My Reactions to the TriMet GM Appointment

I’m getting quoted in snippets in the media, so I thought it would be useful to express my full thoughts on the appointment of Neil McFarlane as TriMet General Manager.

First, my congratulations to Neil. I’ve had the chance to work with him on the board of Portland Streetcar, Inc. He is a talented administrator and great partner. Much of the credit for the successful delivery of TriMet capital projects in the last decade is directly the result of his leadership. I have no doubt that he will be a capable and conscientious steward of TriMet in the coming years and I look forward to working with him.

You probably hear a “but” coming. As I implied in earlier posts, I’m disappointed that the selection process was completely opaque and had no opportunity for public involvement. This is further demonstration that the current board appointment process by the Governor and State Senate effectively insulates TriMet from any accountability to the local community.

In any hiring decision at this level, the critical question is probably not the qualification of the individual (and Neil is highly qualified), but their professional focus. Neil is a rail builder, and absent any other indication that signals that TriMet’s agenda for the foreseeable future is the expansion of the Light Rail network. For those of us concerned that the focus on and pace of rail expansion is choking off the bus network, this is a worry.

I think TriMet could legitimately have gone in three directions:

  • As they appear to have done, focus on continuing the rail agenda.
  • Seek someone with experience running a more balanced expansion program for both bus and rail.
  • Seek someone who sees transit as a tool to shape the community (to some degree Fred was a choice in this direction). It’s possible that Neil may have some instincts in this direction.

My complaint is not that TriMet made the wrong choice of direction, but that the process did not allow any community discussion of the direction.

An opportunity missed.


28 responses to “My Reactions to the TriMet GM Appointment”

  1. I completely agree. I have absolutely no problems with rail, or even expansion of rail service. I *do* have a problem when that expansion of rail service is at the expense of existing bus service.

    I find it concerning that the planned Milwaukie/Orange Line MAX route runs along nearly the same route as the #70 bus, which due to low ridership had service trimmed in the previous round of cuts and is up for 2-10 minute service reductions in this round of cuts. MAX is great for replacing buses that are packed since one train moves more people than one bus. But what is the point of replacing a low-ridership bus with a train?

    There doesn’t seem to be nearly enough emphasis on the sustainability of existing service, and too much emphasis on the expansion of service. Future planning is important, yes, but I’m hardly impressed by running a train to Milwaukie instead of a bus and calling that “expansion” when there are gaping holes in service on the west side (particularly on weekends). Can we “expand” bus service back to those areas at some point?

  2. I’m more than willing to give the guy a chance. Just because he’s been successful with rail expansion doesn’t mean he’s necessarily blind to all the degradation in service and loss of trust by much of the public.

    My main concern is that he won’t have the political clout to stand up to puffed up politicos with their WES’s and Lake Oswego streetcar extensions. The last thing we need is another Ado Annie.

  3. Here’s a question: Obviously, he’s been a rail builder for the past decade-plus. That’s been his job; that’s what TriMet hired him for–to oversee the construction of the MAX expansion. And as you note, he did this job well–the rail projects he oversaw were on time and on budget.

    But now that he has a different job description–operation of a transit agency which includes substantial bus operations–do you think he has the the professional capacity to switch focus to that? Some people handle the transition from a focused management position to a general administrative position (where the job becomes overseeing the entire forest, not just a particular tree); others do not.

    If he has the capacity to switch gears in this fashion, and is as otherwise talented as you suggest, he should do fine.

  4. “I find it concerning that the planned Milwaukie/Orange Line MAX route runs along nearly the same route as the #70 bus,”

    The Max line goes downtown, the #70 doesn’t go there at all. The Max mostly replaces the #33 which connects the Milwaukie transit center to downtown.

    “If he has the capacity to switch gears in this fashion, and is as otherwise talented as you suggest, he should do fine. ”

    I think that is exactly right. I also think there are plans for continued rail expansion with the choices a lot less easy than they have been. His rail experience will actually be helpful in getting those choices right. Its a good idea to have someone in the leadership role who really understands the details of what worked and what didn’t.

