The question of secession from TriMet

In the recent article about the Southwest Corridor project, there was quite a bit of commentary written by “joe”, who is opposed to the project (or at least appears to be opposed to any major capital construction in the Tigard/Tualatin area), and is involved, in some fashion, with an initiative petition in Tualatin to require a public vote such transit projects.  This thread isn’t for discussing the SWC or rapid transit (vs plain-old-bus-service), but another proposal that joe has mentioned in the other thread, and is also mentioned on the petitioner’s website:

The withdrawal of Tualatin from TriMet.

From the petitioner’s website:

We Do Want Tualatin voters given the right to have a public vote on transit projects, better bus transit service throughout Tualatin with more connections elsewhere  with a less costly & better bus transit system like Wilsonville’s SMART.

[Emphasis in italics added by Portland Transport]

Is this a good–or viable–idea?  Particularly from the view of transit users?

More, after the jump.

SMART history

SMART (South Metro Area Rapid Transit), which was formed when the city of Wilsonville withdrew from TriMet back in 1988.  At the time, there wasn’t many people living in Wilsonville–the area consisted of farmland, several industrial parks (most notably a Tektronix campus, now owned by Xerox), a truck stop, and Dammasch State Hospital, a now-defunct mental institution.  (The main population center of Wilsonville then was the Charbonneau district on the south/east side of the Willamette River).  Wilsonville had the distinction of having more jobs within its boundaries than it had residents.

The departure, at the time, was widely seen as a tax ploy by local businesses, who didn’t care to subsidize transit service in Portland with their payroll taxes.  (TriMet provided only token service to Wilsonville).  As part of the separation ordinance, the city of Wilsonville was required to maintain transit service for at least year, which it did (after reducing the payroll tax for transit by about half).  At the same time, the city started developing a stronger residential/retail presence, building up the Town Center area and numerous subdivisions, eventually growing to what it is today.  Rather than killing off the transit service after one year, Wilsonville kept it and expanded it,  and SMART (initially WART, until they got sick of the frog jokes :P) has grown into a reasonably-good small-town transit agency.   SMART provides six-day-a-week service, including both four circulator routes within Wilsonville (which are free), and connections to Tualatin, Tigard, Beaverton, Portland, Canby, and Salem (costing $1.50-$3 for a cash fare).  SMART used to provide service to Oregon City, but that has been discontinued.  Two TriMet services reach Wilsonville–WES (which stops at Wilsonville Station, and has a storage facility for trains there), and the 96 bus, which serves Commerce Circle in the north end of town.  Both services only operate during peak commute hours on weekdays.

Wilsonville isn’t the only part of the TriMet service district to have seceded–after TriMet was formed, its service footprint stretched as far as Sandy and Molalla, and those exurban cities (as well as Canby) have seceded and formed their own local transit agencies.  The rural areas of Damascus and Boring have also left the district, without any replacement service.  Wilsonville’s departure was by far the most disruptive, however–both to TriMet’s finances, and to the goal of providing continuous service throughout the metro area.  Unlike the aforementioned cities, Wilsonville lies with the Portland metro urban growth boundary and Metro service boundaries.  For a while, getting to jobs in Wilsonville from a residence elsewhere was a monumental pain, though WES and the SMART 8X and 9X bus lines have made this a bit smoother.  (Chris Smith, who lives in Portland and works in Wilsonville, can surely comment on this!)  There’s still the issue of multiple fares–TriMet tickets and passes are not good on SMART, nor vice versa.

What would a Tualatin transit agency look like?

At this point, there doesn’t appear to be much public discussion of the details of what such a proposal would look like, or who precisely is behind this idea.

I will concede something up front:  The service TriMet provides to Tualatin is, in this blogger’s opinion, piss-poor.  There’s no frequent service (though making the 76 to Beaverton FS has long been on the agency’s wishlist); no direct full-time connection to Portland (the 96 express and 36 go to downtown during peak commute times, and the 38 connects Bridgeport Village/Tualatin Park and Ride to downtown infrequently on weekdays), and no direct connection to nearby communities like Sherwood or West Linn.  Many of the planning documents for the SWC project, which includes more than just a rapid-transit line, include much discussion of new service options in Tualatin, and the SW Service Enhancement Plan is underway–but TriMet has long kept a wishlist of services it would like to fund, but can’t afford to.

The Tualatin Chamber of Commerce does provide a free shuttle service that connects downtown (and the WES station) with the industrial areas to the west; this runs half-hourly during peak commute hours.

On the other hand–much of Tualatin (outside the core area between downtown and Meridian Park) is suburban sprawl–single-use subdivisions along the river in both directions, and to the south along Boones Ferry Road, and office and industrial parks with large parking lots to the west; the sort of areas that it is impossible to efficiently serve with high-quality transit.  And the petitioners, on their website, seem eager to keep it that way–opposing high capacity transit in part because it might bring about “apartments” and “density”.

