust us". If we can't slash the cost of union healthcare benefits, we're gonna have to cut service by 70%. Trust us on that. We need to slash service, but we need $20M for a rainy day. Trust us. Safety is our most important priority. Trust us. A wolf is comin' to eat the sheep. Trust us. We try to fix those ticket machines on a regular basis--they're just fussy, that's all--and aren't trying to entrap riders into $175 fines. Trust us. We really are trying to develop a cost-effective transit system, and aren't (as some critics allege) turning into a sausage factory, doling out pork to connected developers and other politically-influential interests. Trust us.
The problem with this position should be obvious. It's getting awfully difficult to trust TriMet. (And it's apparent that they don't trust the community at large). It's not that I believe some of the wilder conspiracy theories about TriMet (generally, I don't), but they get harder and harder to refute when the agency and its management does get caught lying to the public. When you are unimpeachable, it's easy to dismiss wild allegations as tinfoil-hattery. But when you develop a reputation for finding new and inventive ways to hide the ball, then the more outlandish theories that are promulgated start to look reasonable. Which is not a good position for an agency that depends on the public's goodwill (both as taxpayers and as customers) to be in.
[Note: One small correction from TriMet--administrative staff other than managers and execs were included in the pay raises]
March 13, 2013
Yesterday, the Planning and Sustainability Commission voted to recommend new minimum parking requirements for multi-family buildings in transit corridors, with one dissenting vote.
The immediate question on Twitter: "was @chrissmithus the dissenting vote?" I was not! It was my colleague Katherine Schultz, an architect who has experience actually building stuff, and knows what the impacts of the new policy will be.
Not that I'm afraid to cast a dissenting vote - last year I was the lone no vote on the freeway expansion component of the N/NE Quadrant Plan. I didn't change the outcome, but I got to make a point.
So why not hold tight and vote to continue zero parking minimums for apartments near transit corridors? Because the outcome is in the balance and there are two very good reasons for the PSC to influence it:
1) In response to very loud concerns from neighborhoods over the recent spate of buildings with no parking (unheard of for the first decade it was allowed in code, but now apparently in favor by lenders post-recession), City Council directed us to respond expeditiously, and I'm confident that if we didn't produce a policy, Council would come up with one I'd like less (and may still - more on that below).
2) Our current policy may point in the right direction, but is incomplete, and can't ultimately be successful without a lot more work.
Here are some of the policy issues we need to think about:
An orderly transition
Most Portland neighborhoods today manage parking as 'a commons' relying on the cooperative action of individuals to manage a relatively unconstrained asset. As neighborhood centers get denser, that's not going to work. Our vision for our City doesn't accommodate building so much parking that we'll just 'have enough for everybody'.
So we're going to need a clear transition plan as centers grow up. At what point do we form a TMA (Transportation Management Association)? When do permits become appropriate? Meters?
In the long run parking will have to be either a market good (priced) or a heavily regulated good, but we have no plan or triggers on how to make the transition. We need to develop policy to empower neighborhoods to develop in an orderly way that works for homeowners, renters and businesses alike.
Are we selling out the parking requirements too cheaply?
Being able to avoid building parking is a huge economic boon to developers. Shouldn't we ask for something back in exchange? Some of the things we might ask for:
- Some units affordable to folks at 60% of median family income or lower
- Accessible units for folks with physical disabilities - or just those of us getting older
- A diversity of units (include some 2- and 3-bedroom units)
- Ground floor active uses to meet the needs of the new neighbors
Are our permit systems robust enough?
We also need to think about our parking permit policies. PBOT's existing parking permit programs are about preserving access during business hours. But as we see residents shifting to non-auto modes for commuting, while still owning cars, the impact of long-term storage of cars that see little use becomes an issue. Cars generate value when they're moving, not when they're parked. Do we want to think about discouraging long-term parking (perhaps shifting people to car sharing) to help keep our neighborhoods more vibrant?
Is there a windfall to be captured?
