Part one of OPB’s Think Out Loud program on public transportation, with guest Neil McFarlane, GM of TriMet.
Part 1 (of 2) of a transcript of OPB’s “Think Out Loud” program of November 30, 2010, covering public transportation in Portland, featuring show host Emily Harris, and guest Neil McFarlane, GM of transit. Lots of stuttering and such has been elided, and I probably screwed up somewhere… please feel free to submit corrections.
Text after the jump.
Harris: Hello, I’m Emily Harris. Today on Think Out Loud, “What Do You Want from Public Transportation”.
Harris: When and why do you ride public transit? We asked people in our public insight network that question. Richard Carson of Beaverton says he doesn’t use public transit, because it’s not easily accessible, plus he doesn’t want to wait in the rain, and he finds many drivers and passengers inconsiderate. Cerita [sp?] Rucker takes TriMet five days a week, because she doesn’t have a driver’s license, but the busses don’t run late enough for her to get home after an evening class, so she has to ask a friend for a ride. TriMet is the big player in public transit in Oregon; the Portland metro area agency says people got on a bus, MAX light rail, or Westside Express train almost one hundred million times the last fiscal year. But this month, the agency wasn’t able to win voter support for a bond measure to buy new busses, and to improve bus stops. That means bus improvements will come more slowly. Before the vote, routes were already cut back. But rail is going ahead, with a new MAX line connecting downtown Portland to Milwaukie, and a possible new Rapid Streetcar along the west side of the Willamette River. Where TriMet puts its money is a constant question for riders and taxpayers alike. The agency faces major challenges, budget gaps, enormous employee healthcare costs, drivers who have been working without a contract for more than a year. There is a push to elect the TriMet board; it’s now appointed by Oregon’s governor. What do you want from this public agency with an almost $900 million budget? What do you want from public transit outside the metro area? We’ll check in this hour on a debate in Eugene over building fast bus lanes there. You can join this conversation any time, our number is 1-888-665-5865; our website is opb.org/thinkoutloud.
Starting us off this morning is Neil McFarlane; he’s the General Manager of TriMet. He’s joining us in our studios this morning. Thank you very much for coming in!
Neil McFarlane: Pleased to be here, Emily.
Harris: So, what have you revamped after the bond measure failed?
McFarlane: Well, first of all, just to back up a bit, the bond measure did pass in Multnomah County, so we were pleased for that. Obviously it didn’t pass in Clackamas and Washington counties, so overall it failed by a 52-48 margin, about 26 thousand votes out of a half million cast. I think what we learned is that we, first of all, it was a very busy ballot, and second of all, it’s very hard to get the message out. The bond measure had a very small campaign associated with it, so I think we had a hard time getting the message out…
Harris: The message was, that failed to get out, was what?
McFarlane: Was really that this was aimed at trying to get ahead of the curve, and serving the region’s growing population of elderly and disabled people. We know in the next twenty years, the population of seniors is going to more than double, so how do you serve that growing population that will depend more and more and more on public transportation? That was the message that we were trying to get out, trying to get out. I think that we have, frankly, we have a lot of other controversies that began to sort of swamp that message, including many of the issues that you noted at the outset. We had a Kindle-reading bus driver, you might remember that. We had some safety issues that have put a great deal of attention on.
Harris: The bus driver turning left and killing several people?
McFarlane: Exactly. We had a number of other controversies, including the controversy over our union contract. So I think it was very hard, in what was frankly a rather sour public mood, to get a really positive message across.
Harris: What does this mean, though, in a practical sense, obviously you’re not going to be buying as many busses that people can get on or off more easily, and you’re not going to be improving bus stops as quickly. In five years out, or ten years out, are the improvements going to be made–it’s just going to take longer, or are you going to revamp somehow, take a different direction?
McFarlane: I would say that, if you look at the bus replacement, we would still be focused on maintaining our fleet and making those replacements over time. But rather than being able to remove the busses with steps and stairs, which are an impediment to accessibility, we’d replace those with the low-floor busses which are much more popular and easy to use for everybody, that’s going to take a number of years now. We’ll probably be in the position of forty busses per year, rather than the 150 in a very short period of time, that was proposed by the ballot measure.
Harris: So in about four years to come up with what you want to do in one year.
McFarlane: Exactly. And so it will take some time to do that. Now the bus stop improvements, there is no money identified in our budget or ongoing resources for those. Those are simply in the hunt for additional resources within the region; there is no plan right now to find and fund those bus stop improvements. And I think that’s a tragedy long term.
Harris: On our blog, a downtown resident–she didn’t say which way she voted on the measure–but she says she feels unsafe waiting for 40 minutes at 10PM for busses which used to come more often. Cutbacks to service which happened this year had nothing to do with the bond measure not passing, from what I understand.
