Archive | March, 2013

Taxi Reform Update

As regular readers may recall, I have argued before that we should liberalize the onerous and anti-competitive regulations surrounding taxi service in Portland. Last year, the city took an important first step in revising those regulations and expanding service when it undertook a series of reforms aimed at improving worker conditions and approved new permits, mostly for a new cab company called Union Cab.

The Portland Mercury reported last week on the progress of these reforms. They characterize it as “slow going,” but of course instituting new performance measures and enforcing them is bound to take time. In a year from now we should have a better idea of the effects of the reforms. As far as Union Cab goes, it sounds like they are ready to hit the streets in the next month or so. It will be good to see more competition and more cabs on the street!

Zef Wagner is a student in the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at Portland State University, specializing in transportation planning.

Valuing our Alleys

Portland’s 200-foot blocks have made us famous for being pedestrian-friendly, but they also mean that alleys are not common in Portland. Alleys can provide a lot of valuable use for access to things that we don’t necessarily want to put by our front doors – parking, dumpsters, etc.

In some cities, alleys have become opportunities for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Our northern neighbors in Vancouver, BC call them “laneway homes”.

But in fact, several neighborhoods in Portland DO have alleys, and an article in today’s Trib talks about how in many cases they have become attractive nuisances and focuses on an effort to revitalize them.

Metro mulls question of TriMet takeover

The question of whether or not Metro should take over TriMet has come up again, with state Rep. Chris Gorsek (D-Troutdale) sponsors HB3316, which would mandate that Metro exercise its authority to do exactly that.

Metro councilors expressed a lack of interest and doing so, and have expressed an opinion that a Metro takeover of TriMet would not fundamentally address the issues facing the agency, with Tom Hughes calling the idea a “solution that doesn’t solve the problem”.

TriMet critics such as OPAL’s Jonathan Ostar disagree, stating that the current board is not responsive enough, particularly to the needs of the transit-dependent.

This is an issue which has come up several times before. With Tiffany Schweizer’s impending departure (her term expires at the end of June, and she is prohibited by term limits from any further service on the board), and another vacancy on the board waiting to be filled, there will be soon two openings for Governor Kitzhaber to fill.

The interesting questions, of course, are as follows:

  • What should the board do differently? Some have advocated replacing the current GM; others would require him to pursue different policies.
  • How would a change in the appointment structure of the board, cause the board to do those things differently?

Both questions are important.

In the past several years, Portland Transit has taken looks at the TriMet board. The former post is woefully out-of-date as to the personnel (the current board roster is here), but still is accurate with regard to the legal requirements.

What could a new board do differently?

While I’m frequently critical of TriMet and of its management–and of Metro President Hughes–Hughes is correct in that many things that constrain TriMet would do so no matter who occupy the board seats. While some of TriMet’s wounds have been recently self-inflicted, many are based on decisions made years ago, which TriMet cannot easily undo. Even if you think that the past eight years of rail projects (everything after the Yellow Line) were a bad idea, TriMet is more or less stuck with them; a new board would not likely be able to, without outside help, mothball WES, for instance.

A new management might adopt a different mix of tactical measures than the current one–such as a different fare structure, a different allocation of service, or further cuts to administrative functions.

One other possibility would be a dismantling of TriMet’s capital projects infrastructure–essentially, a layoff of the bulk of the capital projects division. Most (but not all) work that is done by capital projects is funded by grants and other constrained sources, and some of the work that is done would be necessary even in a transit agency that only provided local bus service and existing rail; but there might be some operational benefits to not doing capital projects. On the other hand, if you are of the view that most of TriMet’s capital projects (or at least the recent ones) are pork-laden boondoggles, or represent an unacceptable diversion of service from the transit-dependent to those who have alternative modes of transportation (including driving), salting this particular earth might be an attractive option.

The bottom line, of course, is what should TriMet’s overall mission be? Comprehensive transit service throughout the metro area? Quality transit service in the urbanized parts (but skeletal service to sprawl)? Service that focuses on the poor? Reductions in driving? Environmental outcomes, such as reduction in greenhouse gasses or overall energy consumption? Land-use outcomes? Is TriMet’s fundamental purpose to be a social service agency, a transit agency, or a green agency? Much of the arguments over what its proper course of action seem to stem from unspoken disagreements over this.

How would a new board be certain to implement policies that are desirable?

Much of the criticism of the current board centers around the fact that it was a) appointed by a mainstream, pro-business Democratic governor (and confirmed by a like-minded Senate), who doesn’t necessarily share the values and goals of either the political right, or of many on the left; and b) it is stuffed with business leaders and other “model citizen” types–folks who have demonstrated skills in things like management, law, or finance (and can be counted on not to pee on the carpet), but who may lack understanding of, or empathy with, communities that TriMet is charged with serving–particularly underprivileged riders. Many who advocate changing how the board is selected, do so out of a desire to alter the board’s composition.

The advice “be careful what you wish for”, arguably applies here–especially for TriMet’s critics on the left.

A Metro Council takeover is the easiest means to imagine happening–the current Council’s reluctance notwithstanding. Metro already has the legal right to do so. However, the Metro Council, after all, has a similar overall political lean as does the governor’s office. Tom Hughes is (much like Kitzhaber) a pro-business Democrat who is not afraid to give the environmental community the back of his hand. Metro does have more ardent liberals like Bob Stacey on board, but it’s political center of gravity is well within the Democratic Party mainstream, and more in tune with elite politics than the populist variety. (I’m actually surprised that no Tea Partiers have managed to get elected to the Metro council, particularly from the suburban districts–sooner or later, I expect AFP or similar groups to bankroll an insurgent run for the council–particularly in District 2). And keep in mind–many of the controversial decisions that TriMet gets blamed for were actually driven by Metro and the various municipal governments.

