Archive | January, 2012

A Peek at the Future of TriMet Fare Collection?

In response to our discussion about the likely recommendation of TriMet’s Fare Task Force, TriMet spokesperson Mary Fetsch passed along a white paper on electronic fare collection (PDF, 581K) that had been prepared at the request of General Manager Neil McFarlane.

Before commenting on the very interesting contents of the document, I want to provide a couple of disclaimers:

  1. I don’t know if Mary has sent this to other media outlets. If not, it’s an interesting choice to release it through Portland Transport. I’m tempted to take it as a compliment that it’s likely to get a thorough airing here. But I’m also conscious that it could be a calculation to release it in a venue where it might get more favorable treatment – readers can be the judge.
  2. We’re straying into an area where I have a conflict of interest. A couple of years ago my employer, Xerox Corp., purchased ACS Inc., a computer services firm that among its many business units has a transportation systems group that includes fare systems among its offerings. Indeed, Xerox/ACS just installed a contactless payment system for the transit system in Philadelphia. While I don’t work directly with the transportation systems group (I’m in a corporate web marketing group) as ACS is integrated into Xerox I am beginning to become more aware of and in communication with that business unit. Readers should be aware of that as they read my comments.

With that out of the way, some observations on the document:

  • It’s quite detailed and includes an implementation plan that has some very near term steps. This is to be taken seriously.
  • The flat-fare/limited-transfer recommendation of the fare task force is entirely consistent with the discussion in the document.
  • It contains a very interesting breakdown of the cost of collecting fares based on where they are purchased (those ticket vending machines we all complain about are by far the most expensive channel). There appears to be some hope that this could be financed based on savings in fare collection costs.
  • My personal fare-instrument-of-choice, the book of ten tickets, would appear to be going the way of the dodo bird. But given that I purchase these (I don’t use enough to justify a monthly pass – I do have an annual Streetcar pass) mainly to avoid the need for exact change, any kind of electronic system will meet my need.
  • It would appear that we’ll have many options for payment instruments: a stored value card, bank credit cards that contain smart chips, or ‘contactless’ systems like the NFC (near field communication) technology now beginning to be seen in phones.
  • My policy preference, a distance-based fare system, is possible but more complex (you need tap-on, tap-off, not just tap-on).
  • The technology makes peak-period fare premiums a possibility.
  • The draft schedules seem to suggest that this would not be implemented with the opening of PMLR, but perhaps within a year or so after the opening.
  • TriMet is apparently leaving the door open to use open source software for some aspects of the system.

Read and discuss!

TriMet: Simplification or Fare Increase?

Joe Rose at the Oregonian is reporting that a TriMet fare task force may will recommend doing away with zones, and prohibiting using transfers for return trips (transfers would only work in one direction).

While I’m a big proponent of keeping things simple, this proposal does not excite me. Beyond potential equity issues (I honestly don’t know if this is better or worse for transit-dependent folks, but OPAL is already objecting) which should get a very thorough analysis, I generally prefer some relationship between distances and fares. Tying trip cost to distance is important to encourage compact land use patterns.

I suspect this is just the beginning of what will be a very intense conversation this Spring.

Should TriMet consider the MOS for Milwaukie MAX?

Should TriMet consider the MOS for Milwaukie MAX, particularly if funding from Clackamas County is no longer available?
The Portland-Milwaukie MAX project commenced construction last year, albeit concentrated in downtown. Trees have been ripped out along SW Lincoln, work on the bridge has started, and work is also starting on the so-called “Harbor Structure”, a viaduct over Harbor Drive between SW Naito and SW Gibbs. Work on the bulk of the project, beyond the new bridge, doesn’t start until next year.

That hasn’t stopped activists in Clackamas County, who are skeptical of the project, from trying to block the county (and the city of Milwaukie) from contributing funding. Whether these effort a) are legal, and b) will succeed at the ballot box, but my guess is the latter question will be a yes–and the former question is a big I-don’t-know.

County commissioner Paul Savas, who is critical of the project, has suggested that Clackamas County renegotiate the contract (already executed) which commits the county to pay $25 million to the project in exchange for MAX being built to the Oak Grove area. One proposal that he makes–and which has also been previously suggested here as a potential fallback plan– is that instead of constructing the full line to Oak Grove, the region instead construct the MOS to Milwaukie, and stop there.
What is a MOS?

