TriMet and the Trust Gap Part 3: The Planning Role

Today, TriMet held an informal planning session, at which point it was announced that in order to fund MLR, an additional $20 million of operating revenue may be needed to build Milwaukie MAX, as reported by Michael at A key word is “may”.

This column address a broader issue; that of TriMet’s role in planning.

In short: Is the tail wagging the dog?

Originally, Part 3 on this series was going to be all about TriMet’s finances–but that subject will now appear in Part 4, which won’t likely appear until after the election.   As Chris notes, today TriMet held an informal planning session, at which point it was announced that in order to fund MLR, an additional $20 million of operating revenue may be needed to build Milwaukie MAX, as reported by Michael at A key word is “may”.

Comments on the merits of this particular decision should go on Chris’s thread. This column address a broader issue; that of TriMet’s role in planning.

In short: Is the tail wagging the dog?

Planning and policy

There are many facets of planning; some of which are clearly within TriMet’s scope and area of expertise:

  • Tactical and operations planning. Things like making preparing detailed schedules, for both regular operations and special events.
  • Detailed design input.  Assisting policymakers with the technical details necessary to make informed decisions on strategy.

But there’s a whole other part of the planning process–strategic planning, where TriMet is intimately involved–but may well be, to quote President Obama, above the agency’s proverbial pay grade.  Things like:

  • Infrastructure planning.  Budgeting, financing, route-planning, and design of major new infrastructure projects, including (but not limited to) transit lines.
  • Service allocation.  Determining, in a limited-revenue environment, where and how to allocate resources.

Now TriMet, as part of its technical expertise, ought to be a major contributor to both of these.  But it ought to own neither of these–in my mind, these are policy decisions which ought to be made by policymakers, not by a transit agency; especially one whose board is appointed in Salem, as opposed to reporting (directly or indirectly) to Metro-area voters.

Of course, TriMet doesn’t do these things all alone, and as Lenny Anderson noted in an earlier thread, TriMet gets blamed for a lot of decisions which are made by Metro or by JPACT (the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation). However, today’s meeting didn’t involve Metro or city or county leaders–it was the TriMet board and staff.  And the decision as to whether or not this money should be diverted from transit operations to the capital budget is a decision which ought to, in my mind, be made by policymakers; not TriMet. 

In short, elected officials in Metro and the city and county governments are the ones who ought to be making this decision.  It’s a, after all, a policy decision.  (And perhaps the relevant policy decision has already been made, and the directions issued to TriMet are that MLR takes priority over everything else). 

But either way, the decision ought to be owned by all the region’s leaders–who ought to take responsibility for it.  If the City of Portland, Metro, the counties, and the other players in the region can’t publicly endorse the tradeoff of service cuts for MAX construction, then they ought to find a plan that they can endorse and implement.

Who should run the projects?

A related issue is that of project management.  Clearly-defined roles and responsibilities are important, as is having project leadership that is competent to the task at hand.  If you don’t have this, you have chaos–the Columbia River Crossing is a fine example.

When the first MAX line was being planned, one big question facing leaders was: who would build and run it?  TriMet, which had only existed for a decade or so at the time, was generally regarded as a bus company and nothing more–an organization which was good at driving, maintaining, and dispatching busses, but which had little experience with capital projects, and none with rail.  Yet the decision was made for TriMet to own the line; and nowadays the agency has extensive experience in capital project management and rail operations.  As such, its role has grown.

Projects (successful ones) go through several phases–planning, design, construction, and operations.  MLR is nearly exiting the design phase; the first shovel of dirt is scheduled to be turned next year.  Metro generally oversees planning activities, but for transit projects, TriMet essentially “takes over” when the design phase starts.  And in some ways, this makes sense–the agency is the repository of Portland’s experience in running these projects.

But there is one caveat.  In the design phase, many policy-based decisions must be made.  This is the phase where funding is secured, NEPA documents (DEIS, EIS) are prepared and reviewed, the necessary research is done, and the project engineering commences.  In this phase, things like budget and scope are still very much in flux, and as we all have found out (and TriMet should have known better), things happen to affect what can be delivered.  Managing issues at this point still requires a great deal of policy decisions to be made.  While TriMet staff are the best qualified to carry out the design activities (those that aren’t contracted out to other design professionals), a good argument can be made that at this point in the project, Metro might be a better agency to act as overseer. 