The first developers into a neighborhood also have an advantage - they can effectively absorb any excess supply of on-street parking, making zero parking buildings more feasible. Later projects will not have that advantage. Should we have some way to capture the value of that initial advantage and put it back into the neighborhood?
All of these should be looked at in the Comp Plan process now underway.
Tighter alignment with transit
And I'm actually very happy about one amendment we adopted - the standard for the transit service that earns the no parking exemption is tightened from 20 min peak hour to TriMet's Frequent Service system (which targets 15 minutes or better all day - although we're not at that standard in all cases today). Some proponents of higher density development expressed concern that this reduces the number of properties that can be developed with minimal parking. But the fact is that we have an oversupply of zoned capacity for housing. We don't need density everywhere - we need density to cluster in neighborhood and town centers, and aligning to the higher level of service will better drive that clustering.
What we did
Given that we have a long way to go on these policy questions, it's hard to stand pat on a simple zero minimum. So I reluctantly agree that we need a short-term "bandaid". We opted to require that larger buildings (40 units and above) build at least some parking (1 space for every 4 units, with some allowances to reduce this by adding things like car share spaces). But this should also at least partially curb the impact of these buildings on our neighborhoods until we have a better policy tools to address the issues.
The geometry and size of these larger buildings will insulate them from some of the cost issues around creating the parking.
Hopefully that will hold us until we can sort out the bigger picture in the Comp Plan.
What happens next
At the Planning and Sustainability Commission we had about equal testimony between folks who wanted stronger parking requirements, and folks who wanted to leave the zero minimums in effect.
The last time we were at Council, the ratio was more like 4-to-1 favoring the folks who want an immediate regulatory solution.
I suspect that at City Council there will be strongly voiced requests to lower the trigger to 20 units. I fear that would take some good smaller projects and cause them to no longer pencil.
I hope the folks who argued in favor of not requiring more parking will turn out to make their case as eloquently at Council as they did before us! Either way, it's going to be a good debate. See you there.
March 12, 2013
When Metro released the results of their Household (Travel) Activity Survey last year, a lot of folks were underwhelmed with the shift away from auto travel regionally.
But in Portland, and particularly in some neighborhoods, the results were pretty stark. At this month's "bicycle brown bag", Roger Geller of PBOT will share his analysis that much of the growth in trips has been accomodated by biking and walking. Definitely worth checking out:
The Path Ahead for Active Transportation in Portland
An Analysis of the 2011 Oregon Household Activity Survey
Roger Geller, Portland's Bicycle Coordinator, will present a white paper analyzing data from the 2011 Oregon Household Activity Survey (OHAS).
The analysis is intended to answer two questions:
1) What have been the trends in transportation behavior for Portland residents 1994-2011?; and
2) What does Portland need to do to achieve its policy goals related to transportation in general and bicycle transportation specifically?
This analysis demonstrates a path to achieving the mode split goals identified in the Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030 if the city aggressively pursues them.
Thursday, March 21st, Noon to 1pm
City Hall, 1221 SW 4th Ave, 2nd Floor -Lovejoy Room
March 7, 2013
TriMet has filed a lawsuit against Clackamas County, demanding that it follow through on contractual obligations related to the MLR project, specifically a few outstanding obligations concerning land near the Park Avenue station needed for the project. The County Commission is claiming that any further cooperation with TriMet on this is contingent on a popular vote, pursuant to Measure 3-401, which cannot be held until May at the earliest. TriMet claims that Measure 3-401 does not apply (retroactively) to MLR; that the County's actions are causing delay, and is demanding the court order "specific performance" in the matter, and command the County to convey the properties (and pay the outstanding financial obligations) due to TriMet under the IGA (inter-governmental agreement), signed by the County prior to the current Commission being elected. TriMet also alleges that the matter is urgent (due to the construction schedule), and is requested expedited consideration.
The County claims that Measure 3-401 is retroactive, covers MLR, and that it is unable to make any further contributions to MLR without a vote of the people.
Some analysis, after the jump.
A slam dunk?
