Breaking down the economics of bus vs MAX

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.

Who’s right? As usual, things are a bit more complicated than a bumper-sticker slogan can capture. After the jump, we get into the numbers. I’m only focusing (for the most part) on operational expenses–the question of capital costs are ignored. The article also focuses on bus service vs light rail–the Streetcar, WES, and LIFT are discussed, but in far less details.

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.

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 Portlandsubsidies 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.

 

FY00

FY03

FY06

FY09

FY12

Bus Sys Costs

$143,750,046

$164,530,603

$194,320,975

$224,140,243

$227,216,860

Bus Op Costs

$122,146,301

$138,148,215

$165,013,289

$177,339,898

$172,847,124

Bus Veh Miles

26671308

27571152

26336856

26289732

22690824

Bus Veh Hrs

2009148

2049156

1953420

2010600

1758936

Bus Rev Hours

1443948

1515648

1458564

1534068

1342296

Bus Boarding Rides

60072000

62743200

63129600

66153600

59626800

Bus Revenue/Ride

$0.53

$0.54

$0.66

$0.92

$0.94

Bus In-Svc %

0.72

0.74

0.75

0.76

0.76

Bus Op Cost/Hr

$61

$67

$84

$88

$98

Bus Sys Cost/Hr

$72

$80

$99

$111

$129

Bus Op Cost/Ride

$2.03

$2.20

$2.61

$2.68

$2.90

Bus Sys Cost/Ride

$2.39

$2.62

$3.08

$3.39

$3.81

Bus Subsidy/Ride

$1.50

$1.66

$1.95

$1.76

$1.96

Bus Rides/Veh Hr

29.90

30.62

32.32

32.90

33.90

Bus FRR (System)

0.22

0.21

0.21

0.27

0.25

Bus Break-even Rides/Hr

135.00

148.69

150.72

121.17

137.42

           

MAX Sys Costs

$43,701,932

$54,461,652

$69,183,374

$83,917,249

$99,063,196

Max Op Costs

36863011

44754445

55939344

63323872

72295612

MAX Veh Miles

2558112

3271824

3825588

4134048

4027740

MAX Veh Hours

143100

192516

238704

255180

268512

MAX Rev Hours

121476

161508

194616

208152

215376

MAX Boarding Rides

21165600

26120400

32606400

35188800

42193180

MAX Revenue/Ride

$0.66

$0.69

$0.80

$0.98

$1.04

MAX In-Svc %

0.85

0.84

0.82

0.82

0.80

MAX Op Cost/Hr

$258

$232

$234

$248

$269

MAX Sys Cost/Hr

$305

$283

$290

$329

$369

MAX Op Cost/Ride

$1.74

$1.71

$1.72

$1.80

$1.71

MAX Sys Cost/Ride

$2.06

$2.09

$2.12

$2.38

$2.35

MAX Subsidy/Ride

$1.08

$1.02

$0.92

$0.82

$0.67

MAX Rides/Veh Hr

147.91

135.68

136.60

137.90

157.14

MAX FRR (System)

0.32

0.33

0.38

0.41

0.44

MAX Break-even Rides/Hr

462.72

409.99

362.29

335.57

354.74

           
 

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”.

For MAX (total $328.11):

  • $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”).

Rail’s direct vehicle costs (energy, consumables, labor, and maintenance) are more than that of bus($152 vs $89), but rail has significantly higher non-vehicle and administrative costs. Much of this is due to the need to maintain rail’s extensive physical plant–tracks, power lines and power systems, stations, etc.; as well as to operate the various train control systems, which have no analog on the bus. (Busses travel on public rights of way maintained by the state or by municipal governments; it should be noted that TriMet pays no weight-mile tax to help maintain the roads, despite the fact that busses–with very large axle loads–are among the worst offenders out there at chewing up asphalt). Many of these expenses, however, depend more on the amount of tracks installed, as opposed to the number of trains running–as a result, cutting (or increasing) rail service has less of an effect on TriMet’s bottom line than you might expect.

Some analysis

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.