McFarlane: Well, it very well may have…
Harris: The cutbacks were before the bond measure went on the ballot…
McFarlane: The second round of bus cutbacks occurred in September, which was obviously within the election timeframe. TriMet has, over the last two years, reduced service by about 12% overall. We were very surgical about that and we were very methodical. We looked at a number of other savings before we got to service. Just for an example, our budget over the last two years has been reduced by about $60 million, on an annual basis. Right now we have an operating budget of $420 million, so you can begin to see what proportion that was. We had an efficiency program within the agency which saved us on the order of $20 million on an ongoing basis, which was our productivity improvement program–thank you, TriMet workers, for instilling that…
Harris: A number of layoffs and some pay freezes…
McFarlane: We had 120 positions less, we’re in the third year of a pay freeze for all management employees, furloughs, so we’ve really dug deep to try to find savings. One of the savings, by the way, was delaying capital–bus purchases, in order to preserve as many dollars as we could for service, that was really our priority. That said, when the economy swings so badly in the wrong direction, and our payroll tax receipts drop so dramatically, there’s nothing left but service at the end of the day, because it’s over 80% of our budget is directly for service.
Harris: And as you said, the service cutbacks this year had nothing to do with the bond measure; the bond measure was specifically for these capital investments.
McFarlane: That’s right.
Harris: The downtown resident, who doesn’t like waiting at 10PM, who doesn’t feel safe waiting for a bus that comes less often, also says that TriMet spends too much money on gadgets, and not enough on basic service. She gives an example of schedules, which aren’t posted at many bus stops, and she was told it wasn’t cost-effective. But then, she writes, the agency instituted a text-message version of TransitTracker, which is of no use to those people who have no text messaging service. In addition, she says the voice part of the system has big flaws, it takes a long time, and she asks “what are you supposed to do when you’re holding a phone, an umbrella, packages”, and the she asks, “I wonder if TriMet employees actually ride busses”? I know you do ride the bus, but what’s your sense of how well in touch with the needs of riders and with the desires of riders?
McFarlane: I think, it’s really… I ride the bus on a regular basis, as you noted, on a regular basis, I think most TriMet employees do. I wish all did, because I think it is really important to be in touch with that. I would say, in response to those questions, we actually have now, 2 million contacts a month through that TransitTracker real-time arrival information.
Harris: Is text messaging part of it?
McFarlane: Text messaging is a very small part of it. There’ s the calls, there’s the mobile TriMet website that allows the same sort of checking with a smartphone, if you have an iPhone, one of the more popular applications in the Portland region is PDXBus, which allows, sort of, more automated response to what is the next bus. So frankly, with all those tools, and people are using them at an incredible rate, again, 2 million times a month, somebody uses one of those tools to find our real-time schedule arrival information. Nobody should be waiting out forty minutes for a bus, because you should be able to find a nice warm place, if you have to, because the real-time information is going to be there.
Harris: You know, I use it because there is no schedule at the bus stop, and I realize it’s real-time vs posted, but there’s not much of an alternative if you don’t, if there’s no information… why isn’t desired schedules, or planned schedules, posted at the bus stop anymore?
McFarlane: We actually find that, when we talk to our customers, when we survey them, they prefer the real-time arrival information, so that’s best done through these mobile devices, that we find on the order of 97% of our riders are carrying a cell phone or a smartphone.
Harris: Let’s take a call from Virginia, who’s phoned in from Cedar Mill. Virginia, welcome to the show! Good morning, go ahead please!
Caller: Thanks for taking my call. I’m really so happy that you’re covering something out in Washington County. We often think that it’s Think Out Loud only in Portland.
Harris: Oh, dear, well, welcome to the show, and tell me about Washington County and your public transit experience.
Caller: I work from home, Neil, so I don’t commute, so it’s not necessarily a personal issue, but I am involved in planning and [inaudible] and involved in bus pooling when they changed and put in Route 50 out here, and I was fairly shocked to find out that there’s not that much, people that I spoke to said that there’s not much high level of discussion between Washington County and TriMet about ways to improve the overall planning and making developments give their residents a safe and convenient way to get to the closest transit stop, and in my understanding, when someone proposes a development, they have to send letters to all of the service providers such as water, schools, and all that, and TriMet regularly returns letters saying that they can’t serve the devlopment, and the county accepts that, and that, in my opinion, that’s what has left us in the state that so much of our suburban areas are completely ill-served by transit.
