TriMet Launches “Cut The Budget” On-line Tool

As TriMet prepares for a projected budget shortfall of $12 million to $17 million for the next fiscal year, the agency has launched an excellent on-line tool where people can see the budgetary choices involved. This is a great way to force people to think about the real tradeoffs inherent in any budget-cutting exercise, getting us beyond simplistic one-size-fits-all proposals.

Before I dig into the proposed budget cutting mechanisms and lay out my choices, let’s just make one thing clear: these cuts will be painful no matter how they are carried out. After major service cuts two years ago and rising demand for public transit, this is not the time to be cutting once again. Transit advocates need to forcefully push the legislature to support new taxing authority for transit, especially options that do not rely on the payroll tax, which is so susceptible to the currently stagnant economy. Voters need to support these new taxes if they want to maintain, restore, and eventually expand the transit system that allows so many people the choice to travel without a car.

TriMet has identified three main reasons for the current budget shortfall. First, payroll taxes lag behind projections by $3 million as the region has failed to add as many jobs as expected when the tax was instituted. The payroll tax rate increases a tiny amount each year, but it’s not enough to make up for the huge number of jobs lost in recent years or the decline in average wages.

The second reason is uncertainty about future federal operating grants. The deficit-obsessed US Congress is looking for any way to cut their own budget, and transportation grants will certainly be on the chopping block. TriMet really doesn’t know by how much these grants might be cut, but they are estimating $4 million to be safe.

The third and most important factor is the failure of TriMet and the union to come to terms on a new contract. TriMet projects a $5 to $10 million shortfall due to the rising costs of health care and wage benefits, and notes that these costs will continue to rise over time if the union does not accept some kind of benefit reduction. I believe the union needs to be willing to make a shared sacrifice to preserve service levels. Last year Seattle King County Metro’s union agreed to a three-year contract that preserved 130,000 hours of bus service by reducing automatic wage increases and allowing more part-time drivers to cover peak-only service. Metro employees also pay 20% of their health care premium, while TriMet employees pay 0%. We can argue (and I’m sure we will) about the need for generous worker benefits, but on the other hand there is little point in having good benefits for a shrinking number of workers driving a shrinking number of buses and trains.

OK, on to the show! The budget tool identifies a number of ways TriMet could save money, and invites users to choose options until they hit $17 million in savings. Here were my choices:

Raise Fares by 25 Cents = $6 million

After so many fare increases recently, this seems like a terrible idea, but the fact is raising the fare is still the most effective way to raise a lot of revenue without a huge impact on ridership. The tool has options for 20 cents and 40 cents as well. 25 cents seems the most reasonable to me, since the resulting fare would be $2.35 for a 2-zone trip, well in line with major transit agencies nationwide. As much as we complain about fare increases, transit is still pretty cheap in Portland compared to many cities. This does have a major equity impact, but I would prefer to see a greater focus on distributing free or reduced tickets to those in need than provide a low fare to everyone regardless of ability to pay.

Eliminate Transfers and Add a New Day Pass = $3 million

This is an interesting idea. Basically with the base fare you only get a single trip with no transfers. Any transfer requires purchase of a new day pass priced at twice the normal fare. Since pretty much every trip requires a return trip at some point, this would basically have zero impact on most people and would actually benefit heavy users of the system. It would cost more for people making one-way trips with a transfer, surely a tiny percentage of trips. I suspect the main reason this would generate so much revenue would be the reduction in fare-cheating using old paper transfers and the faster boarding time from more use of the day pass.

Eliminate the Free Rail Zone = $2.7 million

Rumored to be eliminated for quite awhile now, I wholeheartedly support this idea. Transit is worth something and should not be free, even for tourists. TriMet has made it very easy to buy day passes and weekly passes for visitors to Portland, so there is little reason to keep this going any longer. Portland Streetcar will probably be removed from the Free Rail Zone in the near future anyway, leaving MAX as the only free service. The downtown business association has protested any removal of the FRZ, but if they want it so badly, they should really pay for it since they are the primary beneficiaries.

Sell ads on TriMet websites and TransitTracker by Phone = $0.3 milion

Sure, why not? They do this anyway on the texting service and it has never bothered me. Every little bit helps.

Charge for parking at high-use Park & Ride locations = $0.1 million

This is another no-brainer that is controversial for no good reason. If a public parking lot is filling up to the point where many people can’t find a spot, it is time to start charging for that service. I’m not sure if this very low number is due to TriMet’s unwillingness to charge very much or if it reflects generally low demand at most park-and-rides.