48 Comments

48 Responses to Breaking down the economics of bus vs MAX

  1. Cameron Mulder
    March 4, 2013 at 12:15 am Link

    Thank you for this post and showing how something that sounds simple like Bus vs MAX is actually a very difficult question to answer.

    Personally I am a huge fan of MAX even though I almost alway end up taking the bus. When I do get to use the MAX I am always impressed by the quality of the experience. Something about it is just nicer than taking the bus.

  2. igor
    March 4, 2013 at 7:25 am Link

    Why is the cost of MAX “administration” 7x the cost for busses? What does that figure include?

  3. Chris Smith
    March 4, 2013 at 8:08 am Link

    One correction – “$9.3M for subsidies to the Portland Streetcar” is not correct. That reflects total expenditures for Streetcar which includes both the TriMet subsidy AND the cost of the operators and mechanics provided to Portland Streetcar. There is a separate budget line item, unfortunately buried in a bigger category, that reimburses TriMet the cost of the personnel, so the actual subsidy is much less than $9.3M (less than half that I believe).

  4. EngineerScotty
    March 4, 2013 at 8:45 am Link

    Thanks, Chris, for the correction; fixed.

    As to what specifically the MAX administration costs are, I don’t know. As noted, there is a physical plant to maintain, but just where all that money goes, I’m equally curious.

  5. Anandakos
    March 4, 2013 at 8:50 am Link

    @Scotty,

    Thank you for this excellent summary. I don’t think this will quiet down the MAX-haters — and your final paragraph shows some sympathy with their belief that buses are getting the short end of the stick.

    But there’s no doubt that were the Blue Line not running, Tri-Met would pay a lot more to carry the same number of passengers to and from Washington County, or more likely, the Sunset Highway and alternate routes would be far more congested than they already are.

    So can we all just agree that facts on the ground are facts on the ground and figure out how to attract the highest number of frequent service bus and MAX riders to the system within an achievable budget? Maybe that means further reductions in the “coverage” system. That seems to be the strategy that King County Metro is increasingly pursuing. Maybe it means greater employee contribution to the health plan. That’s a widespread practice in both private and public employment.

    One thing this summary makes clear, though: if the City of Portland wanted to gentrify Interstate Avenue, it should have done so with a “rapid streetcar” instead of MAX. Clark County made clear its objection to MAX a decade and a half ago, and the fever hasn’t broken since. The North-South line simply doesn’t have the same opportunities for development that the Blue Line did and continues to have.

    So if there is to be a transit improvement in the Southwest Corridor it should probably be rubber-tired (with the exception of a short tunnel to serve OHSU directly).

  6. Ed
    March 4, 2013 at 9:22 am Link

    Your Portland Afoot link goes to the trimet.org ridership chart (i.e., the previous link).

  7. EngineerScotty
    March 4, 2013 at 9:57 am Link

    Here’s the Portland Afoot infographic: http://portlandafoot.org/documents/moneyinfographic.pdf

    And as a bonus, another relevant Portland Afoot link: http://portlandafoot.org/2012/04/money-all-of-it/

  8. Allan
    March 4, 2013 at 10:21 am Link

    I’m impressed that a bus cannot physically hold enough riders to break even. This is a sign that our financial model is totally broken. Has TriMet considered implementing an effective wellness program to curb healthcare costs?

  9. m
    March 4, 2013 at 10:28 am Link

    “I’m only focusing (for the most part) on operational expenses–the question of capital costs are ignored.”

    I was intrigued by this headline until I read the above sentence and stopped reading after that. When you want to come back to the real world, let me know.

  10. Nick theoldurbanist
    March 4, 2013 at 10:43 am Link

    “I’m impressed that a bus cannot physically hold enough riders to break even.”

    >>>> Just because this is true at any given moment, it does not mean that a bus line cannot break even. It goes by boardings per revenue hour. If you ride the #4, 33, or 57 lines end-to-end, you’ll see how many times the seats “turn over, i.e., people getting on and off the bus.