Harris: Just TriMet say, OK, we see you’re putting up a development, but we’re not going to be able to serve it, Virginia, thanks for your call.. Neil McFarlane, what happens in Washington County when a new development goes in, and they send you a letter saying, OK we’re building 500 houses here, can you serve us, do you just write back and say, I’m sorry?
McFarlane: We do have limited resources, there’s no question. And what we have to do is prioritize our operating resources to serve the needs that actually have the most riders.
Harris: Isn’t it sort of a chicken and an egg situation?
McFarlane: There definitely is, and I would say, first of all, on the allegation, or the thought, that there isn’t a lot of coordination between Washington County and TriMet is wrong, we actually work really hard with Washington County at the very top levels of leadership within the county, to coordinate our land use and our transportation policies. And Washington County actually has been a leader in this Transit Oriented Development, for example, around the Westside MAX line that runs all the way out to Hillsboro, of course. So there are places in Washington County that are very well served by transit, by TriMet, and there are places that aren’t, and so we have a mix, and that’s probably true throughout the whole region. I would say generally on the suburban areas, we are in this transition, and you’re right, there is a chicken and egg between land use and transportation and the service we provide, and what we need to do, I think, is work harder to provide better service to our suburban jurisdictions, and obviously that is a matter of resources over time.
Harris: You lost the ballot measure in the suburban counties, in Clackamas and Washington Counties, how much do you think that’s because of lack of service?
McFarlane: Well, I think that there probably is a significant part of that. I would say that generally, what we find is that the people who ride our service and use our service, are our strongest supporters, because they understand how important it is, how important it is to have the connections that we’re talking about and the accessibility improvements that we’re talking about with the ballot measure. For example, in Multnomah County, where we probably have more service, and we are more a part of everybody’s lives on a daily basis, we did better than in our suburban counties, so I think that there will be a transition over time, were we begin to serve the suburban counties more. And by the way, the rail investments are key to that, because they provide those really strong links, those backbone services, between key communities within the region, and provide us a focus for local bus service within communities.
Harris: We’ll talk more about rail and bus later in the program, but for some context, we queried members of our Public Insight network from Washington and Clackamas County about their use of public transit, and some people complained that the parking lots are full at the MAX stations, and sometimes they have to drive away from downtown to find parking, so they can take the train into downtown, and they are concerned that there are not busses that are bringing people in. But we’ll get to busses and rail later in the show. I want to remind people that we are talking about public transportation today, my guest today is Neil McFarlane, he’s the general manager of TriMet. You can share your experience with public transit, whether in or outside the Portland metro area, what do you want from public transportation? Our number is 1-888-665-5865, our website is opb.org/thinkoutloud. I want to bring Michael Anderson into the conversation now. He’s the editor of PortlandAfoot, it’s a monthly that promises great information in ten minutes a month. Michael Anderson, welcome to the show!
Anderson: I’m glad to be here!
Harris: You track lots of transit issues, and you wrote, right after the ballot measure that TriMet lost earlier this month, that the ballot measure struck you as an example of “institutional mistrust of the public”. You wrote the agency’s policies could be worse, and I know some are trying to make them better, and then you wrote, but “after several months of covering TriMet, I found it unpleasantly reminds me of the public housing agencies I’ve covered, a group of well meaning public servants who are certain that the voters, in their hearts, don’t approve of their work, public servants who therefore conclude that voters must be kept in the dark for their own good“. What is your, what is your basis for that comment?
Anderson: I guess it’s the, well, I guess I think that… TriMet, from what I’ve seen from reporting, TriMet has deep faith in its philosophy of transforming the community, of building rail and inducing development, and changing our habits over time, giving us options over time, which is fantastic–I totally believe in that, but, I have, every time I ask questions, it seems like, what if it doesn’t work, what if things go differently, what if you’re wrong about this, it seems like TriMet’s not preparing for that answer, and I guess I, I feel like, in the structure of its governance, by having its selected board, and in the amount of, its attitude towards public engagement in general, I’ve been disappointed by the agency’s willingness to engage with its critics. Which I think is kind of weird in Portland, where we usually err on the other side.
Harris: Well, give me an example if you could be specific?
Anderson: Yeah, sure, the.. several meetings ago, there was a discussion about, I’m not sure what the issue was, but it was there were some people who were talking about rail-building, and came to the TriMet board meeting, and said, here are our complaints, but the board had already voted on the issue in question, and someone asked the chairman, why, why are you taking our testimony only after the vote, and the chairman said, it’s because you already, we already know, more or less, what you are going to say, the same people come every time, so what’s the point in taking testimony first. And the same people come every time, obviously, because it’s difficult to get your testimony heard. I think they’ve changed it since then, but it was a characteristic, I thought.
