City of Portland engages in outrageous $2M power-play against TriMet.

In a move which apparently came as a complete surprise, Portland mayor Sam Adams has proposed levying/hiking various fees on TriMet, related to things like benches and shelters. The amount of the proposed fee hike is 8000%, or about $2M; intended to cover the cost of the YouthPass program, which was cut by TriMet in the latest round of budget cuts, after the Oregon Legislature last year stopped funding for the program. State funding ended in 2011, and TriMet has been subsidizing the program for the past half-year.

TriMet reports that it was caught off guard by the measure, and is studying its options.

Thoughts after the jump:
I’ll be blunt. This is an outrageous maneuver by the City of Portland, for many reasons. The YouthPass program is highly defensible, and ought to be funded somehow; but this is NOT the way to do it–a power-play like this has the potential to be incredibly damaging to regional co-operation in the future. Whether or not the city of Portland will follow through with this, or this is just a negotiating ploy, remains to be seen. It’s interesting to note that the item was put on the “consent agenda” for Wednesday’s city council meeting (the consent agenda is for routine and uncontroversial matters to be passed in one motion, without having to waste time to consider and vote on each one individually). This means that either it has unanimous support of the City Council–which would surprise me, especially for an acrimonious proposal such as this one–or Adams is bluffing.

  • The immediate reason: The City is taking on the wrong target. If the mayor really wants to play hardball on this issue, he ought to go after the source of the problem: the state Legislature, which ended its support for the program in 2011, but which continues to subsidize suburban yellow bus service. Mayor Adams (and Portland Public Schools) could easily make a credible threat to Salem: Restore YouthPass funding, or PPS will replace it with yellow bus service, which the state is required to support under Oregon law. YouthPass is cheaper to operate than equivalent levels of yellow bus service, so restoring YouthPass funding would cost taxpayers less than having to support yellow busses in Portland. Of course the Legislature could try and exempt Portland from the yellow bus subsidy–screwing over PPS seems to be a popular past-time in Salem–but the optics would look far worse (including to those who don’t care much about public transit) than the current state of affairs.
  • Where does Portland think TriMet will get the $2M? Unlike some transit advocates outside of government, who seem to think that TriMet is hiding the ball with its budget crisis (and cutting service in preference to cutting various alleged items of pork-barrel spending), the City of Portland likely has far better visibility into TriMet’s finances. Either it know where the bodies are buried (to paraphrase Norma Paulus), in which case it ought to be forthcoming about this, or it knows that there aren’t any (and perhaps doesn’t care). In addition, it’s entirely fair to point out that a good portion of TriMet’s operational commitments are on capital projects that Portland has either championed, or operates outright (such as the Streetcar).
  • If Portland gets away with this move–and especially if this results in service cuts outside of Portland–who’s next? If TriMet further cuts suburban service, will suburban communities then respond with retaliatory fees of their own, or threaten to withdraw altogether? Could this lead to an end to regional transit service, as each city looks to operate their own agencies (or not), lest a dime of “their” tax moneys subsidize so much as a revenue-minute of service outside of their borders–with crosstown trips requiring paid transfers at every municipal boundary, with little co-operation on matters like schedules?
  • The last time TriMet was subject to a power play of this sort, depending on what rumors you believe, the result was WES. (Washington County, with its strong industrial base and relatively low number of service hours, likely subsidizes the agency with payroll tax revenues collected within).

Even OPAL, which has been sharply critical of TriMet over the years, has come to the agency’s defense on this issue, which Jonathan Ostar called “concerning”. Regardless, this sort of power play can’t be good news. Local governments around the country have been suffering under the combined weight of loss of federal support, decreased tax revenues due to the recession, increasing pension and healthcare expenditures, and increasing levels of anti-government activism. Many of these wounds are self-inflicted, but have been building up for a long time. If the response of governments to the funding crises is going to be to try and screw each other over, nobody is going to win (except perhaps the Brothers Koch and their ilk), and everybody is going to lose–in particular, those who depend on the government for their education, transportation, or other vital services.

Hat tip to Al M, who got there first in the open thread.

60 responses to “City of Portland engages in outrageous $2M power-play against TriMet.”

  1. I admire the Mayor’s commitment to the Youth Pass (which the Portland Plan strongly supports). But I don’t understand the tactic.

