Archive | February, 2012

March 2012 Open Thread

March is upon us, and that means another Open Thread.

  • In the middle of the month, we’re sitting down to interview TriMet GM Neil McFarlane. Submit your questions here.
  • If you live in Oregon City, your very own Carmageddon will be coming in about three weeks, as ODOT closes OR213 at I-205 for four days as part of the Oregon City Jughandle Project. ODOT is going to rip out the existing overpass over the UPRR tracks, widen the undercrossing (by removing the fill), and install a new overpass, currently sitting adjacent to the existing one, over the wider chasm, so that Washington Street may cross underneath the highway, and the existing intersection simplified. Given that the OR43 bridge is closed, the OR99E exit will be the only way to reach Oregon City and points south, unless you care to drive to Carver or Wilsonville. Try to avoid the area and expect delays. (No TriMet bus lines use the affected road, but several may be impacted by detour traffic)
  • The Willamette Week reports that the Oregon Supreme Court has an interesting take on the CRC–in its ruling approving the siting of the CRC under a statute crafted for N/S Rail, the Court ruled that the $2B+ highway portion of the project was a necessary project element due to political considerations–the involved government agencies in Washington would not support a standalone light-rail project–a state of affairs which WW has spun as a “bribe”. While Metro did indeed make the argument that the freeway component was necessary to build light rail–it was a light-rail statute being invoked, after all, the suggestion that TriMet and light rail is the dog and the state DOTs and the freight and construction lobbies are the tail, strikes me as flatly ridiculous. (I only wish TriMet and Portland transit activists had that much political power–and speaking for myself, I’ll happily take the Yellow Line extension off the table if the rest of the project goes with it). But what activists want and what other public officials want are frequently two different things…
  • Metro is planning some community outreach for the East Metro Connections Plan, a planning activity that looks at transportation in the Gresham and Troutdale area, with some focus on the issue of connecting US26 with I-84. (Current thinking involves targeted improvements to local streets, including transit service, not any new highways).
  • Gas prices are going up, which means more incentive to use transit. However, last year Neil McFarlane noted that “fifteen cents on the price of diesel is a million dollars a year for us”, so whether this will hurt or help TriMet’s shaky bottom line is an interesting question

Sam Strikes Back

The Sunday Oregonian did a hatchet job on Portland’s transportation budget, essentially claiming that we have taken our eye off the ball on job 1 – paving streets for cars.

This morning the Mayor has an op-ed piece defending the spending decisions, reminding us that they were framed on a basis of prioritizing safety and transportation choices, and making the case that those have been very successfully delivered.

What the Mayor does not mention is what I think the real issue is: dramatically over-forecasting likely revenues from gas taxes.

Digging Into TriMet’s Proposed Service Changes: NW Edition

It’s time once more to dive into TriMet’s proposed service changes. This time I will look at the areas where the vast majority of actual bus service cuts will be concentrated: NW Portland and St. Johns. First, here are the maps of current and proposed service:



First of all, the big service cut. TriMet is proposing to completely cut the NW portion of the 17.

Currently the 17 runs from the downtown transit mall through the NW on Everett/Glisan and 21st to Montgomery Park, with every other trip continuing to St. Johns, Linnton, and Sauvie Island. Service between Montgomery Park and downtown is pretty substantial on weekdays, with 53 trips per day in each direction and roughly 20-minute frequency all day. Weekend service is very weak, however, with only 20 trips on Saturdays and no service at all on Sundays.

The current proposal is to have the 17 from Holgate stay on the transit mall and turn around at Union Station, cutting the NW portion completely. Service from Montgomery Park via 21st and Everett/Glisan would be replaced by the 77, but that is a crosstown bus that heads east across the Steel Bridge rather than downtown, so current 17 riders headed downtown would be left with three main options: Take the 15 on NW 23rd, take the Streetcar on Lovejoy/Northrup, or take the 77 and transfer to buses or MAX at the transit mall.

