Earlier this month I had the opportunity to sit down with TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane to pose questions on behalf of Portland Transport readers.
We’ll be releasing videos of this conversation in four parts, starting this evening with Part 1, focusing on TriMet’s proposed service cuts. This conversation happened on the day of the release of TriMet’s revised proposal. All questions which were recorded are included in the interview series, however, the order of the questions has been changed somewhat to group questions by subject. (In today’s video, Neil makes reference to a comment he made earlier in the interview, but which which will appear in a later release. The reference isn’t to anything substantial, and doesn’t affect the quality of the interview series).
A transcript of the interview, prepared by EngineerScotty, is after the jump.
CS: Well thank you Neil, for sitting down to do this with us, to keep the Portland Transport readers up-to-date on what’s going on…
NM: My pleasure.
CS: So let me start with the service cuts, since that’s on everybody’s mind. Often our readers will frame the issue as rail vs bus. And I guess, the way I think about it, having been involved in some of the policymaking is, we have, in this region, a pretty aggressive agenda of building a high capacity transit system, not necessarily cutting either the frequent service or the local busses, but when we do get into down periods in the economy, because we’ve made long-term commitments to high-capacity transit, that tends to be the effect. The only things that’s fungible during a time of cutting is, typically, the local bus service, the high frequency bus service, and I see with the latest revisions to the cut package this morning is that while the cuts are greatly reduced–the service cuts are greatly reduced, the revenue pieces are still there, certainly I think people will appreciate that the service is not being reduced as much, but all the service cuts are on the bus side, as I understand it there are no service cuts planned for MAX at this point, a little bit for Streetcar. So how do we think about that from the equity point of view, transit-dependent riders vs choice riders, lower income vs higher income, a lot of people feel that the bus cuts may impact more the more disadvantaged populations more. So how does TriMet look at the equity impacts of that?
NM: Well we look at it, first of all, there’s an equity lens on everything we do, whether it be a fare issue or a service issue. The first thing I’d emphasize in relation to your question is that the cuts have been reduced. We have heard that loud and clear from our public surveys, is would say that people are in favor of fare increases, what I’d say is there’s a tolerance for fare increases, if the service can be kept whole. So now we’re down to a limited $1.1M worth of bus service reductions, which out of a $432M budget is pretty small. I would tell you another of the moving pieces within the overall budget, and you can talk further about this, is there actually are some service increases on other bus lines, that are part of this overall budget. In particular the 9 and the 12, and there’s a couple others that we absolutely have to add service to in order to deal with current crowding and service numbers that we’ve got right now, so the first thing I’d say about the bus cuts is that we have put it through an equity lens, and the other part of it is that they are very surgical, so for the most part, there’s some attempt at looking at individual trips, and if we’ve got a bus carrying one or two people, that’s not what we do very well, so we need to look at that, because that’s inefficient service. And so that’s what we’ve done, in terms of these bus cuts. In addition, there’s a couple other service changes that are proposed, one in northwest Portland were we deal with Line 17 and the number 16, and our current proposal, which I urge your readers to look at, on the trimet.org, is to actually have the line 16 to serve the NW Industrial area, Linnton, and Sauvie Island, rather than number 17. That does save some money, also avoids some duplication in NW Portland, which we think is a smart change, but there also some other changes that are on that list. One is Line 47 and 48 being combined in Washington County, to provide a better east-west connection between Hillsboro Transit Center and Cedar Hills area. That’s a nice, continuous route that I think builds a great base for improving service in the future. A similar change is to connect the 73 with the 70, the 73 is on 33rd avenue in NW (sic) Portland, the 70 on 11th and 12th, and so connecting them provides opportunity and access to a whole series of connections between Northwest (sic) Portland and Southwe, Southeast Portland that frankly are hard to get to with the current configuration. So they all have been very studied, and I would tell you there’s another, I’m sure we’ll get into the union contract at certain points…
CS: We will.