    I could speculate that this is a form of signaling to TriMet in whatever the real negotiation that’s going on is.

  2. Wow. Processing…

    Meanwhile, Scotty’s first bullet point is awesome and hilarious.

  3. I hope Chris is right and this is just a negotiation tactic of some kind. Because it seems really stupid on the surface.

    I think Scotty’s first bullet point is exactly right. I doubt there are votes in the legislature to exempt PPS from yellow bus service, and I’m not sure the state could legally single out one school district for arbitrary denial of a benefit that every other school district receives.

    As for where Tri-Met could get the $2 million? Well, they could start by cutting off subsidies for the Streetcar.

    It also occurs to me that if the program is only $2 million, the state could cover it any number of ways, including a $1 per month “transit fee” on all residences (homes and apartments) in city limits. $2 million really isn’t a lot of money to a city the size of Portland. A tiny tax over a broad base could raise the money quite easily.

  4. The big question with that capital projects payroll:

    How much is funded with grant money, vs more fungible funds like payroll tax or farebox revenue?

    Cutting jobs that are paid for with grants won’t save TriMet any money.

    (FWIW, the salaries posted are comparable to the private sector–at least ’tis true for the engineering and management positions. Which is not to say that the individual positions are justified–I’ve no idea how tight the ship is run in the capital projects division, and how TriMet compares to other public works agencies of similar size in this regard.)

  5. I am curious about the amount of payroll tax the PMLR project is generating. I’ve not seen it mentioned yet.

  6. Wow. I’ve never been a huge fan of Sammy, but this move really takes the cake.

    I would be interested to hear the opinions of our mayoral candidates. Sam has given a lot of lip service to transit and cycling, without taking much action.

  7. The big question with that capital projects payroll:

    Oh I’m sure the riders will suffer great humiliations if the ENTIRE CAPITAL PROJECTS division was to close tomorrow.

    The reason that TRIMET is broke (if you actually believe them, which I do not) is because of that capital projects division which has created the monster.


    We’ll figure out how to pay for all the expansion later.

    I salute SAM ADAMS for his act of defiance against the jueggernaut known as TRIMESSS, woops, I mean trimet

  8. One detail left out: Adams claims that TriMet management reneged on a “handshake agreement” with the city on the subject, but does not go into further details.

  9. “Mass transportation is doomed to failure in North America because a person’s car is the only place where he can be alone and think.”

    Marshall McLuhan quotes (Canadian communications theorist Educator, Writer and Social Reformer, 1911-1980)

  10. One detail left out: Adams claims that TriMet management reneged on a “handshake agreement” with the city on the subject, but does not go into further details.

    ~~~>I for one believe him, is completely consistent with everything else we have seen out of Mcfarlanes

  11. I can think of plenty of places to be alone and think that don’t involve an automobile–and I find that driving limits my ability to safely ponder the world.

    And given that “being alone and thinking” is hardly unique to North Americans, what makes us special in this regard?

  12. Ya know in GREECE, nobody pays fares anymore on public transit, the citizens are so disgusted with their government.

    I’m wondering why the citizens of Portland don’t pick up on that and boycott en mass paying fares on Trimet.

    Trimet is the symbol of Marie Antoinette:


  13. Sam knows how to play hardball and does not like to be crossed. Should be interesting…he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. I wish him luck.

  14. He’s playing hardball with the wrong people. He should be threatening the state that he is going to request yellow bus service for every PPS school. This would force them to take the cheaper option: paying the $2 million for Trimet passes.

  15. Your missing the symbology of pushing Trimet back for the crimes against humanity they have done.

    That’s what Sam is doing, and I respect him for it.

  16. Even “criminal” is probably a biiiiiiig stretch too far, unless you care to point to what part of the criminal code the agency or its officers are violating.

    If you think folks at TriMet are taking bribes, I’m all ears. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine what conduct they could have possibly engaged in that constitutes a crime.

  17. Need I point out Scott that in the 1940’s certain things were legal and not considered crimes that are now considered crimes…..

    the word “crime’ is nebulous and changes with time….

  18. After touring the Dachau Concentration Camp a few weeks ago, Al’s comment about “crime’s against humanity” really stands out even among his usually flamboyant comments.