Depending on how district boundaries were drawn, a directly-elected TriMet board would likely have a similar composition as the Metro Council–and could potentially be gerrymandered to be dominated by the suburbs; the TriMet service district has a population of 1.5 million, but the city of Portland is only around 500k.

Other arrangements that I’ve seen proposed are likely unconstitutional. One such proposal is a board elected by pass-holders, but excluding those from participation who don’t use the system. While this would undoubtedly produce a rider-friendly board, it also undoubtedly flies in the face of the one-man-one-vote principle. If TriMet were private (or quasi-private), it might have greater freedom on how its governance is structured, but going that route would deprive the agency of the plenary powers of government–most notably taxation; an agency that still depended on elected officials for revenue could not be truly independent of them.

One other possibility might be legal restrictions on who may serve on the board–other boards and commissions that the governor appoints may have restrictions on composition. (The Oregon Transportation Commission, who oversees ODOT, is required to be politically and geographically diverse, for instance). Legislating requiring that some number of TriMet board members be transit users (or even carless), or have professional expertise in transit planning or related fields, could be introduced. (Personally, I wouldn’t mind a ban on anyone involved in real estate from being on the board, but that’s not going to happen, and likely not legal). For a long time, the board traditionally had a labor representative, a tradition broken only recently when Lynn Lehrbach of the Teamsters was replaced with a nominee with no union background.

TriMet responds to article on FY14 budget, pay raise controversy

The recent article on the FY14 budget and the controversy over pay raises included therein, that many feel were not adequately disclosed to the community, has prompted a response from TriMet, disputing the claim that TriMet accounting procedures are improper. Agency spokesperson Mary Fetsch writes:

TriMet’s financial statements are annually audited by Moss Adams. This audit is conducted in accordance with generally accepted auditing standards and the standards set for audits of Oregon public entities prescribed by the Secretary of State. The results of Moss Adams testing disclosed no findings of noncompliance, other than leaving off a webpage link to the FY12 budget. TriMet historically has kept funds in contingency for non-union wage increases until the specifics of the wage increase are known. Our CFO was involved in developing TriMet’s FY82 through FY09 budgets and does not recall ever budgeting non-union wages differently. This is a common practice for public entities in Oregon. This is especially important for TriMet because our budget is much more detailed than many other public entities. TriMet is rare in the fact that our budget details salaries down the individual position. Many budgets just have a lump sum number for entire departments and a list of position that shows position grades with a wide salary range.

With respect to specific claims concerning Neil McFarlane’s salary, Fetsch continues:

In July 2012 (after the budget took effect) the board began its annual performance evaluation of Neil, but did not conclude until December 2012. Neil had turned down the previous year’s salary increase, but the board wanted to give him a modest increase. The 3% increase matched the average given to all other non-union staff. While agreed to in December 2012, the increase was retroactive to the 2nd anniversary of his promotion. His salary rate noted in the adopted budget was accurate at the time it was voted on by the Board. His salary increase was approved in December 2012 six months after the budget was adopted. It was up to the board to make it retroactive to his promotion date of July 1.

Thoughts after the jump.

First off, if this indeed common practice among public entities in Oregon, and compliant with the relevant rules and regulations, then I retract the statement that it is “not acceptable”, and apologize for suggesting that misconduct may have occurred. If TriMet did follow the proper procedures for accounting for pay raises, and is using the same practices that it has always used, then there’s no basis for any legal complaint, or allegations of accounting improprieties. I’ve no ethical objection to treating raises that are contingent on some other event, such as a performance review, as a contingency–provided that the expense truly is contingent.

Of course, there’s still room to complain.

Should the pay raises, even if contingent, have been better documented? From a public trust point of view, I would say so–especially in an environment of lean economic times. In ordinary years, TriMet awards pay raises, promotions, COLAs (cost of living adjustments), and other such things as a matter of course, and nobody bats an eyelash–these things are a normal part of doing business. But these aren’t ordinary years–when coupled with the fare increases and service cuts that were awarded this past FY, pay raises–even if an overall drop in the bucket–become a bigger issue. Particularly after numerous public statements about how non-union compensation over the recession has suffered.

And the problem of the failure to disclose is amplified by the fact that the agency has been disclosing all sorts of things about its union contract, and how burdensome it is–and in particular, making statements on how significant parts of the contingency budget are there due to uncertainty around that contract. TriMet has been engaging in quite a bit of PR against the union recently; basic fairness suggests that if you are going to talk about operators’ compensation, then disclosure about everyone’s compensation is fair game.

As a general principle–and speaking as a citizen, an activist, a taxpayer, and as a rider, the more transparency out of TriMet (or any public agency), the better. Contingency funds are an essential part of any budgeting practice, as nobody can predict the future, and even the best laid plans can be changed by circumstances. But if a contingency budget includes specific items with specific estimated dollars attached–and pay increases are generally a predictable expense overall, even if it is not known who will get what during the budgeting practice–it can’t hurt to call this out in the budget. The agency’s critics would have likely complained then (they are certainly complaining now!), but wouldn’t get to accuse TriMet of trying to hide the ball.