Run Red Line between Airport and SW 11th Ave only (except rush hours) = $0.9 million

TriMet offers three options here: do nothing, save $0.9 million by running the Red Line only from Downtown Portland to the Airport, or save $2 million by running it only between Gateway and the Airport. I thought about the third option, but requiring an extra transfer for pretty much all travelers seems like it would be a huge disincentive to taking transit rather than driving. Since getting to downtown is very easy by transit from most of the region, using the Red Line from downtown would only require a single transfer for most people. This would mainly have a negative impact on people traveling between Beaverton and Downtown Portland, who would be stuck with less frequency during non-peak times.

Eliminate redundant bus service = $1.8 million

Ah, music to my ears! TriMet’s system is rife with redundant or overlapping bus routes that cater to a rather selfish desire for doorstep service straight to downtown at the expense of overall system usefulness. To pick one example off the top of my head, the 9 through Alberta is twelve blocks from the 8, runs much less frequently, and takes ages to wind through narrow residential streets on its way down to Broadway. Most people are better off walking or taking the 72 to the 8, and based on ridership that is what most people do. That segment of the 9 is very redundant.

Once on Broadway we have a case where the 9 and 77 overlap. My sense is that the 9 is much more useful than the 77 at this point. I appreciate that the 77 is a crosstown, but it is strange to have a route that comes very close to downtown but not quite (instead meandering painfully through the Pearl) sharing the road with a route that does go downtown by a more direct path. I say merge the 77 (Halsey, Broadway) with the 9 (Broadway, Downtown), eliminate the northbound tail of the 9, and eliminate the entire NW portion of the 77 (redundant with Streetcar, and NW 25th doesn’t merit service when NW 23rd and NW 21st already have it). I don’t know whether these are the kinds of changes TriMet has in mind, but in any case there are many other examples, especially in the SW.

TriMet offers a variety of other service-cutting options (less frequency and span on MAX, less frequency and span on low-ridership buses, and elimination/reduction of several routes) that sound like more of what we have had to endure the last couple years. At least they are not talking about cutting the core higher-frequency bus lines, but at this point they have already cut service too much. It is hard to ask for that 25-cent increase in fares while cutting basic service.

Adjust LIFT service to correspond with regular bus/MAX service = $0.4 million

This is the one I am most uncomfortable with, but I had to hit that $17 million mark somehow. This would reduce TriMet’s role to what is required by law, which is to provide LIFT service only during the hours they run regular bus service to an area. Evening and weekend service would be cut to many parts of the region which only have weekday bus service. I do support the LIFT program and would hate to see it cut, but on the other hand there could be other ways to fund it. I have always thought paratransit should be funded by separate social service funding sources rather than being the responsibility of transit agencies. TriMet currently has what us planners like to call “multiple, conflicting, and vague” goals. They are charged with running an efficient, high-ridership service, but they are also told to run an inherently inefficient and low-ridership social service for equity purposes. This makes budgeting very difficult–how much weight should they give to each goal? I would like to see city, regional, and state leaders step in to find a separate funding source for LIFT service.

Reduce annual contribution to Portland Streetcar = $0.3 million

This one was pretty easy for me. The Portland Streetcar is a city amenity and an urban development tool, but it does nothing to enhance mobility, which is the primary purpose of TriMet as a public transit agency. For this reason I generally don’t see why TriMet has any business supporting the Streetcar, and this seems like a reasonable reduction. The City of Portland needs to stand up to the short-sighted business interests who successfully opposed the use of parking meter revenue to support the streetcar, not continue to ask TriMet for operating funds.

Finally, TriMet promises to continue to Find ways to improve internal efficiency, saving an unspecified amount. My sense is that they have already achieved most of what is possible through internal efficiencies, but I know many feel differently, especially when it comes to executive compensation. Shared sacrifice should be felt by all.

I would add a couple other suggestions. One would be to Charge a Peak Fare of 25 Cents. This is used in Seattle by King County Metro and it makes a great deal of sense. It charges more during the time when more service is needed, helping to pay for all those expensive peak-only buses and extra runs. It also encourages people who have some choice about when to travel to choose non-peak times, reducing overcrowding during the peak. Perhaps this could raise enough revenue on its own to reduce the need for a normal fare increase.

Another suggestion would be to Restructure the Bus Network. Much of this would be covered under eliminating redundancies, but there are other examples of short, relatively pointless routes that could be combined to get more ridership and possibly require less layover time. For example, why do the 70 and 73 both stop at the Rose Quarter Transit Center? Combined they would make an excellent crosstown route that would address the terrible lack of connections between inner SE and inner NE. This could probably be revenue-neutral or even revenue-positive.

Well, this was a fascinating exercise, and I encourage all of you to contribute to this interesting method of public outreach. I hope we can have a spirited and civil debate in the comments about our choices and about TriMet’s budget woes moving forward. TriMet will also hold several open houses in February to get feedback on this process.

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