  11. EngineerScotty
    March 4, 2013 at 10:48 am Link

    >>I’m only focusing (for the most part) on operational expenses–the question of capital costs are ignored.

    m: I was intrigued by this headline until I read the above sentence and stopped reading after that. When you want to come back to the real world, let me know.

    There are two reasons for that, m;

    1) Capital expenses are largely paid by grants, bonds, or other one-time sources of revenue, that aren’t available for operations. The specific focus of this is operations–how do we keep the existing system we have running.

    2) Even if #1 weren’t true, most of the capital expenses are sunk costs. We can’t unbuild the current light rail system or Streetcar, get the money back, and plow it into operations. And post-MLR/CRC, there aren’t any additional major capital projects “in the funnel”–SW Corridor is too far off to say much about, and nothing else is even that far along.

    Obviously, planning for the future needs to consider the capital side of things as well; but in the current environment of austerity and sequester, additional capital funds (beyond what are already committed) may be scarce. TriMet’s fundamental problem is that its operational revenue sources–mainly payroll taxes, fares, and operational grants–are being stretched more thinly. Some of this is due to increased service commitments (and if you did read the post, you’ll see I mentioned that); some is due to increasing labor costs, and potentially some is due to wasteful spending in other areas. (I’d like to see more of a breakdown on those operational spending items that don’t go towards provision of service).

    You’re welcome to contribute to the discussion, but comments along the line of “I didn’t read it, because you didn’t pet my hobby-horse in the lede”, aren’t particularly useful.

  12. Nick theoldurbanist
    March 4, 2013 at 10:48 am Link

    “to riders of “marginal” bus routes whose service is imperilled by the agency’s budget woes.”

    >>>> Even riders of non-marginal bus routes suffer; they have to deal with overcrowded buses. That’s why I try to avoid the #4 and 20 lines in a certain direction during rush hours. I blame this partially on rail mania at Trimet.

  13. al m
    March 4, 2013 at 11:00 am Link

    None of it will make much dent in people using cars, and the reason for that is TRANSIT SUCKS no matter which mode you use.

    I’m so sick of this debate and all the BS going on with TRIMET right now.

    If they can keep anything going in the long run around here is the question.

    I love the standards that are applied to transit and no other public service: CAN IT BREAK EVEN?

    The Dept of Defense doesn’t have the problem.
    The Dept of Education doesn’t have that problem.
    The Food and Drug administration doesn’t have the problem.
    The police don’t have that problem.
    The fire department doesn’t have that problem.

    Just good old transit.
    And the cost per ride figures are nonsense because everyone always leaves out the costs of putting the rail lines in. All those TAX FUNDED costs need to be included or else the figures are nothing but more lies added to the ever growing heap of lies about this topic.

  14. Nick theoldurbanist
    March 4, 2013 at 11:01 am Link

    “There are many anecdotes of yuppies who won’t be caught dead on a bus but will happily ride a train.”

    >>>> And there are many anecdotes about people who won’t take MAX (some of which I’ve heard myself) because they won’t pay the transfer penalty involved.

  15. EngineerScotty
    March 4, 2013 at 11:35 am Link

    Al,

    I completely agree (with your latter observation); apologies if you though my references to “breaking even” were a suggestion that TriMet ought to.

    At any rate–should bus costs include the cost of buying busses, and building the roads (or fixing them–see above note about bus axle loads)? This is actually a useful discussion to have–a good argument can be made that rail infrastructure is a poor investment because it is underused. Many roads, particularly the busy streets, are frequently overused (and when that happens, it’s called a “traffic jam”), whereas the Green Line tracks along I-205 only see a train every 20 minutes or so during much of the day.

    On the other hand, the biggest cause of road overuse isn’t busses, or freight–it’s single-occupancy commuters. Were congestion pricing (or a similar regime) to be introduced, that would help to solve several problems: 1) congestion would lighten, 2) VMT would decrease, along with the deleterious consequences thereof, 3) transit operations would become more efficient, due to less competition for road space from cars, and 4) the need for high-budget capital projects such as MAX would decrease, as getting transit vehicles out of traffic would not be as big of a problem. (You might still need rail or BRT on high-ridership corridors).