None of these are completely terrible options, considering the frequencies involved. The Streetcar is very frequent (74 trips per day) and the 15 and 77 are close behind (60 and 53 trips per day, respectively). Transfers from the 77 to service on the transit mall should be pretty quick most of the time. All these would require additional walking and waiting time, however, and the frequency of remaining services does not make for the fact that the NW is losing a large amount of service with the loss of the 17.

TriMet makes the case that service was never adjusted in response to the Streetcar, which is true enough. They point out that the 17 and the Streetcar both link PSU to the NW, so they considered redundant service. This is a tricky case, because although they share those two points, they take two quite different paths between them, arguably serving different markets. For example, the 17 travels along 5th and 6th through the heart of downtown, while the Streetcar travels along 10th and 11th, a corridor still relatively devoid of major destinations or employment. Another problem is that the Streetcar is simply slower. A trip from PSU to NW 21st/Northrup on the 17 takes about 18 minutes. The same trip on Streetcar takes 25 minutes. Given all this, I can see why folks in the NW might not see the Streetcar as an adequate replacement.

While people living in the inner NW (or “Alphabet District” as it is called by absolutely no one) at least have other options, the greater impact of this cut will be felt by transit riders in St Johns, Linnton, and Sauvie Island. They will lose their all-day service to downtown through the NW, leaving them with peak-only weekday service via the 16, which runs along NW Front Ave. The section of the 16 out past St Johns in the N quadrant will be replaced by a vaguely-defined “shuttle service.”

I am somewhat sympathetic to TriMet here, because this among the most expensive types of service to run, with buses running between small, low-density neighborhoods with very little between them. NW St Helens may be the most direct route from St Johns to downtown, but with so much essentially empty space between them there is little chance for the kind of ridership that makes for efficient bus service. That said, it would be a shame to eliminate the all-day service that many people in these areas have come to rely on.

I’m going to try something new here, to bring some data into the discussion. I present below a ridership chart for route 17 (click to embiggen):


This is a chart of stop-level ridership data from Route 17 southbound on weekdays from Sauvie Island to Holgate &134th. Stops are on the horizontal axis, and average passenger load is on the vertical axis. The length of the white bars represent the average number of people getting on at each stop, the black bars show the average number getting off at each stop, and the point where they meet is the average passenger load at each stop. Basically, by reading the chart left to right, you can see roughly how full the buses are by looking at the height of the bars, and you can see the ons and offs by looking at the length of the bars. I hope that makes sense. (Full credit goes to Bruce Nourish at Seattle Transit Blog, who invented this type of chart)

So what does this chart tell us? Well, it’s a good one because it contains examples of what a well-performing route looks like and what a poorly-performing route looks like.

As you can see, from Sauvie Island to St Johns there is almost nobody riding, with about 3 people per bus on average and virtually nobody using the intermediate stops. Enough people get on at St Johns to boost average load to about 8, and virtually no one gets on or off until closer to Montgomery Park. These flat lines are a clear example of an expensive route that exists to take a small number of people from point A to point B.

The rest of the route, especially once we get to the Holgate segment, is a good example of a well-functioning route. Most stops see plenty of ons and offs. This kind of rider churn shows that the route is serving lots of origin-destination pairs rather than just one or two. Average load gets up to about 20 and only slowly drops down, which means there is substantial demand all the way to the end of the line. This pattern shows a productive route that exists to take a large number of people from point A to B and B to C and A to C and C to E and B to D, etc. etc.

What this chart tells me is that if we have to cut service, it makes sense to cut the Sauvie Island portion that is barely used. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be any service, but perhaps it would be better to run far fewer trips than currently. Service from Montgomery Park to downtown, however, is quite strong and should be served in some way.

Well, that covers the service cuts. Is there any good news to be found? Quite a bit, I would argue. Much like the changes proposed for the NE, TriMet is using the unfortunate need to cut service as an opportunity to also make long-overdue improvements to the structure of the system.