Were Tualatin to withdraw from TriMet (and there are legal criteria that have to be met for such a petition to be approved), some questions come to mind:

  • Would a Tualatin-specific agency replace it?   Or would a merger with SMART be attempted, and would the city of Wilsonville support such a thing?  As SMART is a department within the city of Wilsonville, could it collect tax revenues from Tualatin, or would a new standalone transit agency need to be created?  As Tualatin doesn’t have as large of a payroll tax base as Wilsonville does, would Wilsonville businesses be willing to subsidize service in Tualatin?
  • What levels of service would be provided, both within Tualatin, to surrounding communities (Wilsonville, Sherwood, Durham, King City, Tigard, Lake Oswego, Rivergrove, West Linn) and beyond?   Routes and stops, span of service, and service frequency/headway?  Would things other than scheduled fixed-route service be provided?  Would the agency run 40′ busses like TriMet does (possibly even purchasing stock from TriMet), or smaller vehicles?
  • How would existing TriMet services into Tualatin be affected?  Would the 76, 36, 37, 38, and 96 all end at Bridgeport Village, leaving service within the city to the new agency, or might certain lines (such as the 76) continue to serve important Tualatin destinations like downtown or Meridian Park Hospital?
  • How would this affect WES?  Would a new Tualatin transit agency assume a portion of the share of expenses for the WES commuter rail service (SMART contributes money to TriMet for operation of WES)?
  • Will there be any sort of fare integration with a new agency and TriMet?  Would the new agency provide open transit data (scheduled and realtime) for transit tracking apps and mapping services?  Would fare payment systems (including the new GlobeSherpa app, and the proposed e-payment system being developed) be usable on Tualatin busses?  Would TriMet fares be good in Tualatin, or vice versa?  Or would riders now need to purchase two tickets or passes for journeys that currently only require one.
  • Has any detailed financial analysis been done?  How would this affect payroll taxes levied within Tualatin?   Would they go up, or down?  Would the primary purpose of a TriMet withdrawal be improving service (by allocating all tax proceeds collected within Tualatin to Tualatin service, assuming that Tualatin is a net donor to TriMet under the current system), reducing taxes (a major impetus for the Wilsonville departure), or some combination of both?
  • What about paratransit service?  Would the disabled living in Tualatin and currently using LIFT be still able to reach destinations outside the city?  Would LIFT users in Tigard still be able to access Meridian Park Hospital?
  • How much of TriMet’s legacy pension debt would a new Tualatin transit agency assume (or be required to help TriMet fund)?  I don’t know how this was handled during the SMART secession (which predated the explosion in healthcare costs that occurred in starting in the ’90s, as well as the generous labor contract that was signed in that decade, so perhaps it was a non-issue), but I would assume that neither TriMet management nor the ATU would want the precedent set that portions of TriMet’s tax base could simply walk away, leaving retirees holding the bag.  (Otherwise, what happens if Portland tries to leave TriMet, leaving the agency without the tax base needed to satisfy its outstanding pension obligations?)
  • And finally–who, exactly, is behind this proposal?  Are actual TriMet riders in Tualatin so dissatisfied with TriMet service, and so utterly lacking confidence that TriMet and its management will do anything to improve service within Tualatin, that they are agitating for secession?  Or is this proposal being backed by entities more concerned about their tax bill then they are concerned about how frequently and reliably the bus comes?  Or by the “Stop Portland Creep” crowd–entities primarily concerned about making sure auto-dominated suburban sprawl remains the dominant land use within Tualatin, and eager to minimize the influence that Portland greens have on local land-use decisions?

Final thoughts

Given all of that–am I totally against secession?  Not completely–I could potentially be won over by a compelling story that provides satisfactory answers to the above questions.  That is, after all, why I asked them.  My first concern is good transit, not what’s good for TriMet.  Other cities do well with Balkanized transit systems, and there might be some operational efficiencies to be gained by having big-city transit operators like TriMet focus on service within the dense parts of town, and small-scale operators with different economies of scale focusing on single-family suburbia.  SMART is a good agency, and Tualatin is more similar to Wilsonville in its topography and land-use than it is to Beaverton, let alone Portland.  Were Tualatin to be served by SMART rather than TriMet, it would not increase the number of agencies within the metro area (were Tualatin served by a third agency instead of SMART, I would be more skeptical).

But separated agencies, done poorly, are a pain in the butt for riders.   Particularly if routes or schedules are not coordinated, or if separate fares and passes are needed, or if additional transfers are needed whenever service boundaries are crossed–and especially if the agencies maintain a hostile posture to each other, or engage in turf wars.  Separate agencies work well when there’s a uniform fare system and payment system, when the lines of one agency reach into the other (rather than ending at the border of the service district), and the agencies respect each other.

I would be against any secession activities that aren’t at least rider-neutral (for those who live in or travel to Tualatin).  If the whole point of this discussion is simply to reduce the tax burden of Tualatin businesses, or to ensure that public transit is never more than a niche product for the poor and desperate, etc.–then I certainly can’t support this idea.  On the other hand, if a good case can be made that SMART or another agency can actually produce better results for Tualatin commuters and residents, and do so by means other than depriving TriMet of revenue and/or jettisoning TriMet’s outstanding obligations, I’d love to hear it.

So if any proponents of secession wish to answer the above questions, or otherwise defend the idea–the floor is now open.

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