    Unfortunately, the stick isn’t politically popular–motorists tend to expect that they can drive and park where and when they want, for free–so policymakers instead resort to carrots which may be less effective and more expensive.

    As I mentioned to m, discussion of capital projects needs to happen, particularly in the context of what projects should be funded in the future. But sunk costs are sunk costs–we cannot unbuild the Green Line, nor recoup its capital investment by discontinuing service. Complaining about the past doesn’t help answer the questions of how to provide service going forward.

  16. EngineerScotty
    March 4, 2013 at 11:42 am Link

    And as if to prove my point, Engineer Bob informs us (in the open thread) of an initiative petition being circulated in Washington to ban tolls on Interstate highways within the state. (Wasn’t such a thing recently defeated at the ballot box)?

  17. al m
    March 4, 2013 at 11:48 am Link

    Scott, you did an excellent piece of research here so I am not trying to demean any of that.

    The concept that ‘we have to keep building’ is fatally flawed as far as I am concerned.

    They have to keep what they have before the continue building.

    I’m not sure where it is written that building must happen continuously?

    Governments just keep on adding debt upon debt upon debt, and guess who ends up getting the screws for all of that in the end?

    The citizens that’s who.

    Everybody is stuck in this swamp right now, people are getting hurt because of this philosophy.

    These technocrats need to be put on hold, no more promises they can’t keep.

    No more pie in the sky.

    People view MLR and CRC, then they wonder about the ‘sequester’.

    Thinking people can’t be totally against the ‘sequester’ because its projects such as MLR and CRC that have to be stopped somehow.

    This government by boondoggle has an inertia all of its own and needs to be brought to a complete halt.

    Trimet needs to be reorganized now is a good time to do it, from top to bottom.

  18. Anandakos
    March 4, 2013 at 12:02 pm Link

    @m,

    “I was intrigued by this headline until I read the above sentence and stopped reading after that.”

    Facts on the ground are facts on the ground. The MAX Blue, Red, Green, Yellow and Orange lines will be the backbone of Tri-Met service for the next fifty years — at a minimum. You can “read on” and educate yourself thanks to Scotty’s excellent compilation of publicly available information, or you can be sniff and drift back into your fairy land of right wing dreams.

  19. Nick theoldurbanist
    March 4, 2013 at 12:05 pm Link

    “or you can be sniff and drift back into your fairy land of right wing dreams.”

    >>>> Except that I’m not right-wing (nor left-wing) at all – just a realist; and MAX is a lousy operation, period.

  20. al m
    March 4, 2013 at 12:06 pm Link

    The MAX Blue, Red, Green, Yellow and Orange lines will be the backbone of Tri-Met service for the next fifty years

    ~~~>Hopefully at least. Its great if your going to Portland.

    What about everybody that is not going to Portland?

  21. EngineerScotty
    March 4, 2013 at 12:07 pm Link

    Civility, please.

    Nick–Anandakos’ comments weren’t directed towards you. Nobody would confuse you with a right-winger. :)

  22. Anandakos
    March 4, 2013 at 12:08 pm Link

    @Nick,

    Are you “m”? Why have two handles on one website?

  23. JF
    March 4, 2013 at 12:54 pm Link

    EngineerScotty said:

    1) Capital expenses are largely paid by grants, bonds, or other one-time sources of revenue, that aren’t available for operations.

    I really appreciate this post, and know how difficult it is to try and get a “real cost” of rail that includes capital expenses. So I’m sympathetic to limiting the discussion to operating costs. But the above comment is only half-true and underlies the difficulty involved in calculating “real costs.” Yes, a lot of rail construction is funded by grants that “aren’t available for operations.” But these grants only cover part of the capital costs. PMLR, for example, is only half funded by federal grants. To secure these grants, TriMet has to provide matching funds. And the get these matching funds largely by issuing bonds. But like any other form of loan, these bonds have to be paid back. And TriMet uses revenue sources that ARE available for other operating costs to pay their debts. A portion of payroll taxes is set aside to pay off debt, but (at least theoretically) these taxes could fund other operating costs. And they get some money from Metro RFF funds to pay off debt because of an agreement they made years ago. But, again, this is an agreement TriMet freely made and these RFF funds potential could have been dedicated to other operating costs other than debt service. It’s a complicated issue. But the fact is, bonds/loans to pay for major capital projects DO represent a trade-off with other operating costs because the agency has to service that debt.