From a legal perspective, this ought to be a slam-dunk for TriMet. There is ample case law that the Contract Clause of the US Constitution (Article I, section 10, clause 1: "No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility"), and similar language in the Oregon Constitution, forecloses the County's actions. The County duly negotiated a contract, and is obligated to honor it--states and local governments may not use their legislative power (whether via the primary legislative body, or via the people exercising such power through the initiative) to abrogate contracts they are a party to. There is no argument that Measure 3-401 applies to the future--and I expect that further rail projects in the County will be a long ways off--but virtually everyone with an informed opinion on this--including the county's own counsel--has come down on the side of TriMet.
Even in cases of clear fraud, the Contract Clause prohibits abrogation of contracts. Two hundred years ago, the Supreme Court decided Fletcher v. Peck, a case in Georgia in which corrupt Georgia legislators had passed laws authorizing the sale of Indian lands to land speculators (who had bribed many of the legislators in question). Revelation of the corruption caused a scandal, and a reform legislature was elected, when then passed a law essentially voiding the prior land sales. The case went to the Supreme Court, which held the corrupt legislature's acts to be valid (as they constituted a lawful exercise of power, even if illicitly induced), that the reform legislature's attempts at voiding the land sales was a violation of the Contracts Clause.
Time is money
That said--there is a chance the County could drag this out, and perhaps extract some concession from TriMet; assuming the state legislature didn't decide to intervene.
Why? Time is money.
You'll notice that TriMet has requested expedited consideration of the matter by the courts. It has a construction schedule to meet, it cannot build certain parts of the project until it possesses title to the land underneath, and time is money. Also note the relief requested: While part of the relief is financial (payment of nearly $2M that TriMet claims it is owed by the county), TriMet is also demanding specific performance of the contract--conveyance of the real estate in question to TriMet. Specific performance is a common relief granted in real estate disputes, due to the non-fungibility of land, but unless TriMet can convince a judge (and initially, it least, will be Clackamas County District Court that hears this matter) to issue a summary judgment, the court may be unwilling to grant this relief on an expedited basis.
There's one other aspect to specific performance--it's what is considered "equitable" relief (along with injunctions) as opposed to a "legal" relief (i.e. damages, or money). As such, a party opposing a demand for specific performance may choose to raise various equitible defenses--one of these being "unclean hands". I would expect the County to accuse TriMet of all manner of unsavory conduct in its prior dealings on the subject, and to issue broad discovery requests as to TriMet's relations with its various project partners. While such requests might ultimately prove unfruitful--unless TriMet was underhanded in its prior dealings with Clackamas County, I doubt an unclean hands defense would stick--such discovery might uncover facts embarrassing to the agency and/or its officers--or simply take time. And time is money.
There's also the matter of appeals. No matter who wins in District Court, I expect the losing side to appeal the decision. TriMet probably has better chances in appeals court than the County does (not to cast any aspersions at the District Court), but any appeal adds delay. And time is money.
There could be pressure on the agency to reach a settlement.
What does the County want, anyway?
Last month, the County Commission sent a letter to TriMet asking it to end MLR at Tacoma Street, north of the County line. TriMet, unsurprisingly, refused. While TriMet could conceivably omit the Park Avenue stop (the MOS to Milwaukie is an approved alternate in the FEIS), ending at Tacoma Street is not an approved design option; plus construction is already underway in Milwaukie already.
The County might also simply want its money (that was paid to TriMet last year, prior to the election of the new Commission) back--and is simply trying to renegotiate the deal to that end. Or, commissioners may be looking for a symbolic victory against the agency, even if they cannot meaningfully stop the project. Whether negotiations between the County and TriMet have been going on behind the scenes, or both sides have proceeded from ultimatums to litigation, I have no idea.
The legislative angle
One risk for the county--is that the Legislature might step in.
