Archive | April, 2013

Name That Bridge

TriMet is in the process of assembling a blue ribbon committee to consider names for the new Light Rail bridge (under construction) that is part of the Portland to Milwaukie project.

Let’s open it up for suggestions here.

[I realize there will be some sarcasm, but let’s have some serious suggestions in there too.]

What’s an Industry Worth?

Brad Schmidt has a lengthy piece in the Sunday O about the delayed delivery of streetcars from Oregon Iron Works.

I won’t debate any facts in the article, I think Brad has a fix on the chronology and events, and I’m not in a position to comment on what he found internally at OIW. I might quibble with his characterization that the prototype is “four years late”. There was a deliberate choice to use the prototype to test a Rockwell propulsion system, and to let OIW take the vehicle on the road for a number of months while selling to other cities.

The question the article poses is whether the jobs created by having a U.S. (and Oregon!) based streetcar manufacturing industry are worth 8 months of delay in getting vehicles in service and getting 5 cars rather than 6? (The vehicle reduction was due to a decision early in the project to substitute an Elin propulsion system for the Skoda system – although there is still a potential to earn back credits that will help fund a 6th car eventually.)

The other question in play is whether the delay is the result of incompetence and the willingness of government sponsors to tolerate it, or if this is just plain hard?

Well, here’s my perspective:

  • Streetcars have a bright future in this country, and the opportunity to have a first mover position in a manufacturing industry is a very good bet.
  • We tolerated a delay of several months from Inekon when opening the extension to Gibbs and had to operate 100% of our fleet daily under similar circumstances. It’s not as if the European streetcar industry has a great track record in on-time delivery.
  • We’re still going to deliver this project within the budgeted contingencies – there will not be an overall project overrun.
  • Yes, it’s hard. I’m not claiming Oregon Iron Works is perfect, but building a streetcar is a VERY complicated enterprise.

Bottom line – I certainly regret the inconvenience to our passengers, but this is a very short-term blip in what I believe is still a terrific economic development opportunity for our region. And I’m grateful our local leaders have the resolve to stick with it.

TriMet seeking feedback on FY14 budget, and a reminder

TriMet is engaging in public outreach for its proposed 2013-14 budget, and will hold a public hearing next week. (Thankfully, TriMet has toned down the anti-union agitation somewhat in its latest publications). As previously noted–no new fare increases, some increases in service on some lines, and a re-routing of the 47 to serve Bethany and PCC-Rock Creek, rather than (mostly) duplicating the 48 through Ceder Hills and Cedar Mill. (47 is presently the only line that provides front-door service to the new Kaiser Westside hospital).

The reminder: Next week is our interview with Neil McFarlane, so if you have anything you want asked, post it on the relevant thread.

TriMet Confirms That Orange Line Will Go Through Downtown After All, But Details Still Unclear

Thumbnail image for Orange Line.PNG

Several months ago I raised my concerns about TriMet’s decision to give the upcoming Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail line its own color (the Orange Line) rather than simply extending the Yellow Line south through downtown, allowing riders to travel from one end of the region to the other on a single train. Even with the Orange Line name, I had hoped that at the very least the trains would be interlined through downtown with the Green or Yellow Line, but a TriMet spokesperson told me on a tour quite definitively that Orange Line trains would stop at Union Station and would not be interlined with existing service.

Well, none other than Neil McFarlane (General Manager of TriMet) has confirmed that the information I had been given was incorrect, and that Orange Lines actually will interline with Yellow or Green Line trains through downtown. He said that normally TriMet does not come up with a color designation until closer to the opening of a line, so that they can do a thorough analysis of the proper service design, but in this case the color Orange was chosen early on even though they always expected most trains to interline with Yellow Line trains. He did not really have an explanation for the early choice to separately brand the line, but defended the choice based on the operational flexibility gained by being able to interline with either Green or Yellow trains as needed.

While this is welcome news compared with the prospect of trains terminating downtown for no reason, it still presents a pointlessly complicated and confusing situation for both riders and operations. For riders, it means that someone getting on an Orange Line train from Milwaukie whose destination is past downtown will have to consult a schedule to determine if that train will turn into a Yellow train or a Green train. It means someone boarding a train at Rose Quarter Transit Center will have to figure out if their train will go through to Milwaukie or stop at PSU. It means the system map will likely show the lines as being totally separate (see map above) even though in practice they will not be.

For operators, it means trains will have to switch colors at some point and communicate that to riders. Imagine for a moment how many times a day you will have to hear over the intercom, “Attention ladies and gentlemen, just a reminder that this Yellow Line train is now an Orange Line train.” Imagine how confusing that will be for anyone who is not a daily commuter. And where exactly will this color switch take place? Rose Quarter or Union Station? South Waterfront or PSU? There is really no good answer to this, which will make it a real challenge to operate and for riders to understand.

Neil also defended the “flexibility” of interlining with Yellow or Green trains as needed because he claimed the demand on the Orange Line will require different frequencies than the other lines. I very much doubt that is true. The Yellow and Green Lines both currently operate at roughly 15-minute headways all day, and that should be plenty of capacity for the Orange Line as well. It’s not as if Milwaukie is anticipated to become a high-density urban center anytime soon. All these MAX Lines are going out to low- to medium-density areas that we hope will become more dense in the future. Hopefully they will all be able to justify 5- or 10-minute headways someday, but for now there is just not enough ridership to justify higher frequency, especially when bus service is suffering under the weight of repeated cuts to the Frequent Network.

In any case, there is still no valid reason not to simply extend the Yellow Line south and keep things simple. It’s better for riders and easier to operate. We can save the color Orange for another line down the road. I urge TriMet to think this through and not feel like they are stuck with this name because someone years ago thought it would be a good idea–it’s not. If the name is still kept, I hope they strive to make the switch between colors as clear as possible and find a good way to communicate to riders that they can indeed ride through downtown and out the other side.

Zef Wagner is pursuing a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree at Portland State University, specializing in transportation planning. He will graduate in June 2013 and is currently seeking employment.

Liberals, Markets and Parking

On Wednesday, as City Council voted to impose parking minimums on larger residential buildings on transit corridors, Commissioner Fritz made a comment to the effect that she had never heard so many Portland liberals argue for using markets.

I was one of the folks arguing for leveraging market forces. In the prior week’s hearing, Commissioner Fish asked my explicitly why I wanted to use a market. The answer I chose was about the ability of markets to expose pricing. We cross-subsidize parking in so many ways (required parking minimums is one way!) that people seldom directly pay the actual price of the parking they use. Making the price apparent is one way to make people think carefully about their mobility choices.

Another answer I could have given is that markets drive efficiency. A true market in parking would make sure that the parking that is demanded will be provided in the lowest cost way. If that means a structure down the street from an apartment building, rather than in the building itself – great. But our zoning system generally makes that illegal. In residential zones, parking can only be accessory to uses on the same site (and Council rejected the Planning and Sustainability Commission recommendation to change that in this circumstance). You can’t sell or rent any excess capacity to your neighbors. I hope we’ll fix that in the Comp Plan update.

While I am more likely to describe myself as progressive rather than liberal, I have no compunctions about using regulations where useful for good policy. But I also understand that markets are very powerful things, and I’m not hesitant to use market forces when they align with good public policy!