In particular, Metro is better situated–and has the better policy perspective–to arrange for funding.


What do PT readers think?  Should TriMet’s role in strategic and policy matters be reduced, allowing the agency to focus on operations?  Is the present arrangement satisfactory?  Or–to play devil’s advocate–should TriMet’s role in transit planning increase (and Metro’s role reduced to long-range strategy and inter-modal decisions)?  Where should the line be drawn–what level of service change ought to require consideration by agencies other than TriMet?  Would your opinion change if TriMet’s board was locally elected, rather than appointed by the Governor?

11 responses to “TriMet and the Trust Gap Part 3: The Planning Role”

  1. Please bear with this; there is a relevant point.

    I’m convinced that Metro staff and/or contractors crossed the line into criminal fraud with their projections for the Lake Oswego streetcar extension. I believe that they massaged Metro’s forecasting model, or approached it in such a way as to assure that projected demand for Hwy 43 VMT & VHT, bus and streetcar ridership, and bus trip times would all be goosed up. Specifically, they developed a definition of the project study area which included the large fast-growing area between the Tualatin and Willamette Rivers which has almost nothing to do with Hwy 43 traffic while excluding almost everything east of the Sellwood Bridge which accounts for about 70% of all Hwy 43 trips but is very slow-growing. I’ve posted about this before and also repeatedly asked Metro to audit their projection development process. You can imagine the reception that a Lake Oswego lunatic got for that.

    TriMet may have been involved with projection fraud with the 24 minute trip time PSU to LOTC forecast for streetcar given in the Alternatives Analysis in July 2007. It’s been corrected to a much more realistic 29 to 33 minutes, depending on alignment. However, it did its job of giving the steering committee cover for knocking out both a Milwaukie MAX extension to LO and the BRT alternative; either of which would have been faster, cheaper, and more convenient than streetcar.

    While it isn’t fraud, the project team’s pathetic excuse for “enhanced bus” shows an incredible lack of understanding or even disdain for transit users’ needs while blatantly rigging the process to favor streetcar. This is more than understandable given the extremely strong pro-streetcar signals put out by the project Steering Committee et al and the job security that comes with continued development of streetcar. It’s understandable, but not right. The scary part is that streetcar opponents on the project Citizens Advisory Committee have latched onto “enhanced bus” as a realistic alternative. CAC streetcar opponents are mostly greater Dunthorpe area residents who aren’t regular transit users.

    [For those who may be interested, project “enhanced bus” now means: eliminating all single-seat route 36 service to Portland, building a 300-space congestion magnet in LO, eliminating half the stops between LO and SOWA {making it impossible for some Dunthorpe area residents to safely walk to a bus stop}, and changing the alignment from the transit mall to 10th & 11th in Portland. In other words, the team simply had “enhanced bus” copy streetcar instead of trying to find ways to serve users. The result is that, for most riders, trips on it would take even longer and be less convenient than with so-called “no-build” which includes eventual upgrade to frequent service.]

    The point of all this is that Metro has its own failings and cannot be expected to eliminate all the problems associated with TriMet planning without adding new ones of its own. Since TriMet is the operating agency and since it’s the one who’s logo is in the collective face of the public, it should have maximum planning responsibility and authority for transit specifics.

    I believe that making TriMet’s Board accountable to area residents is long overdue, but that action will not in itself solve the problems mentioned in Scotty’s post.

  2. I disagree, Scotty.

    Yes, it’s a policy decision, but that doesn’t automatically mean TriMet can’t or shouldn’t be making it. Handing it to a different body is absolutelt the wrong decision, in that it hobbles TriMet. Whats the point of even having the agency as a separate entity at all, then? It’s routine that an agenvy should set its own policy.

    To put it another way, the problem you’ve identified here is a lack of accountability on policy matters, but the solution — hobble the organization by farming out even more of its functions — is wrong. It’s similar to when political movements fail to gain traction at a state level and so go to Congress to do an end-run.

    The logical and organizationally healthy solution is to change TriMet to include more citizen voices and/or accountability.

  3. No question but all regional partners…Metro, Clackamas county, Cities of Milwaukie and Portland…support the Milwaukie MAX. Most have contributed local match and recently increased that match. All stand for election from time to time. TriMet has the capacity, due to the state legislature, to raise a bit more to close the deal. Failing to do so would betray the policy direction from its regional partners.
    re Lake Oswego, “fraud” is a serious charge…get a lawyer or keep it to yourself. Metro has a good track record on travel forecost, DEIS work, etc. Poor losers are tiring.