It's rather unusual for municipal entities within Oregon to sue each other. As both TriMet and the county are political subdivisions of Oregon, incorporated under Oregon law and having no independent sovereign authority, one course of action would be for the state Legislature to intervene. And were it to do so--I doubt that would be good news for Clackamas County. The State of Oregon has appropriated $250M to fund MLR; there's no sign that the current legislature or governor is opposed to the project--and indeed, Clackamas County interfering with MLR might set a precedent that Salem wishes to avoid as it tries to get the CRC done. Furthermore, the County has engaged in some dubious actions in furtherance of the Sunrise Corridor project, actions which have gotten it sued. The county didn't win friends, either, with the initiative to repeal the drivers license surcharge intended to fund the Sellwood Bridge.
It wouldn't be out of the realm of impossibility for the state Legislature and the governor to squash the county on this one--invalidating 3-401, for instance. While the Legislature cannot usurp the judicial function of the courts, it could conceivably yank the chair out from under the county by striking the law on which the county's lack of cooperation is based.
The bottom line
How will this all turn out? Obviously, nobody knows for sure--but this is uncharted territory. I suspect that whatever happens in this case, won't be the end of things--that TriMet can expect future non-cooperation from Clackamas County as long as the current commissioners are in office. Might the entire county try and withdraw from TriMet (or Metro)? It's possible, and it's certainly been discussed around many water coolers there; and the present lawsuit might serve as the justification for initiating such an action.
March 6, 2013
This show is taking a hiatus this month. In the usual time slot, KBOO broadcast this program about Critical Mass.
The other day, Portland Transport reported on the Westside Service Enhancement Plan. While wondering about the funding sources for such an ambitious expansion of service, I did take it seriously as a planning activity--and indeed, there are quite a few good ideas in there that I would love to see implemented.
However, in my wonky haste to discuss all the fun parts--I missed this little tidbit at the end:
Additionally, full implementation of the plan is limited until we are able to restructure our employee benefits.A few readers have suggested that this "plan" is little more than a public relations ploy which TriMet is attempting to use to drum up support for its position in the ongoing contract negotiations--and something to be discarded if and when the agency wins the concessions from the union which it seeks. I have little reason to doubt the good faith and professionalism of TriMet's planning staff, and it's commonplace for planning activities to include more than an agency has the ability to pay for (this provides decision-makers with more options to consider). However, when planning documents (and planning outreach materials) come laden with an asterisk, it raises red flags all over the place.
And then a link to this "Save Our Service" page appeared in my inbox--promoting a "Transit Day" event at the state capitol in Salem, at which concerned riders will be invited to--well, it's not precisely clear what participants in this even will be asked to do, beyond generic types of political activity. But the page in question is chock full of dire warnings, including the recent warning of 70% service cuts in the future, unless "reform" to the union contract happens. (ATU, naturally, disputes these warnings).
At any rate--given that the disagreement is fundamentally over healthcare benefits and costs--union workers aren't getting richer if they have their way, it's just that a particular defined benefit (health insurance) has gotten ridiculously more expensive over the years--perhaps reform of this problem would be more productive? After all, the medical industry is claiming an ever-larger share of the economic pie--and everyone else is left fighting over whose own piece will have to shrink as a result. In the private sector, workers have continually gotten the short end of this particular stick. HCR is, of course, a difficult nut to crack--even the modest reforms that made up Obamacare were quite politically costly for the Democrats, and in the current political climate, further reforms are pretty much off the table, at least at a national level. But this, folks, is the real problem--those of us who care about transit, whether as riders or drivers, are right now fighting over scraps.
March 5, 2013
As noted earlier in the open thread, TriMet has announced the creation of something called the Westside Service Enhancement Plan. This plan, which has been underway since last year, is the first in a series of Service Enhancement Plans that the agency is planning to pursue. In 2013, TriMet will look at East County and the Southwest region (the latter, no doubt, in concert with the SW Corridor); in 2014, Clackamas County, and in 2015, North and central Portland. The Westside region--essentially Beaverton and Hillsboro--gets to go first.