NM: ..points in time, but there’s another minor point of this, which is that when we look at current MAX service, we have to add some service in the next year, on the MAX, because of service numbers. We’ve got crowding going on during the peak hours. And under the union contract, rail operators are full-time only. So unlike the bus operators, where we can divide shifts, or have part time shifts split shifts in some different ways,we don’t have quite that flexibility on the rail system. So once we bring an operator in, they’re around, so it makes it very hard to do targeted reductions on certain rail trips in the mid day. Now we’ve done that to the extent that we can, that overlapping shifts can allow us to do that, but just as a technicality, it’s a little harder to get to. I would also tell you that for the most part, the rail system is performing really well. If you look at our cost per ride on the rail system, this may be something you want to get further into as well, it’s on the order of $1.64 per ride, compared to the bus system overall, about $3 per ride. Which begins to tell you that economically, it’s performing well from a ridership standpoint and serving a lot of people, and so we have to be sensitive about that when we look at all of these connections.
CS: Right, I don’t think we’d argue that the efficiency is not being achieved, but when we look at equity, the most efficient thing is not always the most equitable thing, I guess. Just to contrast, and follow up a little bit, in the first round of proposed cuts, I think there were two significant MAX reductions on the table, there was basically a frequency reduction in the main Banfield corridor, I think from 15-minute headways to 20-minute headways, and there was the question of turning around the Red Line downtown vs in Beaverton, and I can see where turning around the Red Line early would reduce a lot of capacity, I think the question is, if you look at that Banfield frequency change, which was outside of peak hours, so it’s not during the period when it’s most crowded, if you took those service hours and applied them to busses, how much bus service could you have kept on the table for people who have no other choice.
NM: And I think i all our our cases we’re trying, and we’ll hear, obviously, from the public about this, but I think that choice you’re describing, I think, is a false choice. We’re trying to keep this bus service full, but we’re dealing with some very specific single trips where we have a very low level of ridership. And that, frankly, is not where mass transit should be working. We should be working where we can carry large numbers of people, and investing our scarce resources into those situations.
CS: If we could step back a little bit, we got into this because we are building high capacity transit aggressively, and have a downturn in the economy. As we look at the future expansion of high capacity transit, and there really isn’t a next line in the mix right now, with the postponement of Lake Oswego, and Southwest Corridor is still very early in the planning phases, but should we be looking at different mechanisms to pace this so we don’t open lines quite so fast, or maybe we have bigger reserves in the bank before we open lines, so we’re able to weather a downturn without having to cut other service that we didn’t plan to have to change?
NM: Well I think you raise a very good point. I would say that, one of the important things I think for us to learn, out of the last two recessions, really, and frankly to be honest with you one of the difficult things about the 2008 recession was that we hadn’t fully recovered from the recession that was earlier, in the year 2000, in the early 2000s. So there’s a number of things that I think we learned from that. One is the TriMet board long term policy of having 2-3 months of working capital, is not just a nice-to-do, it’s an essential element of a stable system. So that’s number one. Number two, is that we have to keep our capital stock, including our bus fleet, current. The situation we found ourselves in, when I became general manager, is that we had this dramatic downturn, we had postponed bus purchases during the worst part of that for a couple years, but because we had also done that in the earlier 2000s, we ended up with a very old fleet. And so now we’re in a position where our back is against the wall, and so we have to replace busses, and so I have been, and part of this next budget will continue the aggressive replacement of our bus fleet, and recapitalization of our bus fleet, and there are other elements of the system’s capital replacement that we have to pay similar attention to. With operating reserves, with an up-to-date capital plant that’s possible to skip a year or two of bus replacement then, and use reserves to glide us over a recession. We weren’t in that position. The other part of it is, as you well know, everybody knows, that this recession was much deeper, much longer-lasting than any that we’ve seen, really, since the 1930s. So I’m not sure that it would have been great public policy to base it on that worst-case outcome, we just now need to recognize that we need to grow out of that and be in a position where we can restore some of that service, which is, as you know, is one of my key priorities is restoring, particularly, our frequent service.
CS: Well, that’s actually not the order I was going to ask the question in, but I’ll ask it now since you’ve brought it up, when do you anticipate that we will be able to restore some of the service to the frequent service lines?
NM: Well, I have to think we have to look at some of the economic trends, and also, and I know we’ll get into this more, is our labor contract. We have an arbitration that is scheduled for mid-May, on the table is about $5M of additional service reductions…
CS: We’ll come back to that, let’s hold that for now.
NM: So with that, that’s key, if we win that one, and if the economy performs somewhat better than its intended, if Federal funds don’t end up being cut, we actually could be back to a position where we’re restoring frequent service the second half of our next fiscal year, 13. If those things don’t line out that way, I can’t predict, and we’ll have to look at what the lines of revenue growth and cost tell us.