MOS stands for “minimum operating segment”. It is a standard part of a federally-funded project’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which specifies a smaller subset of a project which, if built, would still meet cost-effectiveness goals. Identification of the MOS serves several purposes–it helps a project deal with funding contingencies–such as a participating government agency withdrawing their contribution–and it also helps (in theory) to make sure a boondoggle section isn’t tacked on to the tail end of an otherwise useful project.

According to the Record of Decision, the full version of the project (the Locally Preferred Alternative, or LPA) consists of a two tracked light rail line from Portland to Oak Grove, terminating at Park Avenue, with 11 new stations, 20 new rail cars, several viaducts, and the Big Bridge over the Willamette River. Two stations, at SE Tacoma and Park Avenue would have park-and-rides, with capacities of 800 and 600 spaces respectively.

The MOS consists of the entire full line, except for the last station. The line would instead end at Lake Road station in Milwaukie, rather than ending at the Park Avenue station in Oak Grove. The MOS would eliminate the construction of a viaduct over McLoughlin Bouleavard, and the Park Avenue station. Instead of building a park-and-ride at Park Avenue, it would be built at Lake Road instead (the LPA has no park-and-ride at this stop). Only 16 new railcars would be purchased instead of 20.

The FEIS contains one other option–and this is what TriMet actually intends to build. It’s described as the “phasing option”, and it is essentially the same as the LPA, but with only a surface parking lot (no garage) at Tacoma Street, giving 320 spaces instead of 800, and a smaller structure at Park Avenue, with 355 spaces instead of 600. It also includes potentially fewer railcars, and a few other cost-saving measures (such as fewer switches along the line, where trains can transfer from one track to the other).

There does not appear to be a “phased MOS” option, which combines the cost savings of the phased LPA with the elimination of Park Avenue.

The numbers

How much are the various options projected to cost? In year-of-expenditure dollars, the figures are as follows (all figures taken from Table 5-1.1 of the FEIS, page 5-4):

  • For the LPA to Park Avenue, US$1.55 billion.
  • For the LPA Phasing option, $1.49 billion (a savings of about $60 million from the full LPA).
  • For the MOS, $1.38 billion (a savings of about $170 million from the full LPA, and $110 million from the phasing option

Projected ridership by 2030 is as follows–and here’s where it gets interesting (all figures taken from secion S.5.1.1 of the FEIS, in the Executive Summary).

  • For the LPA to Park Avenue: 25,570 daily trips.
  • For the phased approach, 22, 700 trips.
  • The MOS: 24,810 trips

Note that the MOS, which is $100 million less expensive, nonetheless produces over 2000 more daily trips than the phased LPA–and the difference between it and the full LPA is only about 760 daily trips.

Hmm. While I’m generally not fond of cost/rider as a metric, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, I’ll do the calculations. For the full LPA, that works out to $60.6k per new rider. The MOS, $55.6k/rider. The phasing option: $65.6k per new rider.

What this tells us is that ridership is dependent on ample park-and-ride spaces. That isn’t terribly surprising–Clackamas County is not terribly dense nor transit-oriented, so many users of the MAX from the county will be driving to a park-and-ride; fewer spaces will naturally depress ridership. It also suggests that the bulk of the riders using Park Avenue will be users of the park-and-ride, and will happily drive an extra mile or so to a different park and ride. But it also tells us that the option that TriMet is planning to build, is apparently the least cost-effective one–there’s more bang for buck to be had by eliminating the Park Avenue station (and the trackwork and viaducts needed to reach it) then there is from the various cost-reduction exercises undertaken to produce the phased approach.

More numbers

Let’s now turn to the question of paying for the thing. Most of the local funding for the project is secure–right now the only doubtful piece is $25 million from Clackamas County, and $5 million from Milwaukie. Since there is a 1:1 federal match on the local contribution, were this $30 million to vanish, so would another $30 million from Uncle Sam–for a grand total of $60 million. There isn’t sufficient local funding to build the full LPA; the best the region can do with pledged funding sources (including the Clackamas County portion and the federal match thereon) is the phased approach. Without Clackamas County’s share (and match), even the phased approach can’t be afforded.

However, the MOS is still quite affordable even without Clackamas County’s share–it costs $110 million less than the phased LPA. If the region built that, it could do so without a dime of Clackamas County’s money, and still have $50 million left over. Uncle Sam would keep half of the cost under-run, but that would leave $25 million. Which brings up an interesting question: Who would get it?

My suspicion is that the under-run proceeds would either be spent on additional capital improvements (such as the recent solar panels at the current end of the Green Line), or divided up among the contributing governments in rough proportion to their contributions. But given that TriMet has pledged operating dollars to help float a bond to finance MLR, it would be nice to think that the cost savings could be used to offset that.