Among the highlights proposed:
- Reversal of the Red and Blue lines in Washington County, with the Red Line connecting PDX and Hillsboro, and the Blue Line connects Gresham with Beaverton TC.
- High capacity transit along TV Highway between Beaverton and Hillsboro.
- Increased N/S service in the corridor.
- New Frequent Service routes along Hall Boulevard, Farmington Road, NW Cornell, 174th, 185th, and 229th.
- BRT treatments in various areas
- Improvements to the bike and pedestrian environment
- Shuttle bus service, connecting MAX (and possibly other transit centers) to industrial parks--many of which are difficult to serve with standard bus service.
As a resident of Beaverton, I'm certainly intrigued by this, and would like very much to see it happen. OTOH, funding is an issue--while it's useful to plan for the future (including making plans for things you probably will never be able to fund), TriMet has some particularly severe financial issues to deal with, before this becomes much more than pie in the sky.
More specific thoughts after the jump.
A few random observations:
- Swapping the Red and Blue in the westside is interesting--the number of riders that go all the way from Hillsboro to Gresham is likely rather small; and the nearly 2-hour journey from one side of the system to the other can impact reliability. (Generally, you want routes shorter than 2 hours between layover points). I do have a couple of questions: 1) Will the current single-track viaduct near Gateway, essentially limit frequencies on the Red Line? Right now, the Red operates at 15 minute headways, and no shorter; I've heard that the track configuration near Gateway places an effective limit on how many trains run to the airport. 2) If they are going to do this; how about sending the Green to Beaverton instead, and the Blue down the transit mall? There are other through services between the eastside and Washington County (though see notes below), but nothing connecting it with Clackamas County. This would also eliminate the U-shape of the Green that makes it redundant with many of the E/W bus lines it intersects.
- What sort of high-capacity transit on TV? My assumption is BRT of some sort, particularly given the recent decision by the TV Highway planning community to treat it as an "urban arterial" as opposed to a "highway"; but this is a long ways off. The TV Highway planning document punts on the question of high-capacity transit, though it does recommend more limited improvements to transit service.
- De-facto frequent service already exists on Hall, with the 76 and 78 multiplex providing close-to-fifteen minute headways between Beaverton and Tigard. FS would also be welcome on the current route of the 52 (Beaverton to Aloha via Farmington, and then north to PCC Rock Creek via 185th); 185th is a sufficiently wide arterial that BRT treatments would be appropriate as well. (Not to mention more crossing opportunities for pedestrians--between Baseline and TV, it frequently gets up to highway speeds). FS on Cornell (the 48) is also a welcome idea, and I've previously suggested extending the 48 into downtown via Barnes/Burnside, replacing the 20. (Some other bus can provide service on Cedar Hills Bvld). Frequent service on 229th (and 231st/Century, particularly if an extension of 231st is made through Noble Woods Park) also makes sense. On the other hand 174th presently has no transit service, and Washington County has recently deferred a proposed 173rd/174th undercrossing of US26, that might make this a more viable N/S corridor.
- Anything which can be done to make bus service faster, is obviously welcome.
- The idea of shuttle bus service to reach industrial parks, is interesting and useful.
- One area of focus that's missing is South Beaverton, in particular the South Cooper Mountain area--which technically is in the "westside" region (which is defined as anything north/west of Scholls Ferry Road). This area is kind of in a no-man's land between the bulk of the westside and the SW Corridor area, but if Beaverton really plans to build high-density developments on the south face of Cooper Mountain, transportation links will be a major issue. The only bus service that comes close is the 62 (at Murrayhill) and the peak-hour 92; and Cooper Mountain (and its steep slopes, steep roads, and high-priced homes) will make connectivity with the rest of Washington County difficult. (In fact, much of the South Cooper Mountain area isn't even within the TriMet service district). Could we see busses running on Tile Flat and Clark Hill roads in the future, bypassing Cooper Mountain to the west to connect the south-side to Aloha and/or Hillsboro?