  24. EngineerScotty
    March 4, 2013 at 1:31 pm Link

    JF,

    Funding for MLR comes from multiple sources, an excellent summary of which is here. TriMet did bond $40M in payroll tax revenue–and was granted a corresponding increase in its payroll tax base by the Legislature–a move that was controversial, to say the least (and which we at PT have questioned the wisdom of). Most of the local match comes from grants from the State of Oregon and the involved cities and counties. (This includes the portion that Clackamas County now wants to renege on).

    The interesting question: Would the State of Oregon have approved $250M in lottery proceeds, to fund or endow operations? Would Portland, Milwaukie, and Multnomah and Clackamas Counties have done likewise? I suspect the answer in both cases is “no”. Some view this as little more than an excuse–I view it as a more fundamental problem: many levels of government are willing to fund capital but not operations. There are good reasons for this (capital expenditures being one-time things, ops being a continual expense)–but capital projects are more likely to enrich private firms of various sorts, whereas operational expenses are not.

    As I’ve noted before: High-paying (albeit temporary) jobs building roads or rails are “economic development”. High-paying (long-term) jobs driving a bus or teaching children are “government waste”. Funny how that works. :)

  25. Nick theoldurbanist
    March 4, 2013 at 2:12 pm Link

    No, I am not ‘m.’ Every blog that I post on I always use the above handle.

    Maybe ‘m’ is Al Margulies?

  26. EngineerScotty
    March 4, 2013 at 2:44 pm Link

    At this point, we have no reason to believe “m” is anyone’s sockpuppet–and certainly not Nick’s.

  27. JF
    March 4, 2013 at 3:01 pm Link

    Portland Afoot has a pretty good rundown of the payroll tax issue here: http://portlandafoot.org/w/TriMet_payroll_tax

    I’m not saying that TriMet would have gotten authorization from the legislature to raise the payroll taxes if it didn’t include (mostly) money to build new rail lines. But the tax rate increase was granted to pay for “new service” which TriMet self-defines, and includes things besides rail, such as increased bus service, etc. This is why it’s such a complicated issue. It’s hard to know if, or by how much, the legislature would have approved an increased tax rate that wasn’t going to pay for huge capital projects like rail. And it’s equally hard to know if TriMet is spending tax revenue beyond the very small, and phased in over 10 years, increase they were granted from the legislature. See p23 of their adopted budget which indicates $22.6m this year for capital projects will come from operating resources “drawn from general fund resources.”

    And of course it leaves open the question of whether or not TriMet would even need to increase the tax rate if they we’ren’t prioritizing rail expansion and trying to increase service levels in less costly ways.

    And this is further muddied by the fact that TriMet didn’t just authorize $40m in bonds based on future tax revenue. It also authorized another $40m in “interim financing” this year that has to be paid back. See p25 of their adopted budget.

    That’s why, like I said, I appreciate this post and the reasons it focused on operating expenses without trying to untangle the relationship between capital costs and future operating resources. It’s a difficult question, full of ifs, ands, and buts…

  28. m
    March 4, 2013 at 3:14 pm Link

    “Are you “m”? Why have two handles on one website?”

    I am neither Nick nor a right winger. I am a Democrat and what Scotty describes above as a ‘good gov’t type’ suspicious of large capital investments when there are less expensive and better alternatives. As hard as it may be for you to believe there are more than one of us out there such that we don’t need to go around having “two handles.”

    I believe gov’t should focus on core services and not be in the very risky venture capital business (e.g., Solopower) nor should it be running a property development company disguised as a transportation organization (TriMet and most especially Portland Streetcar).

    Oregon also needs to follow the lead of California and shut down urban renewal.