  19. While I agree that going after Salem is the more fitting and long-term choice, I think this could potentially be a reasonable power play. If the Mayor’s Office had discussions that ended with an understanding that the TriMet board was voting to keep YouthPass, and if the office knows there’s room in the budget (maybe from the increased contingency budget, from which the board guessed they could probably take a million from for subsidized passes to agencies serving certain populations of low-income people), I’m kind of appreciating the move.

    Is it maybe also some symbolic retribution? Maybe. But I’m almost at the point where I’d rather see childish retaliation than yet another politician who can’t even recognize the positive value in transit from the start. Putting it on the consent agenda is probably a bridge too far though; take that high road Sam.

  20. A few interesting tidbits:

    An OPAL representative (using an organizational account) writes at PortlandAfoot:

    Mayor Adams could have supported OPAL’s proposal to retain the core elements of the Free-Rail Zone (by allowing customers with valid proof of fare purchase to ride all day, which would have still generated $2M in new revenue) and held the line on youth fares (TriMet just voted to increase youth fares right as they lose the YouthPass benefit). Instead, he let’s TriMet raise youth fares, completely eliminate Free-Rail, and goes all in for a program that he has championed, but that he wasn’t even responsible for (YouthPass was the success of the strong organizing work by Sisters in Action for Power and the foresight of Adams’ predecessor, Tom Potter, with support from Adams).

    We wish that the Mayor’s office would have been more transparent and collaborative with our Bus Riders Unite membership who struggled for the past six months to strike a balance on the TriMet budget and maintain affordable fares for everyone. The Mayor’s statements about TriMet buses causing damage to the City’s roads and infrastructure is beyond the pale given the enormous benefits TriMet offers Portland residents. Regardless of the outcome of this latest power play, this isn’t the sustainable solution going forward. Come next year, Adams will gone, and we’ll all still have to roll up our sleeves and find a sustainable funding source to make YouthPass viable for years to come. It’s disappointing.

    And a commenter at Blue Oregon claims that the locus of the dispute is that the City of Portland offered to sacrifice FRZ in exchange for preserving YouthPass, and TriMet ended up eliminating both.

  21. So the mayor claims that they had a handshake agreement to trade the Free Rail Zone for TriMet support of the student passes program. Now he wants to hit TriMet for $2 million, which will result in more service cuts. All of this for the student passes. I agree that the student passes are important, but are they THIS important?

    Good idea to tell Salem that PPS is going to implement yellow buses.

  22. Good riddance to Sam Adams. I never thought he’d turn out to be this much of a disaster, but at this point it’s just icing on the cake.

  23. I’m old and old fashioned but I don’t understand why government should be paying for children to get to school? I thought that was the responsibility of the parent(s). And why is one entity (City of Portland) pressuring another entity (TriMet) to subsidize another entity (Portland Public Schools)? The COP has no authority over PPS and should leave them be…what’s next, COP getting involved in PCC?
    PPS has already started moving back to K-8 neighborhood schools and discouraging transfers – a smart move that should help stem the need for student bus passes.

  24. Re: Marshall McLuhan

    The Medium is the Message, and the Transit is the Destination. :-)

    I tend to agree that this is a bold negotiation tactic, and not a genuine threat.

    At least I hope it isn’t.

    Why? Because of the ramifications of “success”.

    Suppose the threat is codified.

    It creates the wrong set of incentives.

    We should embrace transit stop amenities such as shelters, signposts, and benches. The city should be absolutely delighted any time a new one goes in. Consequently, the city should be appalled any time one is taken out.

    Therefore, the best policy for the City is to welcome and allow Trimet benches, shelters, and other capital facilities that benefit riders without any fees whatsoever (provided the maintenance burdens fall to TriMet.)

    Now we have a potential situation, which if fully realized into a policy feud, where TriMet might just say “Fine, benches and shelters are now prohibitively expensive, so we’ll just stop installing them and in fact take some out.”

    I agree that the best place to aim posturing and threats is the state legislature. Bring on the Yellow Buses. Fire up the paint booths and let’s get artistic. :-)

  25. “I’m old and old fashioned but I don’t understand why government should be paying for children to get to school?”

    Fair enough, but if you don’t mind my asking just how old-fashioned is that?

    Clackamas County was subsidizing yellow buses for kids before I was born. And I was born in the 1960’s (barely, you could see the 70’s on the horizon).