  5. Transit shouldn’t be used to “shape a community.” Getting Trimet out of the development business would be one of the best things this new GM could do.

    Transit should be used to move people; as quick and efficiently as possible. Thats it. No more mission creep!

  6. Transit shouldn’t be used to “shape a community.” Getting Trimet out of the development business would be one of the best things this new GM could do.

    Transit should be used to move people; as quick and efficiently as possible. Thats it. No more mission creep!

    ~~~>What he said and I like your comments Chris.

  7. When TriMet is funded by a payroll tax, you get two problems:

    1) Those who pay the tax–businesses–gain additional influence over its operations.

    2) Regions with especially strong payroll concentrations can demand levels of service that their transit patronage or land use might not otherwise justify–or in the case of Wilsonville, leave altogether.

  8. Actually, I had forgotten he was involved with WES. OTOH, the entire project was a questionable idea. It wasn’t a failure of execution; it was a failure because the project should have been executed.

  9. Well maybe with new blood we can change some of the old bad habits at the agency.
    For one why not change to a FLAT FARE ONE PASS system. I have sent this idea to the papers in town and none of them have had the guts to pick it up and try to force some change by starting a grass roots movement.
    This is how I would set up the fare system:
    1. Flat fare 1.00 or whatever
    2. One pass for everyone at a lower cost
    3.NO ZONES no more confusion of what they are and where they begin and end
    4.Honored citizens only get passes by mail with automatic withdrawl or in person with picture I.D. and only after getting checked by a doctor who will certify they are really disabled.
    5. Trash the scratch off pass.
    If they had the back bone to do this or public opinion made them change their system guess what would happen:
    You would stop 90% of fare evasion because now you either PAY THE FARE OR HAVE THE BUS PASS AND YOU GET NO TRANSFERS.
    Doing this takes away peoples ability to use bad transfers and bad Max tickets. It also gets rid of the nice drivers who give EVERYBODY ALL ZONE TRANSFERS FOR 3 OR 4 HOURS OR MORE! When they have to buy another ticket each time maybe there will be more revenue in the bank and fewer fare increases.
    Who wouldn’t agree that most of the problem is there is no enforcement of the fare system. The company won’t make a stand and the drivers can’t do anything for fear of being assaulted or treated like they are wrong for confronting the problem.

  10. I worked with Neil over a decade ago on the Westside Project. He seemed to me then to be one of the brightest stars in the agency, as well as a level-headed guy who seemed to be a real straight shooter. I think he’s probably a great choice to lead the agency.

    That being said, I agree with Chris that there may be some wisdom in taking a second look at how the Tri-Met Board is chosen…

  11. JK, that is very misleading. Early projections (before any engineering work is even complete to determine whether a tunnel is feasible) are NOT budgets.

    The approved (by whatever formal body) budget at the time of breaking ground or near-complete engineering is what is used to determine whether a project is “on budget”.

    Your quoted article is from TWO YEARS prior to people even voting on the bond measure. It is from 4.5 YEARS before they even broke ground. Come on.

    Put simply: If I hire a contractor to redo my kitchen, and I speculate out loud that I think the remodel will cost $10,000, but after having several bids come in and even paying an independent architect to have a look at things, find out it will cost $25,000, and then I say “OK, proceed” to a contractor, and the final bill is $24,333, then the project is NOT “over budget”.

    As for “on time”, there’s some room for opinion on that one. The initial segment was late, but the entire completed line opened on time.

    But if my fictional kitchen contractor says “you’ll have plumbing ready in three weeks and all the finish carpentry and everything else done in six”, and it turns out that the plumbing is late but the entire kitchen is indeed done in six weeks, it is not wrong for me to summarize the project as being “on budget and on time”.

  12. “Transit shouldn’t be used to “shape a community.”

    The connections between land use and transportation are very strong. All transportation infrastructure shapes communities whether it “should” or not. You can’t ignore that. You have to consider how it will shape the community when you make decisions.