By moving the 77 from Lovejoy/Northrup to Everett/Glisan, TriMet will vastly simplify the transit system in the NW.

Currently we have a confusing tangle of overlapping routes in the area, with the 77 as the worst offender. After it gets off the Steel Bridge, rather than continuing west on Glisan it makes a series of turns past Union Station, parallels the Streetcar along Lovejoy/Northrup, and for no discernible reason runs northbound on 23rd and southbound on 25th (even though the 15 runs two-way on 23rd). The 17, meanwhile, has to make a difficult right-left-left turning maneuver to get from Broadway northbound to Glisan westbound. Montgomery Park, hardly a high-density transit market, finds itself served by three relatively frequent bus lines simply because it’s a convenient place to turn a bus around.

By removing the 17 and moving the 77, the structure is very straightforward, with fewer turns and overlaps. The 77 will get off the Steel Bridge and simply continue west on Glisan all the way to 21st. Lovejoy/Northrup will be the sole domain of Streetcar, 23rd will be sole domain of the 15, and the unnecessary service on 25th will go away. The only remaining overlapping service will be at Montgomery Park, but at least these will be two buses, the 15 and 77, that go to completely different places.

Overall this new structure will give the NW something closer to the clean grid typical of SE, NE, and N Portland. Such a grid does require more connections, but it also normally allows more frequency because buses are being used more efficiently. Ah, and there’s the rub. Because this is being done in the context of a service cut, many of the benefits of a grid may not be apparent. In an ideal restructuring, the 17 would still be cut, but the service hours would be reinvested in the remaining bus lines. If the 15, 77, and Streetcar could be dramatically boosted in frequency, most people would experience shorter travel times with less waiting, even people forced to transfer between the 77 and MAX or bus lines at the transit mall.

Here’s my pitch to TriMet and to anyone reading this. Let’s agree to go through with the smart restructuring components of the budget proposal regardless, but if any extra funds are found over the next year, reinvest it primarily in these NW bus lines where most of the proposed cuts are occurring. Only $2 million of the $17 million projected shortfall is coming from bus service cuts, and given the high amount of uncertainty in projected payroll tax revenue and federal transit grants, it is not impossible to imagine $2 million or more could be found.

If the shortfall ends not being as bad as expected, I advocate continuing with most of the proposed cuts and restructuring, and investing the extra money in several ways:

  • Increase frequency on remaining NW transit lines (15, 77, Streetcar)
  • Extend the 77 to St Johns and Sauvie Island to restore all-day service
  • Restore the Frequent Service Bus Network
  • Restore MAX off-peak frequency to every 15 minutes

I would also add that TriMet and the city should invest in the area from Everett to Glisan and 5th to Broadway to make that area a more safe and attractive place to transfer. Currently I wouldn’t blame people for being wary of having to transfer to and from the 77 given the state of that area, especially the constant open drug-dealing around the Greyhound station. I am all for relying more on connections in a grid-based transit system, but if we are to do so we must make sure those connections are easy and safe.

Would single-payer healthcare help resolve the TriMet labor impasse?

Apologies for going off topic somewhat–healthcare is not a primary topic of this blog. However, the big issue in the dispute between the union and TriMet isn’t pay, but healthcare benefits. Costs for have been growing without bound, and are expected to grow. Health care costs for public employees are taking an ever bigger share of public budgets. And the beneficiaries of this largesse aren’t bus drivers, teachers, cops, or firefighters–who simply want to have access to decent healthcare–but the medical industry (including insurance), which is a continually growing segment of the economy.

The Affordable Care Act (more commonly known as Obamacare), which fully takes effect in 2014, will help somewhat, but a primary focus of the ACA is providing affordable healthcare options for the poor, particularly those who presently don’t qualify for Medicaid, but are priced out of the private insurance market. Obamacare generally doesn’t replace private health insurance for those who have access to group policies for their employer.