March 4, 2013
There's been a bunch of stuff in the comments of the SW Corridor: Transportation Bundles article about the relative (operational) efficiencies of bus versus light rail. The discussion mirrors a debate that occurs in the wider community. Two dueling theories are commonly articulated:
- That MAX is more efficient, operationally, than bus--that in busy corridors, it can move far more people than can the equivalent number of busses, and requires a lot less subsidy. TriMet frequently articulates this position in its public messaging.
- That MAX is economically inefficient--an unwise investment at best, and a rip-off at worst; diverting resources from (and starving) the bus system, and a major contributor to the agency's budget problems. Many agency critics make this charge--ranging from conservative/libertarians broadly opposed to any capital investment in transit, to poverty advocates on the left, to "good government" types suspicious of any large capital expenditure, to many in ATU757, to riders of "marginal" bus routes whose service is imperilled by the agency's budget woes.
The raw data
A few resources which are the primary sources for this article; all are published by (or based on data published by) TriMet.
- A table of TriMet service and ridership information, (for 1999-2012) published by TriMet
- Portland Afoot's awesome Money infographic (which was inspired by an equally awesome
xkcd infographic done by Randall Munroe).
- TriMet's FY2013 buget.
- June 2012 Monthly Performance Report (Includes FY12 Summary), published by TriMet
There are several different ways to approach the numbers; we consider each in turn:
The big picture: Looking at the budget (pp20-22), we find that TriMet has allocated $314M for its Operations Division, by far the biggest chunk of its total operating budget of $473M. (Other expense items include $16.5M for non-grant-funded capital projects, $47.8M for pensions/OPEB, $48.2M for debt service, and $47M for various administrative functions). Of that $314 M, we find the following:
- $157.1M for bus service ($100.9M for operations, and $56.8M for maintenance)
- $52.5M for MAX ($16.4M for operations, $15.7M for ROW maintenance, and $20.4M for equipment maintenance
- $9.3M for Streetcar expenses, including both TriMet's subsidy and pass-through funding from the City of Portland
subsidies to the Portland Streetcar
- $47.5M for Accessible Transportation programs ($31.M for LIFT and $16.4M for TriMet's Medical Transportation Program)
- $6.4M for WES
- $14.3M for facilities
- $24.5M for dispatch, supervisors, planning, and other support.
Total ridership on TriMet (excluding Streetcar) in FY2012 was as follows: There were a total of 102.2 million boarding rides on the system--42.2M on MAX, 59.6M on bus, and 481k on WES. (For those unfamiliar with terminology, a "boarding ride" is counted whenever someone steps on a transit vehicle--a journey with two transfers counts as three boarding rides). 41.3% boardings were on MAX, 58.3% on bus, and 0.41% on WES.
Total passenger revenue in FY2012 was--coincidentally--$102.2 million, giving an average system-wide revenue per boarding ride of $1.00. This figure is noticeably less than the full-price fare, due to various factors like discounts, transfers, Free Rail Zone (which was still active during FY12), and fare evasion. TriMet had a total Farebox Recovery Ratio (FRR) of 27.8%, vs total system cost. Mode-specific FRRs were: MAX, 44.2%, Bus, 24.8%, WES 6.9%, LIFT 4.8%.
The details: The Service and Ridership table above gives lots of interesting data, including historical data for the past fourteen service years. Complete data is at the link above, and some of the more interesting stuff (for this discussion) has been summarized here. The table below excludes WES and LIFT (they're expensive, no surprise), and only includes every third year, to increase the chances it looks nice on your device. Apologies for the crude formatting.