  4. I stand behind my words.

    I have no desire to see any Metro staffers or contractors doing a ‘perp-walk’ on the 11 o’clock for doing nothing but coming up years ago with an overly creative way of telling our political leaders and streetcar backers what they wanted to hear. There would be no concern if Metro would come forward with actual evidence beyond projections, assumptions, conclusions, etc that would explain why its forecasting model would be correct in projecting that Hwy 43 corridor bus ridership demand will increase at a rate four times greater than that for all of TriMet.

    If Johns Landing, Lake Oswego & West Linn weren’t growing at a slower rate than the region as a whole; If LO & WL didn’t have populations with the oldest average age [about 42] and the highest per capita income of all area cities with over 20,000 residents; if the homes in those two cities didn’t have the highest values in the area making it difficult for young families to move in; if there was lots of available land already zoned for major development anywhere near the streetcar alignment; if long term corridor bus ridership, bus trip times, and ODOT traffic counts weren’t all flat to declining; if Metro’s traffic shed map wasn’t blatantly false and deceptive for the reasons described in the earlier post; if these things weren’t true then there wouldn’t be reason to consider the possibility of fraud.

    None of this gets into the actual harm done by the project to transit users, pedestrians, cyclists, park users, etc. Those are for another discussion. This is only about the chasm between reality along this specific corridor and Metro’s projections, and how that relates to the way we allocate transit planning responsibility.

  5. Nothing will be spared in order to get the church of light rail more land under its dominion.

    As far as I am concerned, this light rail fixation has gone beyond “public policy” and is now a “religious cult”.

  6. Al: church of light rail

    Al, this sort of argument isn’t helpful or enlightening. Nobody here talks about the “church of bus” or of “busfans”, or any other such pejorative rhetoric which implies that bus-only advocates lack rational grounds for their position.

    Nobody here that I can think of “worships” light rail–those of us who support it have reasons for doing so, and believe that it will produce better transit outcomes when used appropriately.

    And I can’t think of any rail supporters in this forum who aren’t also bus supporters.

  7. The “problem” in this corridor is that the public owns a right of way that could be dedicated to transit. Transit ROWs are very costly to build and acquire, and it will be very tough for the elected governments that co-own the old SP line to LO to walk away from it. BRT without its own ROW is totally bogus.
    re Church of Rail…etc. “Quality” boils down in many respects to “reduced variability,” and that is a feature that light rail offers over bus transit. It has its own ROW, can be counted on to show up and arrive on time, has a smooth ride, etc. (so what happened to the 10 AM Yellow Line MAX to City Center at the Prescott Sta on Friday?!?)
    Anyway, the variability or lack of quality we experience on bus transit is due in part to the variability of service provided by bus operators…some are great, some totally suck, so are on time, some could care less. How can we reduce this variability in driving style, people skills, moods even? Al? care to weigh in?
    PS I am probably the only person on this blog who has had a hand is starting three bus lines in this region, “rail fan” than I am. You got to have both!

  8. What were “totally bogus” were the official projections for BRT, auto, and streetcar trip times in the project Alternatives Analysis. {The AA Evaluation Summary, Public Review Draft is available from Metro at }

    The Analysis had relative times between PSU and LO in 2025 at:
    Auto: 28 minutes
    No-build bus: 42 minutes
    BRT: 33 minutes
    Streetcar: 24 minutes

    It didn’t say so, but the times given were projected for the slowest trips of the day, not the average trip.

    Now the official word from the Summer 2010 “Answers to Frequently Asked Questions” {available from Metro at } for 2035 (10 years later) is:
    No-build bus: 42 minutes
    Streetcar: 29 to 33 minutes, depending on alignment.

    In a separate flyer, “Quick Answers to your Project Questions {also available from Metro at the same webpage}, auto trips are still projected at 28 minutes, in line with the same no-build time.

    Points are these:
    1. The original streetcar projection, which was based on a WSL alignment, was, shall we say(?), overly optimistic. It assumed that streetcar would perform as well on the extension as MAX on some of its exclusive alignment sections, averaging over 24 mph even though streetcar has a much lower maximum operating speed and higher stop density. It also assumed that the existing streetcar PSU to Lowell trip time would drop to 10 minutes. The latter would not have been unreasonable except that streetcar will lose its exclusive ROW parallel to Moody.