Other thoughts

At the recent #askneil event on Twitter (transcript here), I asked Neil McFarlane about the prospect of building the MOUS:

@engineerscotty: Any thought to only building PMLR MOUS to Milwaukie, w/o Park Avenue, if Clack Co voters block county from contributing its share?

Neil responded thusly:

@talktrimet: @engineerscotty The petition drive in Clack Co is still an evolving process; too early to speculate.

@talktrimet: @engineerscotty Clack Co has committed has to light rail and to the $25M contribution to build the line to Park Ave.

Unfortunately, he didn’t answer the question–something I don’t consider promising.

However, building the MOS might have other advantages:

  • Public goodwill. TriMet’s reputation is not in the greatest shape at the moment, with many accusations abounding about the agency’s motives–including a significant number of folk who believe the MLR project is about pork-barrel politics, not transit improvement. Voters in Clackamas County, in particular, are skeptical. While some of this is no doubt motivated by hard-core anti-transit ideology from the usual suspects, quite a few transit supporters are doubting the agency. Building the MOS might be politically useful.
  • Greater future flexibility. While I don’t expect MLR to be extended for quite a while, at some point in the future an extension to Clackamas, or Oregon City (via Gladstone), or Lake Oswego might be in the works. By truncating the line at Milwaukie, all of the options remain available; the Park Avenue extension somewhat commits further extension down the 99E corridor–other extensions would then have to branch at Milwaukie.
  • A better anchor. An important factor in an efficient rapid transit line is a good “anchor”–a destination at the end of the line that drives ridership. A park-and-ride in downtown Milwaukie, where support for the project has generally been strong, is doubtless a better anchor than one in Oak Grove–a poorer community with low residential density, and many residents who are both suspicious of transit and terrified of gentrification.


The power of urban demolition

Three areas where tearing down obsolete highways or viaducts could improve the urban environment.
One of the things which Portland is famous for in urbanist circles, was the decision in the 1970s to remove Harbor Drive and replace it with Tom McCall Waterfront Park (or Waterfront Park as it was known back then). And more recently, another urban demolition project–of smaller scope–helped in making NW Portland what is is today: the 1999 removal of the Lovejoy Viaduct.

The viaduct, an elevated structure running between the Broadway Bridge and NW 14th street, with a spur connecting to NW 12th, crossed over a railyard which used to exist in NW Portland. As part of a series of projects to transform the industrial NW into what is now the Pearl, the bulk of the viaduct was removed (at a cost of $14.5 million, most of which came from Uncle Sam) and replaced with a surface street, with a shorter 2-block ramp connecting Lovejoy Street to the Broadway Bridge. The former railyard is now the heart of the Pearl District, with parks and mixed-use buildings replacing rail spurs. The trains that run there now are streetcars, not freights, and the removal of the viaduct was key to the transformation.

Other cities have seen similar benefits from removing elevated structures and replacing them with surface streets. The collapse of the Embarcadero Freeway in the Loma Prieta Earthquake, and its subsequent demolition and removal, has transformed the waterfront of downtown San Francisco. With that in mind, here are three other locations in the city where removal of viaducts or obsolete highway alignments may have a transforming effect.

After the jump.
Before the list beings, a few conditions:

  • The structure or alignment in question ought to be of limited transportation value. The Lovejoy Viaduct served a useful purpose when it crossed a railyard; not so much when it crossed a vacant lot. Absent from this list are proposals to remove freeways–while some of us may like doing that, such things are, obviously, a harder sell. In general, if removal of the structure would create a bottleneck where none exists before, it’s not on the list.
  • Some potential for urban transformation is also required.

With that, here’s the list.

The Kerby Avenue viaduct

The Rose City Freeway/Prescott Freeway was planned to be a freeway extending from the east end of the Fremont Bridge to an alignment along Prescott Street, then east out to I-205 somewhere near Rocky Butte. It was killed when the Mt. Hood Freeway was killed, and is today a dim memory–except for one glaring reminder–the Kerby Avenue ramps connecting the Fremont Bridge (I-405) with Emanuel Hospital. Quite a few blocks of NE Portland were demolished in anticipation of this freeway; the short stub of it which was actually built serves no useful purpose, and separates the neighborhood to the north with Emanuel Hospital. And for several blocks, the Kerby ramp runs parallel to Kerby Street itself–or the mutilated alignment of Kerby.