  29. Anandakos
    March 4, 2013 at 3:44 pm Link

    @m,

    Well, you don’t shine a particularly good light on “good government types” with comments like the one you made about Scotty’s post.

    It sounded more like something from Rush than Teddy Roosevelt. Actually, maybe not even Rush; more like Reggie in Archie Comix.

    “Don’t bother me with facts; my mind is made up!”

  30. m
    March 4, 2013 at 4:14 pm Link

    Scotty has a good sense of humor and I have posted enough here such that I think he knows I try to add value more often than not. But I tend to limit my comments to what I view as big picture issues such as large capital expenditures, the anti-car movement (as I see it anyway) and forced density. Hence his ‘hobby horse’ comment.

    The comments here generally come from knowledgeable and well meaning people but sometimes suffer from ‘group think’ IMO such that I like to occasionally provide a contrasting view. Some immediately assume that because I sometimes disagree with that group think and enjoy the convenience of driving a car while having a backyard within the city limits of Portland, that somehow makes me a right winger.

    They would be wrong and the voting records of Irvington and other neighborhoods tell me I am not alone.

  31. al m
    March 4, 2013 at 4:31 pm Link

    Maybe ‘m’ is Al Margulies?
    Homey don’t play that!

  32. al m
    March 4, 2013 at 5:01 pm Link

    Whoever “m” is makes sense to me.
    And while we are talking about costs of things lets take a look at this cost:

    $48.2M for debt service,

    Now that figure is MORE than the cost of health insurance for employees.

    And my understanding that is basically all interest payments on debt, debt that continues growing non stop.

    Nobody is complaining about that!

    Anybody have any idea why nobody talks about this?
    This is money going directly to the banks.
    The banks are profiting handsomely on all this transit related bonding.

    Health care makes the news, every single ‘press release’ from Trimet’s ministry of propaganda talks about run away health costs.

    But nobody ever talks about runaway bond debt?

    Does anybody besides me understand the power of propaganda and how it forms peoples opinions?

    (We won’t bring up the recent raises that Mr Mcfarlane has handed to his top dogs recently as that’s only %17 of the budget so nobody needs to be looking at them for anything. All six figure salaried people by the way)

  33. Lenny Anderson
    March 4, 2013 at 5:11 pm Link

    Great post ES! As I recall FS bus lines carry 2/3 of all bus riders or another 40% of the total.
    All the other bus lines, including by beloved 85 Swan Island, are huge resource drains and carry just the remaining 20%. The private sector would look to contract those out to reduce costs. TriMet, of course, can’t do that.
    How do I save the 85? Get more people working on Swan Island, get more businesses there to offer free transit as well as free parking, and hope for $5 gas! MAX to Vancouver, much as I dislike the CRC, will help as well as about 1/3 of Swan Island employees live there.
    Anyone out there who loves their little “local” should be doing the same, asap.

  34. al m
    March 4, 2013 at 5:44 pm Link

    Hey Lenny you really screwed up when You didn’t make sure that yellow line went through swan island before going to north portland

  35. Nick theoldurbanist
    March 4, 2013 at 7:31 pm Link

    ” MAX to Vancouver, much as I dislike the CRC, will help as well as about 1/3 of Swan Island employees live there.”

    >>>>> Huh? That will involve a double transfer for most of them – a real deal breaker. Most will continue to drive.

  36. dave
    March 4, 2013 at 7:47 pm Link

    much as I dislike the CRC, will help as well as about 1/3 of Swan Island employees live there

    A 12 lane wide bridge and tons of free parking on Swan Island will encourage driving not discourage it.

  37. Ron Swaren
    March 4, 2013 at 8:52 pm Link

    “How do I save the 85? Get more people working on Swan Island, get more businesses there to offer free transit as well as free parking, and hope for $5 gas! MAX to Vancouver, much as I dislike the CRC, will help as well as about 1/3 of Swan Island employees live there.”

    Indicates how screwed up your reasoning is.

  38. Anandakos
    March 5, 2013 at 12:35 am Link

    @m,

    OK, I’ll agree to reserve judgment and grant you the benefit of the doubt. But when you use right-wing memes like “the anti-car movement” and “forced density” you sure do sound reactionary.