  13. Characterizing Neil and TriMet as exclusively as a rail-builder ignores a key element. Building rail or other high-capacity transit is how you get federal money to expand the system. Expanding the system is good for ridership overall. In this context Neil/TriMet have simply done what’s most effective for the system.

    If Portland’s approach hasn’t been the most successful in the country, someone please explain to me how we’re #6 in ridership per capita (after NY, SF, DC, Boston, and Chicago), when we’re far smaller and less dense than any of those.
    Census BTS link here

  14. JK: Bob,
    There are different uses for estimates.

    Which was used to sell it to the people?
    Which was used to sell it to the decision makers?

    What was in the contracts?

    A nice clear example of this is the Banfield MAX, where the federal official based his claim of being over budget on the first filing made with the feds:

    The Oregonian, December 29, 1989:
    The mass transportation agency drew its conclusion on rail systems in a recently released study titled “Urban Rail Transit Projects: Forecast Vs. Actual Ridership and Costs.”

    The study concludes that in 10 urban rail projects the costs of construction and operation were underestimated and the number of riders was overestimated at the time local authorities made the decision to build rail projects. Those erroneous estimates created a bias in favor of rail projects, the study concluded.

    However, Tri-Met officials said that the agency drastically revised downward ridership projections in 1985 before the light-rail system opened and that since then ridership has exceeded Tri-Met’s more conservative projection. They also said that the original projections were based on the forecast that MAX would open in 1983, when in fact it opened in 1986.
    He said Tri-Met pointed this out to Pickrell, but the researcher said in his study he wanted to use the figures available to the agencies when they decided to build rail projects. Pickrell could not be reached Thursday to comment on his methods.

    He appeared to have compared the estimate used for the decision to build with the actual cost and found a big over-run. Obviously a Trimet estimate made after the contracts are let will be better, but useless for planning since the decision was already made on the false estimate.

    You can download the whole report from (1/3 way down left column)


  15. JK, we were talking about the Westside project, and your own newspaper articles show that the publicly stated costs back at the start of construction are well in the ballpark of the completed costs. So your inference that there is some kind of deception to “sell” the public in that case is also wrong.

  16. Hopefully he has learned the folly of toy trains as serious transportation.

    As far as I know, there is not a city or transit agency anywhere on earth that has even contemplated using toy trains for transportation. Since nobody has ever tried it — or even discussed it — it wouldn’t be possible for anyone to “learn” the folly of it.

  17. Bob R. Says: JK, we were talking about the Westside project, and your own newspaper articles show that the publicly stated costs back at the start of construction are well in the ballpark of the completed costs.
    JK: We are not talking about the start of construction. We are talking of the estimates that were used to sell the original project to the politicians and the people. Here is what Pickrell said about this sort of thing, using the Banfield MAX as an example:
    Although different forecasts were prepared at varying stages during the planning process for many of the projects examined, this study focuses upon the accuracy of projections that were available to local decision-makers at the time the choice among alternative transit improvement projects was actually made .’ In the context of the present planning process, this refers to forecasts prepared as part of the Alternatives Analysis stage . The major published product of this stage typically is a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that compares forecast cost and ridership, as well as environmental, community, and other projected impacts, for a variety of alternative transit improvement projects .3

    Forecasts of ridership and costs for a specific project that were prepared after it was designated as the locally preferred alternative are frequently-cited in public discussions and press accounts . Not surprisingly, these post-decision forecasts often have proven to be more accurate than those available to decision-makers when multiple alternatives were still under consideration . This is due both to the shorter time span between preparation of the forecasts and the future date to which they applied (sometimes as short as a few months), and to the greater scrutiny afforded a single alternative after it was designated as the locally preferred one . However, because such forecasts cannot have influenced the choice of a preferred project from among competing alternatives, their accuracy is not a focus of this study.