    2. While we don’t have updated projections for BRT, those for no-build and auto did not change between 2025 and 2035. In the real world, bus trip times have been dropping for the better part of the last decade, and ODOT traffic counts are down over the period from 1993. Even with the southbound alignment change to serve SOWA, which added about four minutes to the slowest trips, peak trip time is still only 29 minutes [the same as reported in the flyer for 2005], and the average is 22 minutes. The realities for the cities involved do not by any stretch of the imagination justify the official projected road vehicle trip times.

    3. Since the WSL alignment is a non-starter for Johns Landing residents and businesses, the smart money is on the 33 minute Macadam alignment. This means that every run on streetcar will take as long as the slowest on BRT without the convenience of a Portland Transit Mall alignment, Lake Oswego Transit Center stop, or the possibility of allowing BRT to continue as regular buses, providing single seat service to West Linn, Oregon City, and South Shore/Lake Grove.

    All that aside, I think that BRT was overkill and an expensive & unnecessary disruption to Macadam and adjacent residents and businesses. A simple Express Bus with not more than three stops between PSU and LO (the aerial tram, somewhere in the Boundary/Pendleton area, and possibly one at the south end of Johns Landing) would be faster than BRT or streetcar in commute hours indefinitely. The regular bus would remain faster, cheaper, and more convenient than streetcar outside of commute hours for many decades if not forever.

    Finally, regarding public ownership of the ROW: When Metro did a public survey on this project several years ago, the most popular transportation alternative desired by respondents was a trail between LO and Johns Landing. The trail has now been given official separate and unequal status, but does or shortly will have $100,000 for study. [This is money that was originally to be used for studying a LO to Milwaukie trail using SP’s bridge.]

    Before everyone gets into a thing, we do have actual fee-simple and other types of ownership of sections of the ROW besides “rail use only” easements. We would still have to buy considerable real estate for any non-ROW trail. David Jorling, vice Chair of the project CAC, very pro-streetcar candidate for LO’s City Council, and a lawyer, offered his opinion at the last CAC meeting that there was legal precedent for rail-to-trail conversions on restricted easements. Whether that would apply locally would be subject to a lot of research and very likely litigation.

    The point is that there is a very good public use for at least parts of the ROW other than the expensive service degradation brought about by replacing our current bus service with an inconvenient streetcar. People are dying because we do not have a safe, direct, and reasonably level pedestrian/cyclist route. According to the AA Evaluation Summary, the cost of providing a trail jumps from $7 million to over $58 million if we build the streetcar extension. We don’t even know where the first $7 million would be coming from.

  9. What about ridership projections? For years I have heard “I love MAX, but will never ride a bus.” Maybe the market demands rail if you want to attract new riders, which is essential.
    Why not a heavier duty Streetcar that can operate on the Mall and at higher speeds and with more capacity? Again, operators are the “cost centers” of transit service.
    Express buses miss all those trips that start and stop in between; hence are very inefficient.
    Keeping to the WSL alignment in Johns Landing would be preferable…buy out condo owners and resell units as affordable housing. The rail line was there when current owners bought…what did they expect?
    Last, I have never read of bus lines sparking any kind of redevelopment, but new rail lines seem to do it very often. The transformation along Streetcar between NW 23 and PSU is pretty amazing, and I can see why LO officials want to see this happen.

  10. Given the constraints that the LO Streetcar has been placed under (especially the need to operate in mixed traffic down Macadam, which eliminates the main speed advantage it has over bus), I consider the project as specified to be a dubious venture.

    The MOS down to Nevada, or possibly to and across the rebuilt Sellwood Bridge? That might make sense, though I consider it (politically) a “Streetcar” project and not a regional transit project–in other words, it ought to be financed in a similar fashion to current Streetcar lines, as opposed to with regional transit dollars.

    But I’m not sure charges of “fraud” are correct, especially without evidence that information is being fabricated or withheld. Certainly, new data has come in which makes the project look a lot less viable than it did in the past.

    At any rate, the DEIS for this is due any time now. Should be interesting.