    What exactly do you mean by “forced density”? The Urban Growth Boundary? That’s the only think I can think that would in any way be “forced” about the densification plans of Portland. The rest of it is carrots — sometimes ridiculously expensive carrots, but carrots nonetheless.

    If the citizens of Oregon have collectively decided that they’d rather have pinot noir grapes growing in the hills southwest of Portland instead of McMansions, that sounds like a pretty good idea.

    If you want unbridled and unlimited growth, move to Houston. It’s much more economically vibrant than Portland. Now the climate blows chunks there, while we’ve got it pretty darn nice here in the Puget-Willamette Lowland. And because of that, has it not occurred to you that Portland could look like Phoenix in a decade if that sort of run-away growth model were adopted?

    I grant that the winters here are pretty tough on the LA Fitness crowd; so in all honesty, it’s unlikely that a Phoenicized Portland would grow all that fast. But you can double-damn betcha’ that without the UGB the hills north of 26 and along 99W would be dotted with mini-estates even more than they are, VMT would be higher, and GHG production by the region would be greater.

    You may not care about that, but there are lots of people in Portland who do, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with having one city in the country which chooses to be sustainable to the degree it can. There are plenty of other places that have adopted the full metal jacket version of “realistic” economics.

    If you want to rail against corruption and self-dealing like Al does, have at it. That’s what “goo-goo’s” have traditionally done, and if he and Willamette Week are even 10% right it sounds like we need more of it in the area.

  39. Anandakos
    March 5, 2013 at 12:41 am Link

    @Lenny,

    Kudos to you for using and advocating for the #85.

    I do have to point out that the “private sector” would not “contract out” the coverage system. It would simply shut it down.

  40. m
    March 5, 2013 at 6:48 am Link

    Anandakos:

    I have commented extensively elsewhere on this site about my concerns with the anti-car movement and forced density and will not do so again here in detail other than to ask: If those terms are “right-wing” memes as you say, then why are people in uber-liberal neighborhoods like Irvington, Beaumont, Buckman, and Richmond resisting these impositions on their quality of like by using tools such as historic designation and lobbying for increased parking requirements?

    Just because people don’t want to repeat the mistakes of NW Portland and instead want to acknowledge the reality that most people do and will for the foreseeable future own cars, why does that make them right wingers?

    Sam Adams drove his car by himself every day to work when he was Mayor. Does that make him a right winger? It sounds to me like you are the one who is being “reactionary.”

  41. Ron Swaren
    March 5, 2013 at 8:22 am Link

    A lot of this area would follow, by normal market conditions, the transit oriented development concept, sans all of the expensive transit theatrics from METRO. Case in point: High end Vancouver waterfront development, which would trigger less spendy higher density residential dwelling in nearby areas that are poised for redevelopment anyway. The NW section of downtown Vancouver is ready for something. It’s close to the RR, and has a lot of vacant property with a just few cheap houses. And downtown Vancouver is right across the Columbia from nearly a square mile of vacant industrial land. Or two square miles if they got rid of that silly little golf course and expanded through Delta Park. There could probably be both housing and jobs south of Vancouver Lake, too. These areas are close enough that people could bicycle between them.

    METRO’s plan, however, is to make it nearly impossible to travel regularly between the two states, then people are forced to move their homes or businesses are forced to locate. Oregon will lose a lot of tax revenue, though I suppose relocated Washingtonians (assuming they can relocate) would like not paying income taxes.

  42. Anandakos
    March 5, 2013 at 9:00 am Link

    @m,

    OK. You love your car. You’re the very model of an ethical, upright centrist. Happy now?

  43. m
    March 5, 2013 at 9:04 am Link

    Anandakos:

    Bye, troll.

  44. Chris I
    March 5, 2013 at 9:30 am Link

    Regarding the ignored capital costs: does Trimet pay federal and state gas taxes on their diesel fuel? Do they pay local property taxes?