    At least my elementary and high schools were sufficiently close to home that I could walk if I missed the bus.

    But why is it OK for predominantly suburban and rural districts to have subsidized motor transport for kids and not Portland?

    (And at what point do I get to become old-fashioned and no longer newfangled?)

  26. Go back far enough and you’ll see the ‘government’ (kings, emperors etc) did NOTHING for the population but still took your taxes.

  27. Go back far enough and you’ll see the ‘government’ (kings, emperors etc) did NOTHING for the population but still took your taxes.

    Indeed. For much of human civilization–say, until the last century or two–the notion of government as the servant of the populace was unknown. The “benevolent government”, which serves the masses and is regarded as a nuisance by the elite, is a recent invention that only occurred with the rise of liberal democracy.

    Prior to democracy, government was arbitrary and capricious, and served only kings, nobles, and the like–taxes were yet another means of oppression. Even since the development of modern democracy in the US and 19th century Europe, lower taxes has long been a left-wing point of view, as taxation was invariably used to fund things like warfare and such (if not subsidize the ruling class outright). The inversion of this–that tax money would be used primarily to benefit the people, and that the wealthy would be subject to higher levels of taxation–is fundamentally a 20th century phenomenon.

  28. Sam’s concern for schools has been consistent and genuine over the years.

    It is laudable.

    Perhaps he should run for school board.

  29. Perhaps he should run for school board.

    Somehow, I think that would go over about as well as a lead balloon.

    (And that will be the final word on this topic on this blog).

  30. I must say that I’m pretty impressed with the City of Portland dropping this bomb on Tri-Met; after the Tri-Met Board flipped the bird at everyone in the Tri-Met service area with their latest round of “blame the union for our incompetent negotiators!” service cuts (and made it pretty obvious in their board meeting that they didn’t even think that organizations like OPAL were worth the ground they walk on) there’s /nothing/ left to do except escalating to subtle threats.

    Sam Adams may have a severe case of DGAF, but the City of Portland is basically the only agency that has the power to confront the union-busters who control Tri-Met these days, and since he doesn’t have to worry about catering to the business class he can actually /do/ just that.

  31. Sam Adams may have a severe case of DGAF, but the City of Portland is basically the only agency that has the power to confront the union-busters who control Tri-Met these days, and since he doesn’t have to worry about catering to the business class he can actually /do/ just that.

    ~~~> I’ve been on fan of Sam’s but I think his term at Mayor has not done anything ‘bad’ in reality for the city. (putting in streetcars does not qualify as ‘bad’ as far as I am concerned)
    I would have preferred he concentrate on other areas of concern but other than his Breedlove humiliation he has been mostly a neutral mayor.

    But I just think he’s great for pulling this stunt on Trimet!

    BTW-there are two trimet board members going to city council right now! real time

  32. Looks like Adams will hold off for 30 days while TriMet and the city discuss the matter (according to tweets from today’s TriMet board meeting). TriMet board member Craig Prosser suggested that YouthPass be available to low-income kids throughout TriMet’s district, not just those attending PPS.

    More info to come.

  33. Come on Scott, none of it will happen, you do know that right?

    It’s called GRANDSTANDING and in this case I applaud Sam for putting Trimet on the defensive!

  34. I didn’t say it would happen; I’m merely reporting what was said at the board meeting.

    I could actually see a limited program like that happening, particularly if it were limited to school hours. It might be a more symbolic gesture than anything else, as many suburban schools don’t have particularly great transit access (and some have none at all), but it might cost TriMet nothing.

    A key issue of contention for YouthPass is “how much does it cost TriMet”? If YouthPass users are simply filling seats on the bus that would otherwise empty, then a similar logic applies. If, OTOH, supporting YouthPass requires additional busses (which I suspect is the case during the morning hours, when kids go to school at the same time that commuters go to work), then it’s not free.

  35. I figured as such… I had thought of some equally clever rejoinders. Tempting as it may have been, though, going there would have been rather off-topic for the blog.

    But it WAS tempting. :)

  36. Politifact Oregon weighs in on the issue of whether YouthPass costs TriMet money to provide. (Their conclusion: Providing the service for free doesn’t increase TriMet’s costs significantly, but does deprive the agency of revenue).

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