Some (more) friendly advice for TriMet

As noted in the Open Thread, TriMet’s board approved the agency’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget at today’s board meeting, a somewhat controversial proposal that included the abolition of Free Rail Zone, a fare hike and a flattening of the fare structure, and another round of service cuts. The good folks at OPAL were out in force, advocating for their alternate budget which included (as the big ticket items) a significant reduction in TriMet’s Streetcar subsidy, and a far smaller contingency plan.
I have my concerns with the OPAL proposal–in particular, reducing the contingency fund does not strike me as wise, given the uncertainty around TriMet’s labor situation. Were the contingency fund to be reduced and then TriMet to lose, an additional $5M or more in service cuts would have to be imposed. If TriMet prevails, the money not spent this year can be used to offset necessary cuts next year, or even restore service. And a good argument can be made that the Streetcar contribution represents a contractual obligation of TriMet that can’t be cut. (Whether this was a wise idea in the first place is another matter, but that’s water under the bridge).

However, TriMet would be wise to treat presenters at its board meetings with greater respect, even if it ultimately rejects their advice. The agency seems to have developed an affinity for procedural shenanigans to cut off debate that they don’t want to hear, such as trying to exclude the OPAL proposal from consideration as it wasn’t on the agenda. Perhaps its the case that the board made up its mind long ago, feels that further discussion of the matter is a waste of everybody’s time, and is only holding a public forum due to the requirements of open meetings law–but this no way to run a railroad. The people of OPAL are TriMet’s friends and customers. Unlike some others who show up and testify at TriMet board meetings, OPAL wants to improve the agency and its service, not undermine and/or abolish it.

With that in mind, some longer-term advice for the agency. Some of this is stuff I’ve written before, but it bears repeating.

Constrain capital projects

Notice that I’m not saying “stop” or “embargo” or “moratorium”. “Constrain” is a less restrictive term. But there are specific issues–real and perceived–with parts of the region’s capital spending on transit–which have caused some critics of the agency to regard all capital spending as suspect.

Major capital projects ought to be subject to the following conditions.

  • To the extent that projects depend on either TriMet’s operating revenue and/or bonding authority, they ought to have a positive return on investment. Buying new busses is an example of an obvious win–it’s far more cost effective to keep a fleet within its service life than it is to scrape along with busses that break down all the time, may not have parts available, and lack modern amenities (or need to use wheelchair lifts for ADA compliance). This is even true if the agency has to borrow money to buy the vehicles.
  • Conversely, if a project is funded mostly or solely from grant monies, be very mindful of what strings may be attached to those grants, particularly if the service is not expected to serve a great number of riders. Many FTA grants for new capital projects require continuous operation of the service for a long period of time, which reduces the agency’s ability to respond to downturns or other adverse conditions. And if the project is a boondoggle–a certain Washington County commuter rail line comes to mind–this can be an expensive mistake to make. If TriMet is to make service commitments, it should ensure that it is on routes/corridors where it expects to need to provide that service. A key objection to the Streetcar subsidy is that TriMet might choose to reduce service on the Streetcar corridors to implement budget cuts, on the grounds that it’s a lower-priority service, but is prevented from doing so and thus has to cut bone instead.
  • Projects should not result in reduced or less attractive transit service for the majority of affected users. This doesn’t mean that routes should never be reconfigured, but adverse effect should be minimized–particularly loss of service altogether, loss of service span, or significant reductions in speed or frequency. If one-seat rides are replaced with transfers, then the transfers ought to be timed or frequent.
  • Projects that are being primarily for reasons other than improving transit service or efficiency (such as economic development, garnering Federal grants, land use/placemaking, or improving environmental outcomes), in particular, need to be done in such a way to avoid adverse effects on existing transit service and customers. Many elected officials, not charged with operating TriMet, seem to like leveraging the agency for FTA grants. While this often has a net benefit for the overall economy–FTA grants are essentially “free money”–the political sponsors of these programs may not always be mindful of the potential impacts on those who depend on the service. In the worst cases, they may not care–they may not have transit riders as part of their constituency (or riders may be constituents who can be easily marginalized). As the transit provider, TriMet needs to act as gatekeeper to ensure that it projects are in the best interests of the riders that it is charged to serve. TriMet, first and foremost, is in the transportation business, and its primary focus needs to be getting people from A to B.

More transparency, please
This should go without saying, but sunlight is the best disinfectant. Anywhere there’s a black box, there will be people wondering what is hiding inside the box. Other than Human Resources data or information concerning ongoing negotiations, bids, etc.–there’s very little information at TriMet that merits secrecy. TriMet is not the State Department; nor is it a public corporation that needs to keep trade secrets safe from competitors. As much internal planning, forecasting, and other data as possible should be made public–and “made public” ought to include “downloadable from the Internet”. This includes things like primary source data for published reports, so others can check the agency’s work. No need to spend money on fancy web infrastructure–simply putting this up on an FTP site will suffice; those of use in the activist/journalist business will be happy to assist with cataloging and arranging the interesting stuff.
A Culture of Ridership
This topic heading may sound too buzz-wordy (management-speak is full of platitudes about cultures of this or that), but it’s an important point, and one that it can be argued, subsumes all the others made in this article: TriMet needs to focus on its riders. Period. Not on being a conduit for federal funds. Not on transit oriented development. Not on technology. TriMet needs to focus on ridership and service. Other goals may be important, particularly environmental outcomes (and transit plays a big part in this!) but these are things that TriMet should not be the owner of. TriMet needs to own transit–that, and nothing else, is its raison d’etre.

And if necessary, TriMet needs to have a management structure which reinforces that. Right now, the TriMet board answers to the governor, meaning there’s a loss of focus on the needs of the Portland metro area. And the board has long consisted of business and political leaders, often with little or no transit knowledge. While many of these folks are certainly competent in their fields, it isn’t a stretch to suggest that many are appointed in large part due to their connections, their status as “community pillars”, and the overall gravitas of their resumes, not because of specific qualifications in the field of public transit or an ability to represent the interests of riders. And in some cases, the appointment may give rise to the appearance of a conflict of interest, such as is the case when real estate interests find themselves seated on the board.

And this, if I may make the suggestion, is an area where OPAL and other rider advocates may help. Metro seems to not be interested in taking over TriMet (though they have legal authority to do so), and legislative changes to TriMet’s organization structure are likewise not on the radar. If an agency which truly represents the interests of riders is the goal, then governance which is congruent with that goal would be a highly beneficial thing.

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