  45. Lenny Anderson
    March 5, 2013 at 9:37 am Link

    Al, I actually tried…wrote a memo to Earl and Vera after Clark voted down MAX in ’95 to just have it hang a left at Going and end at Freightliner. There is LRT line in Dusseldorf that goes right into a very dense employement area.
    Dave, agreed, the CRC will be a huge incentive to drive. I voted against it on the Governors’ I-5 TF ten years ago.
    Ron, help me out…are more family wage jobs on Swan Island “screwed up?” or was it subsidized transit? or $5 gas?
    Last, we don’t want everyone to ride transit, just about 20% will do fine. Transfers are not toxic with enough service frequency.

  46. nick theoldurbanist
    March 5, 2013 at 10:26 am Link

    More than one transfer per trip is toxic.

  47. Erik H.
    March 6, 2013 at 7:34 am Link

    While overall a good analysis, it relies on TriMet’s own management decision to inflate the cost of bus service, while artificially keeping the cost of MAX low:

    * TriMet has (admittedly!) disinvested in the bus fleet by cancelling orders for new buses, while keeping older buses in service far longer than they should be. This has resulted in TriMet spending far more money on maintenance and fuel; it has also discouraged ridership as riders do not want to put up with unreliable service. Thus, operating cost up, revenue down.

    * TriMet puts more bus maintenance expense as an “operating expense” – while many similar MAX maintenance expenses are treated as “capital” – thus, the bus operating cost goes up, while MAX operating cost goes down – many MAX maintenance functions are excluded from the operating budget

    * TriMet does not allocate the cost of bond repayment (which is an operating cost) to MAX exclusively. Because it’s a “system administrative cost”, bus riders get stuck with paying this MAX specific cost.

    * It has been reported that the cost of park-and-ride facilities has been fully allocated to the bus system, even though the vast majority of the park-and-ride usage is tied to MAX.

    * A number of bus lines were begun (especially in 1998) specifically as MAX shuttles – yet these lines’ costs are rolled into the bus system rather than separately. Thus, a number of low performing bus lines that are tied to MAX make the bus system look worse. These lines (such as the 53s) should be broken out separately and accounted for in a distinct category.

    * Some of TriMet’s administrative costs, such as I.T., Marketing and Capital Projects, are allocated to bus operating. They should be excluded from the bus system, unless it can be proven that the bus system receives a benefit. When’s the last time TriMet ever put out an ad advertising bus service? It’s been a VERY long time (if I recall, 1997 – the “Jerry” claymation commercial.)

    * TriMet engaged in a risky – and losing – fuel hedge, costing the agency millions in additional and unnecessary bus operating expenses.

    What is needed is a true audit, going back to at least 1997, to determine how much money TriMet has lost as a result of these poor management decisions. One can even argue that the current labor situation is also a poor management decision. And then hold those accountable for their poor decisions – TriMet’s riders – and especially the bus riders – should not be held hostage as TriMet continues to engage in its blatant bus-hater attitude and shift costs to make its desired mode of transport seem more financially stable than it really is. If MAX is so stable, then NONE of the service cuts that have occurred since 2000 should have happened – OR, the service cuts should have just as much applied to MAX, and the Green Line, MAX, and the blatantly unfair City of Portland Streetcar should have been eliminated in their entirety. If we can’t afford new bus lines, we can’t afford new MAX lines – because revenues don’t go up when a MAX line opens for business. That operating cost comes from somewhere, and it’s been a disproportional cut in bus service.

  48. Charlie
    March 7, 2013 at 6:17 pm Link

    Thank you for this post, this is very informative.

    And… while I appreciate that there are a lot of subtleties that make direct comparison difficult, based on this it really seems like MAX is just straight up better than busses, at least when it comes to operating cost on busy routes. Sure, the busses are cheaper per-vehicle, but who cares about that? We want to move *people*, not vehicles. And what really pops out at me is the trend- it seems like every year, max gets more cost-efficient and the busses get more expensive, probably because of vehicle aging and increasing fuel costs.

    I think Portland should be planning to slowly convert every BUSY route to some sort of rail, either max or streetcar. Save the busses for the marginal or temporary routes.

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