CS: While we’re talking about the hard choices, there’s a suggestion that our readers often make which was not in the mix, which is to make the MAX service more efficient by closing some stations. People have remarked that there are some stations which are very close to each other in the Lloyd District, in the downtown retail core, and probably the number one favorite that people mention is Kings Hill. Certainly, I know from Streetcar experience that if you can make any segment of the line go faster, you recoup a lot of service hours that you can redeploy as service elsewhere. Given that we are making painful tradeoffs, why wouldn’t we put some of those painful tradeoffs on the table to look at? I know each station has a constituency, but there are constituencies that are going to suffer a lot of pain through these cuts, why couldn’t we include that in the mix?
NM: Well, first thing I’d say is I think it’s a valuable conversation to have, but it takes a broad community conversation to do that. As you noted, each station has its own constituency, and also it’s not free to close a station. Just off the top of my head, it’s probably $1.5-$2 million, because what is required is the re-wiring of the signal system, as well as the change in the physical environment, so there’s cost, capital cost associated with closing the stations. And when you’re in the downtown area, you also have to think about how that interrelates with the downtown signal grid, and the timing and the priority of all that, so it would take a certain amount of study and understanding of that before those proposals went ahead. I would tell you, and as you all know, on our newer lines, we have followed the standard of much broader station spacing, so if you begin to look at the Mall, roughly every four blocks we have a station, and I think that’s working very well from a standpoint of both throughput and of time spent on the mall, and in terms of customer service, so I think there are better trade-offs, and you know, I’ve heard King’s Hills, I’ve also heard Skidmore, which is often very busy during the weekends because of Saturday Market. So those are questions out there, but you’re right, every station’s there because of a constituency and a desire to do those.
CS: So, if a difficult time like this is not the time to have that conversation, what is the time to have that conversation?
NM: Well, I’d say that this is the time to have that conversation, but I would also say that it’s not an immediate fix, given the capital costs, given the timeline associated with doing that work, a decision is probably, frankly, a couple years off before you’d see the results, so it’s not a quick fix, it’s not a fix to the next year’s budget. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be looking at it as a community, perhaps we should, and I’d be very curious as to the views of your readership on that.
CS: We can spin off a thread on that, get some input. [edit point] Going back to the current package that’s been activated for balancing the budget, eliminating Free Rail Zone is still part of the package. There’s been a lot of debate about the impact on ridership. I think part of the discussion we’ve heard is that previously Fareless Square, now Free Rail Zone, have kind of an iconic role in the central city in Portland, particularly downtown. If Free Rail Zone does indeed go away, do you see anything that could replace that iconic value, and sort of help preserve the way people think about downtown, and mobility in downtown?
NM: I think that actually, that’s a great question, and it’s one, actually, I was chatting with the chair of the Old Town/Chinatown Neighborhood Association recently, raising that same basic question, and I think the answer to that is it is somehow the overall transit system here in Portland, now particularly that we’ve got light rail running east-west, and north-south, we have the Streetcar system that provides great mobility as well, I think it’s this great transit access that we have in downtown, almost as I said before [see note above] almost a moving sidewalk of trains right on cue behind me, of course, is what we should be promoting, which is that we really have a great transit system, and we do, and that the center of service and the best service in the region is actually downtown. You know, I think about Free Rail Zone as well, and I think a lot of the conversation I have with people are, is the same feeling that I have, which is a little sort of recognizing that perhaps the policy reasons for Free Rail Zone have passed us, that it was originally air-quality related–mitigation–those air quality problems do not exist, thank heavens, anymore, and so, but it has been part of our life, so I mourn it along with everybody else, in terms of the Board’s consideration of the final budget. But I do think that it is time, because the service is so good, so ubiquitous in downtown, I think it’s worth the price. The other side of this is, I think, everybody I talk to about this also recognizes that having a fare-paid system downtown allows another level of security to be applied to the trains, and our fare inspectors do provide that by the ability to confront a customer and say, may I see your fare please? That is what, essentially, has been the broken taillight for us in terms of making sure that civil behavior, and a good standard of civil behavior, occur on our trains. So we’re looking forward to increasing that presence of enforcement in downtown, and hopefully we’ll see an improvement in the civility of the environment as well.