View Larger Map

An obvious improvement would be to end the ramp at the place where the existing Kerby Street curves (just north of the hospital) with a signalized intersection, and continue the route eastward on the existing Kerby/Cook alignment–possibly reconnecting Kerby Street with its northern self, providing easier access to the hospital (and to the bridge) from the north, without having to use the Vancouver/Williams couplet. The land occupied by the existing alignment then could be put to some better use.

Naito Parkway south

This isn’t so much of a viaduct removal as it is an obsolete-highway removal. Long before the construction of the Baldock Freeway (I-5), traffic through town from the southwest came in on Barbur Boulevard, which connected to Harbor Drive via Front Avenue (now Naito Parkway). While Harbor Drive itself is mostly gone, the section of Naito Parkway which joined the two (roughly between SW Harrison and Barbur) still resembles its former freeway-esque glory, with no left turns, cross traffic, or signals in the entire stretch. A few streets have grade-separated crossings of Naito in this stretch (I-405, SW Arthur, and SW Grover), along with an elevated pedestrian bridge and the Portland Aerial Tram, but the street is a major barrier to bike and pedestrian traffic–as well as to cars trying to get through South Portland. Oh, and the ramp system connecting Naito to Arthur and the Ross Island bridge is a dangerous, confusing mess. And frontage roads provide local access in many places, lest a parked car interfere with high speed traffic.

There’s no reason for this stretch of road to resemble a 1950s-era freeway. Barbur to the south has plenty of signallized intersections through Burlingame, and Harbor Drive is long gone. (One bit of evidence which remains–the oversized overpass crossing I-405, which used to feature ramps to Harbor).

View Larger Map
There’s quite a bit of good news, however:

  • MLR will introduce a new signallized grade crossing at SW Lincoln, shortening the de-facto freeway stretch by about two blocks.
  • In 2010, the city and ODOT agreed to transfer jurisdiction of the parts of Naito Parkway north of I-405 to the city of Portland. (Many have called for all of Barbur Boulevard north of the Tigard interchange to be transferred to local jurisdiction).
  • The Southwest Corridor project will no doubt look at future opportunities along this corridor–Naito could be a routing of a future MAX or BRT line. (Such an alignment would have issues with OHSU access, but it’s possible).


The stretch between Arthur and the Ross Island Bridge is probably difficult to modify because of its role in handling US26 traffic, but the stretch north of there (north of the freeway and south of the bridge) likely would be easier to improve–and the improvements are obvious:

  • Put in signals so people, bikes, busses, and even cars can cross the thing. A signal at Curry would make sense, as it’s parallel with the pedestrian bridge over I-5.
  • Likewise, remove the frontage roads, and provide direct on-street parking. The width of the corridor, if this it is done, makes it attractive for a busway or other rapid transit in the median.

  • Longer term, the US26 ramp system could use some serious redesign.

East approaches to Hawthorne and Morrison bridges

I group these two together because they are only a few blocks apart, and many of the comments for one will suffice for the other. At the east end of both bridges are twin viaducts (one for eastbound traffic, one for westbound) that connect the bridges to OR99E–for some reason, crossing over southbound OR99E (MLK Jr. Boulevard) but intersecting at grade with northbound 99E (Grand Avenue). Both viaducts also cross over the UPRR mainline and I-5 (or under it, in the case of the Hawthorne). Long term, it would be nice to bury the UPRR mainline so it no longer bisects the neighborhood, but three blocks separate the train tracks from MLK.

Thus, the obvious suggestion: Shorten the viaducts by these three blocks, so both come to the surface at SE 2nd.

The Belmont Street viaduct may be a bit difficult to truncate at that place, because of the ramp from southbound I-5; but it’s also the one that provides a big safety hazard: the dangerous merge-weave between that ramp and the offramp to MLK. With the viaducts removed, the latter ramp would no longer exist.

View Larger Map

Effects of this:

  • The wasted blocks between MLK/Grand/Belmont/Morrison and MLK/Grand/Hawthorne/Madison, currently taken up by ramps, could be put to more productive use.
  • The pedestrian environment would be much improved.
  • It would have transit calming effects on MLK Jr; motorists tend to speed on this stretch due to the grade separation and absence of signals.
  • It would improve transit connections between the 14 and 15 and the southbound Streetcar when it opens–right now, getting from the Streetcar route to either of these frequent bus lines is a big pain in the butt.

Needless to say, the current bus lane on Madison would be extended in such a proposal, and a corresponding bus lane on Hawthorne installed. (Or Streetcar, if a Hawthorne line is ever built).