Harris: Is that your conclusion, that the same people come every time, because it’s difficult to feel heard? Or is it because, not that many people come to public meetings and comment on things, in general?
Anderson: Especially not at 9 o’clock in the morning. It’s a deep challenge to get anybody to be involved with local policy. It’s really important to people’s lives, but there’s just not enough, sort of, connection to how it matters, you know, what I can do about my bus being on time or my train being in the right neighborhood.
Harris: I’m going to get Neil McFarlane to respond to what TriMet is trying to do in outreach, since losing the ballot measure, but Michael Anderson, with PortlandAfoot, what do you think specifically, then, is not happening with public transit because of what you are describing as a disconnect between the agency and people.
Anderson: Well, I think what.. my biggest fear, for my readers, is that the agency is accustomed to this “and we can do this, and we can do that, and we can do this” philosophy that arises with a situation where is not a lot of internal dissent or debate, or external dissent being considered, and where, if we’re going into this environment long-term where we’re going to have to make, to prepare for declining public services, and be more of an “or” government, I’m afraid we’re mortgaging the future of service based on the assumption that we can do this and this and this and this.
Harris: You mean… MAX and Westside Express, or…
Anderson: Yeah, right. Were going to consider votes to borrow up to $40 or $60 million dollars to build a new rail line, and it seems to me that the assumptions may be questionable that they can afford that longterm without cutting service.
Harris: Stay with us, Michael Anderson… Neil McFarlane, how are you… how are you trying to be in touch?
McFarlane: Well, I think, first of all, we recognize that we need to constantly work and improve with our contact with the public and particularly, our riders. Our biggest effort, really, is to make sure our riders are satisfied and happy, so as you mentioned, Emily, at the onset, one hundred million times a year, somebody steps onside a TriMet vehicle. So, we want that ride to be a good positive ride, and we want to make sure our riders know how to communicate with us about issues or problems they have. They can call 238-RIDE, they can text us, they can email us, and we do promise a response, every one of those comments do get responded to. Number two is, we do have a number of forums for citizen involvement, for example, for each of our capital projects we’ve got a Citizens’ Advisory Committee. We’ve got a Citizens Advisory Committee on our budget overall. We are about to from a Citizens’ Advisory Committee that will focus on the safety initiatives and safety education within the community, so that we have that important link into our system. I think the other part is that I and others at TriMet do need to spend a lot more time out in the community. I’ve been general manager now for five months, over the last month I’ve had a series of lunches in each of the counties, where I’ve brought together heads of associations, or business groups, or local elected officials, and just asked the questions about how is TriMet serving your community, and how we can do that better.
Harris: What did you hear that surprised you in those lunches?
McFarlane: Well, actually, what I heard was great support for TriMet, believe it or not.
Harris: Is that the message that’s going to drive the agency forward? Michael Anderson was just talking about, well, groupthink more or less.
McFarlane: I do think that you have to be careful about groupthink, but let’s step back for a moment, and say where has this region and this transit system led? We are now the 23rd largest city, or region, or service area, yet we’re number eight in per-capita ridership. We carry more people than any transit system our size. So the decisions of the past have had a great effect on building a great transit system, that is balanced, and beginning to be more balanced between bus and rail, so that each mode does the important work that it is needed to be done, that they do the best. And so I think what we’ve heard from most of those conversations is, frankly, we want more. We want more local transit service, much as your listener from Washington County noted, they want more local service, they want more connections to the MAX line, and they want more MAX and streetcar service as well.
Harris: So you feel, it sounds like Michael Anderson is saying, you do want to do it all. Michael Anderson, how do you see the question of rail vs bus. Is that a legitimate question, or does that just get tossed around as a convenient way to debate public transportation?
Anderson: I would say, I love the MAX, I ride it almost every day, I think its… it seems like the evidence shows that it’s totally more effective in that long-term transformation that you want out of the city, but, if you compare it to the transit used in Seattle, my understanding is that the Seattle transit usage is higher per-capita, even though they’ve invested far less in a rail network, and it seems to me that that proves that if you have really good bus service, given a similar level of density, that you can do good things to, if you do. Portland hasn’t taken that route.
Harris: OK, Michael Anderson, we need to let you go, thank you for being with us this morning.
Harris: Michael Anderson is the editor of PortlandAfoot, a monthly news magazine promising information–all you need in ten minutes. You’re listening to Think Out Loud, it’s the radio show that invites you to be involved. We’re talking today about public transportation. What is your favorite thing, or your biggest beef, about public transportation in your area, whether that’s TriMet or you’re outside the Portland metro area. You can tweet us, we are @ThinkOutLoudOPB, with your favorite thing or your biggest beef, or you can call us, 1-888-665-5865.