Bus Sys Costs
Bus Op Costs
Bus Veh Miles
Bus Veh Hrs
Bus Rev Hours
Bus Boarding Rides
Bus In-Svc %
Bus Op Cost/Hr
Bus Sys Cost/Hr
Bus Op Cost/Ride
Bus Sys Cost/Ride
Bus Rides/Veh Hr
Bus FRR (System)
Bus Break-even Rides/Hr
MAX Sys Costs
Max Op Costs
MAX Veh Miles
MAX Veh Hours
MAX Rev Hours
MAX Boarding Rides
MAX In-Svc %
MAX Op Cost/Hr
MAX Sys Cost/Hr
MAX Op Cost/Ride
MAX Sys Cost/Ride
MAX Rides/Veh Hr
MAX FRR (System)
MAX Break-even Rides/Hr
Additional breakdowns on per-service subsidy are also made available by TriMet. In particular, the operating subsidy on the following modes/routes in FY12 was as follows:
- Blue Line: $0.55
- Red Line: $0.90
- Green Line: $0.92
- Yellow Line: $1.32
- NS Streetcar: $1.32
- Frequent bus: $1.54
- "Standard" bus: $2.73.
- WES: $18.55
- LIFT: $27.93
The figures in the Service and Ridership table don't line up exactly with line items in the published budget, as many budget items are allocated between bus, MAX, and other modes; and still others are not assigned to any particular mode's cost center at all.
More details on the cost breakdown. Portland Afoot gives the following breakdown for the per-vehicle-hour costs of operating both bus and MAX. The figures cited here also don't line up exactly with any of the numbers published for a given year (they may be budgeted figures rather than actuals), but they are sufficiently close that we will repeat them here. According to Portland Afoot, a bus costs $120.95 per hour to operate, as follows:
- $9.84 for fuel and tires
- $59.24 for driver labor ($29.29 wages, $30.95 benefits)
- $20.25 for maintenance and supplies (excluding tires)
- $8.73 for non-vehicle maintenance (I assume primarily stops, shelters, signage, etc).
- $26.78 for administration and "other".
- $13.21 for electricity
- $77.66 for driver labor ($33.79 for wages, $43.87 for benefits)
- $61.21 for vehicle maintenance
- $73.86 for non-vehicle maintenance (tracks, wires, signalling, stations)
- $178.35 for administration and other (including "other wages").
From a per-rider perspective, MAX looks great: The per-rider subsidy last fiscal year was almost a third on MAX vs the bus ($0.67 vs $1.96), and the farebox recovery ratio almost 20% higher (44% vs 25%). From a per-vehicle-hour perspective, on the other hand, MAX looks terrible: It costs nearly three times as much ($269 vs $98) to keep a MAX train on the tracks as it does to keep a bus on the road.
What is going on?
A key parameter that explains the difference, is ridership: MAX gets over four times the ridership per vehicle hour compared to the bus system. There are many possible reasons for this, pro and con:
- Capacity: A 2-car LRT can carry 4-5 times as many passengers as a 40' bus (and about 3 times as many passengers as a 20m articulated bus or a Streetcar). There are many times during the service day that vehicles are full, and passing up passengers as a result. The bus "break-even rides/hour", which gives the number of hourly boardings required to break even, is greater than the capacity of a bus, whereas all 357 hourly boardings required for MAX to break even, actually could ride together on a MAX train.
- Corridor strength: MAX has generally been deployed on corridors with either excellent existing ridership, or good untapped potential; there are no "social service" routes on the MAX system. Many bus lines, on the other hand, are "coverage" routes with low ridership 'round the clock; these drag down the numbers of the bus system tremendously. Unfortunately, I don't have more detailed data on TriMet's frequent service bus routes--though some of them come close to MAX in terms of financial performance (and may even exceed the lower-performing MAX lines).
- Service quality: It's long been claimed by rail supporters, that rail is more attractive (to riders) than bus. There are many anecdotes of yuppies who won't be caught dead on a bus but will happily ride a train. While TriMet's data doesn't contradict this (rail ridership is much higher), it doesn't say anything about why--there are many factors at play. In addition to the allure of steel wheels, there's the issue of frequency, speed, and reliability; somewhat better amenities (particularly at stations--though nobody will confuse a MAX train with an Amtrak sleeping car, or even WES). There are many ways in which MAX is a better product for the transit rider than local bus service--assuming, of course, that it goes where you need. Of course, many of MAX's desirable attributes have nothing to do with bus-vs-rail; a good-quality BRT line could conceivably offer similar operating parameter. OTOH, the N/S streetcar is an excellent performer despite being slow and unreliable--that said, it's got a lower fare and runs in a dense urban neighborhood. (The CL streetcar, on the other hand...)