The dirty linens of Obamacare

Any government involvement in the healthcare industry seems to annoy conservatives, particularly in today’s polarized climate–such proposals draw comparisons to Soviet gulags and other examples of tyranny. This despite the fact that the ACA is similar to conservative proposals advanced in the 1990s as alternate proposals to Hillarycare (and is also quite similar to Romneycare, the health plan which is law in Massachusetts). But several aspects of the ACA have annoyed liberals as well–chief among them is that it doesn’t drive healthcare costs down sufficiently. It helps in many regards, by providing baseline insurance to the poor and uninsurable, and thus discouraging the common practice of indigent persons showing up at the ER for minor complaints, knowing that they cannot be denied treatment for an inability to pay (and stiffing the hospital, and the rest of us, with the bill). Instead, the poor can have access to preventative care in doctors offices, a far more cost-effective way of practicing medicine. However, it lacks the primary advantage of single-payer systems (including Medicare): by having a government monopsony being the primary purchaser of health care, prices can be driven down. (Which is bad for doctors and pharmaceutical companies, but good for the rest of us). Of course, a public option was DOA on arrival in Washington DC for this reason (among others).

Another interesting aspect of Obamacare is that it largely leaves traditional employer-provided group plans alone. Workplaces, particularly larger ones, provide good risk pools for purchasing insurance, and employers enjoy tax advantages in buying health insurance that individual purchasers do not. A particularly controversial aspect of Obamacare was organized labor’s insistence on no provisions taxing or levying a surcharge on so-called “Cadillac health plans”–high end plans, generally enjoyed by high-value employees (such as executives) and by unionized labor. The health plan enjoyed by TriMet’s workers would undoubtedly be considered a “Cadillac” plan, were that provision included in the ACA.

The provision protecting Cadillac plans was naturally denounced by many conservatives as union pork. However, organized labor (in particular, the AFL-CIO) have long taken the position that they would be willing to abandon “Cadillac” plans in exchange for a public option.

And the saving grace

Given the political constraints and implementation choices of the ACA, it probably isn’t going to help resolve the present TriMet/ATU debate, even when it comes fully online in 2014. While Obamacare will reduce health expenses by ending certain wasteful practices, the lack of cost controls doesn’t attack the primary problem, and the ACA is focused at the low end of the market–those unable to afford (or qualify for) insurance. However, the ACA contains an important escape clause: it makes it easier for states to experiment and set up their own healthcare systems, so long as the levels of coverage provided are as good or better as the national baseline. Oregon has long been an innovator with the Oregon Health Plan, a limited single-payer system which attempts to close the Medicaid gap, and OHP’s champion is once again in the governor’s mansion.

A greater hope lies in California, which is the state which has come closest to implementing single-payer on a state level. Bills to implement single payer have previously passed in both houses, only to be vetoed by the Governator; the current governor, Jerry Brown, has stated an intent to sign such a bill if it passes. A proposal this session failed to pass, when several conservative Democrats turned against it.

The current legislative session is almost over in Salem, and given the 30-30 split in the Oregon House, a single-payer system here would be unthinkable this time around. But if Democrats retake control of the House, and keep or expand their hold on the state Senate, could it happen here? And would a single-payer system, which would presumably obsolete the existing healthcare arrangements between TriMet and its drivers and mechanics, receive the support of organized labor in the state?

(Or as an alternative–would a state government employees health plan, covering all public-sector workers in the state, regardless of union affiliation, be a possible proposal?)

Could the current crisis in public employee healthcare costs be the impetus for the state to do what so far the healthcare industry has resisted? After all, it’s our money that pays for public employee insurance. And the current fight over benefits for bus drivers vs service cuts and fare hikes is not an enjoyable one–instead of arguing about who gets what slice of an ever-shrinking pie, maybe labor, ridership, and TriMet management can come together in support of an arrangement which is mutually beneficial, not just to TriMet employees and customers, but to everyone in the state.