  11. Let’s take these one by one.

    The problem with official ridership projections is that they have absolutely nothing to do with reality. Routes 35 & 36 ridership in the area which would be served by the streetcar extension (i.e. LOTC through Macadam & Hamilton) peaked in Fall 2008 at about 2002 weekday boarding rides with the motor fuel price spike. It’s been dropping every semi-annual Ridership Census since and is now at about 1754, a level lower than at the turn of the century.

    Fundamental societal factors also do not support rapid ridership growth. Lake Oswego & West Linn populations are older, wealthier, and have more expensive homes than the residents of any other city in the Metro area with populations over 20,000. These cities and Johns Landing are growing more slowly than the Metro area as a whole. So why should they generate no-build ridership growth levels four times that of TriMet as a whole? It really makes no sense.

    Available hard data from all levels of government support the stable growth scenario. Whether it’s Census Bureau, ODOT, TriMet, school district enrollments, Lake Oswego’s community survey, or whatever, the result keeps coming back as stability and low transportation demand growth.

    There’s no argument with the idea that some folks absolutely will not ride bus. The concern is that there are a lot of current riders who will not put up with the additional 30 to 45 minutes which will be added on to their daily commutes after streetcar replaces the reasonably good but imperfect bus service that we now have. The streetcar project team has officially written off Oregon city (because of MLR) which now supplies over 200 daily riders on the 35 [a significant number of whom get off the bus before it enters the corridor]. Project forecasts now show ten Oregon City riders using streetcar, according to materials handed out at the October CAC but not available on-line. For each daily West Linn or LO commuter who gives up on transit because of the extra time or inconvenience brought about by streetcar, we would need at least 200 once-in-a-blue-moon riders who only use the service when Aunt Mary pays a visit.

    A Portland Mall alignment would make a significant difference, but is not the be-all for all riders. For example, the most efficient transfers from the 35 to northbound Yellow or eastbound RBG MAX lines is at the Rose Quarter/Interstate TC, not downtown. Streetcar cannot ever give the advantage that bus has in this area, unless it were to go underground. The Mall alignment is not part of the package, anyway.

    Express buses are relatively expensive because they go long distances using a fair amount of time without a lot of passenger turnover. The 72, for example, has a lot of people getting on and off throughout its long run, but almost no rider getting on at one end and riding it to the other. The southbound 99, on the other hand, picks up 208 riders in downtown Portland but only 71 throughout the rest of its run, mostly at the Milwaukie and Oregon City TC’s. So express buses can be relatively full but have low boarding ride per hour stats. Still, when capital costs are included, express buses can be more efficient than rail or BRT.

    It’s not just the condo owners who want the streetcar alignment on Macadam. Macadam Avenue business owners visualizing serious capital gains may well have more influence in moving the rails westward.

    Ah, redevelopment. We here in LO are not all completely sold on trying to shoehorn the maximum possible number of housing units into the roughly 100 acres tentatively available in Foothills. Some are worried about taxes going in to subsidize the project. My primary concern is traffic congestion. We only have one north/south street downtown: State Street (Hwy 43). Every vehicle going into Foothills will have to use and increase congestion on 43. There is no other option or even a reasonable possibility for an alternative. Streetcar boosters seem to postulate that since we’d be providing that service that there wouldn’t be much need for Foothills residents to use their cars. The experience at Orenco Station strongly argues otherwise. Even if new residents come in with the idea of minimal private auto use, the realities of life in LO and individual needs won’t always support that.

    Now for Scotty’s comments:

    I too would accept the MOS as a reasonable alternative as long as there were NO FORCED TRANSFERS. It would make corridor bus service de facto expresses as at least some Johns Landing riders would be using streetcar. It would also allow full flexibility on the trail. The main concern would be that the operating costs would be about the same as the full streetcar extension. TriMet would still have no choice but to pass on those added costs to riders through service reductions or fare increases.

    The fraud charges are based on the combination of the preponderance of official data which strongly argues for stability in the corridor; the chasm between reality and project forecasts; the total lack of evidence put forward by Metro supporting their forecast (FWIW, I’ve been trying since 2007 to get Metro to furnish something that would explain how they got their numbers); and the existence of Metro’s project area traffic shed map which is patently false and deceptive. It’s the last of these which forces the criminally fraudulent belief. I just cannot imagine a realistic scenario where that definition of the study area could have been developed by any other means.

    The DEIS is due in about 2 1/2 weeks.

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