    As an illustration, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement prepared for Portland ‘ s Banfield corridor was released in March . 1978 . providing a detailed comparison of ridership . capital and operating costs, and other projected impacts for eleven alternative transit improvements in the corridor. By November of that year . each of the four responsible local jurisdictions had voted unanimously to select light rail transit in the Banfield/Burnside Street alignment as its preferred alternative .`’ As indicated in the subsequent Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) prepared for the project . “Data contained in the DEIS . . .provided the basis for selection of the preferred alternative by the jurisdictions .”[emphasis addedi5

    By the August, 1980 release of the FEIS, however, the estimated construction cost for the transit elements of the joint transit-highway project had increased from the original $172 million to $210 million (both estimates are expressed in 1988 dollars to eliminate the effect of inflation between their publication dates), or by 22% from the forecast on which the responsible local jurisdictions had based their selections . At the same time, the forecast of annual operating expenses for the project had been raised from $3 .8 million to $7 .0 million (both figures are again expressed in 1988 dollars), or by 84% while projected ridership had been revised downward from 42,500 to 30 .800 daily passengers, a reduction of 28% from the level on which decision-makers representing each of the four local jurisdictions had previously acted . Further, the forecast of ridership was subsequently revised downward to 18,100 daily passengers.

    Although each of these revised forecasts ultimately proved to be more accurate than that on the basis of which the light rail project was selected, their publication occurred too late in time to cause local decision-makers to seriously reconsider their choices …..

    Costs matter.


  18. Costs matter.

    So do timelines.

    So do the definitions of basic terms, such as “early estimate” and “budget”.

    Once again you’re posting stuff that happened years before a final estimate was nailed down. It is absolutely not surprising that numbers change as plans are refined and more information is known.

    Your original, false assertion was about the westside project being “over-budget”.


  19. Bob,
    It is the “early estimates”, which are used for the build decision, that matter. That is Pickrell’s whole point. Estimates made after the decision to build has been made are just curiosities as far as the politics go.

    Late estimates, however, are useful to judge the build process management.


  20. Finally, at last, you’re using the word “estimate”.

    If you want to characterize a project as costing “more than early estimates”, that’s fine. But you’re entirely wrong to say “over budget” when there was a set and approved budget prior to a project breaking ground.

    Words mean things. You don’t get to redefine words to suit your own agenda. Not here anyway.

    A lot of numbers have been tossed around regarding the CRC, for example. Not a shovel has been turned. Which of these numbers are you going to hold the CRC team to, as far as a “budget” is concerned? You can’t. Because they’re estimates. When someone finally says “this is the plan, we’re going forward with it, and this is what it will cost”, then you get to call it a “budget”.

    An example of something recent which _did_ go _way_ over budget was the Aerial Tram. Agencies had approved funds, contractors were already doing construction, and the costs kept going up and up, beyond contingencies. There was plenty of press about it, and plenty of talk about the possibility of cancellation.

    That’s what happens when projects go “over budget”. The westside light rail line did not.

  21. There was concern about the Westside Line when tunneling difficulties arose, and someone wrote a work of fiction (can’t remember which one) which included scenes in Washington County, in which the westside MAX was abandoned during construction (unbuilt facilities along the line were involved in the story).

    Obviously, westside MAX did open, however.

    Another recent–and ongoing–project which has gone way over budget, the cancellation of which was discussed–is the US 20 rebuild east of Newport. That project was done as a “design-build” (a single firm performs the engineering and construction)–which is arguably more efficient because portions of the phases can be interleaved, rather than necessitating the production of blueprints by the engineers/designers, which can then be built by any competent contractors–the usual way of doing things.

    Except that with design/build; the lack of a hard break between design and build can result in the design part being incomplete; in this case, engineering studies on the terrain didn’t reveal landslide issues–necessitating significant rework, making the project much more expensive than budgeted, and several years late (it was supposed to be done by now).

    Should we stop building roads because some road projects exceed their budgets?

  22. Bob R. Which of these numbers are you going to hold the CRC team to, as far as a “budget” is concerned? You can’t. Because they’re estimates.
    JK: The DEIS numbers because those are the numbers presented to the various local agencies that approved the project.

    And, maybe the earlier numbers because those were used to set the public psychology sympathetic to approval.


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