- MAX-centric service configuration: One common complaint about MAX is that many suburban transit trips require a transfer to MAX to get downtown, whereas prior to the service being installed, one could ride a bus all the way in. No bus that serves Hillsboro or Aloha, for instance, reaches downtown; the only transfer-free service between Tualatin and Portland runs during peaks. When MLR completes, many Clackamas County bus riders will likewise get to transfer to MAX in Milwaukie, as many of the current busses that run from downtown to Milwaukie TC will likely be curtailed in favor of LRT. Certainly the 33 will terminate in Milwaukie; though I expect the 70 to keep running. While TriMet has a nice grid system in Portland itself, out in the 'burbs it uses more of a hub-and-spoke system; this is particularly an issue in suburbs with rail. (Of course, riders in Tigard see the same issue with forced transfers to the 12...)
- Transit-oriented development: While the impact of this is perhaps exaggerated by those touting its benefits (as well as by anti-urbanists panicking about "Portland creep", as though Oak Grove is going to somehow turn into the Pearl District), much upzoning has occurred around the MAX line--and many developers, homeowners, and renters consider proximity thereto to be a valuable amenity. Out in Washington County, now that the housing collapse is apparently over, oodles of new construction are occurring along SW Baseline, all of it within walking distance of a MAX station. (Much of it is single-family housing, but packed in like sardines single-family housing). Where development has occurred, development patters along MAX tend to be denser that development patterns in transit-poor neighborhoods; increased density drives ridership.
The wide gulf between "standard" bus and frequent bus is further evidence that ridership is indeed a big part of the story; there is little technical difference between the two types of service. (Non-frequent routes are more likely to get older busses, and frequent routes on busy corridors more likely to experience overloaded conditions). One might naively think that frequent bus would be less efficient, given that there are more runs and thus more expense occurred, but that's not the case--good quality service is more likely to attract ridership; and that principle applies to rail just as much as to better bus service. Of course, there has to be sufficient potential ridership along a route for this to apply; turning the 84 into Frequent Service wouldn't make it into an efficient, high-ridership run.
Of course, none of this answers the questions as to whether continued investment in MAX remains a good idea. Capital dollars are getting scarce; likely putting the breaks on future projects beyond MLR and/or the CRC. And with labor expenses continuing to grow (largely due to increasing health-care costs--it's not as though operators and retirees are getting richer; it's that a specific benefit is gotten considerably more expensive), operational squeezes will likely continue. While rail is cost-effective in the corridors it serves, it can't be deployed everywhere, and in places where it is deployed, TriMet is committed to provide a certain level of service as a condition of funding grants. This commitment, along with rail's higher fixed cost base, and greater pressure to cut low-margin routes during a budget crisis, does tend to concentrate most of the weight of the budget axe on the bus system.
March 1, 2013
Your March open thread.
- ODOT will be inspecting MAX lines, after ATU757 provided KOIN-TV with pictures of rails (allegedly) in a state of disrepair.
- While Portland has been building out its rail system, most "missed connections" (of a romantic nature) in the Pacific Northwest appear to be on the bus.
- Metro is looking for feedback on recent proposed amendments to the 2035 RTP (Regional Transportation Plan)
- Bike Portland wonders, as the CRC lumbers along, why 1000 Friends, the Sierra Club, and other environmental organizations (many of whom are on record as opposing the project) are sitting on the sidelines--the scuttlebutt is that Salem powerbrokers have informed these organizations that to publicly oppose the CRC is to jeopardize the remainder of their agenda. (Right-wing opposition to the CRC is far less constrained).
- Willamette Week profiles Patricia McCaig, an adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber and top CRC advocate--and whose salary is not paid by the State of Oregon, but by CRC contractor David Evans and Associates.