Author Archive | Zef Wagner

TriMet Launches “Cut The Budget” On-line Tool

As TriMet prepares for a projected budget shortfall of $12 million to $17 million for the next fiscal year, the agency has launched an excellent on-line tool where people can see the budgetary choices involved. This is a great way to force people to think about the real tradeoffs inherent in any budget-cutting exercise, getting us beyond simplistic one-size-fits-all proposals.

Before I dig into the proposed budget cutting mechanisms and lay out my choices, let’s just make one thing clear: these cuts will be painful no matter how they are carried out. After major service cuts two years ago and rising demand for public transit, this is not the time to be cutting once again. Transit advocates need to forcefully push the legislature to support new taxing authority for transit, especially options that do not rely on the payroll tax, which is so susceptible to the currently stagnant economy. Voters need to support these new taxes if they want to maintain, restore, and eventually expand the transit system that allows so many people the choice to travel without a car.

TriMet has identified three main reasons for the current budget shortfall. First, payroll taxes lag behind projections by $3 million as the region has failed to add as many jobs as expected when the tax was instituted. The payroll tax rate increases a tiny amount each year, but it’s not enough to make up for the huge number of jobs lost in recent years or the decline in average wages.

The second reason is uncertainty about future federal operating grants. The deficit-obsessed US Congress is looking for any way to cut their own budget, and transportation grants will certainly be on the chopping block. TriMet really doesn’t know by how much these grants might be cut, but they are estimating $4 million to be safe.

The third and most important factor is the failure of TriMet and the union to come to terms on a new contract. TriMet projects a $5 to $10 million shortfall due to the rising costs of health care and wage benefits, and notes that these costs will continue to rise over time if the union does not accept some kind of benefit reduction. I believe the union needs to be willing to make a shared sacrifice to preserve service levels. Last year Seattle King County Metro’s union agreed to a three-year contract that preserved 130,000 hours of bus service by reducing automatic wage increases and allowing more part-time drivers to cover peak-only service. Metro employees also pay 20% of their health care premium, while TriMet employees pay 0%. We can argue (and I’m sure we will) about the need for generous worker benefits, but on the other hand there is little point in having good benefits for a shrinking number of workers driving a shrinking number of buses and trains.

OK, on to the show! The budget tool identifies a number of ways TriMet could save money, and invites users to choose options until they hit $17 million in savings. Here were my choices:

Raise Fares by 25 Cents = $6 million

After so many fare increases recently, this seems like a terrible idea, but the fact is raising the fare is still the most effective way to raise a lot of revenue without a huge impact on ridership. The tool has options for 20 cents and 40 cents as well. 25 cents seems the most reasonable to me, since the resulting fare would be $2.35 for a 2-zone trip, well in line with major transit agencies nationwide. As much as we complain about fare increases, transit is still pretty cheap in Portland compared to many cities. This does have a major equity impact, but I would prefer to see a greater focus on distributing free or reduced tickets to those in need than provide a low fare to everyone regardless of ability to pay.

Eliminate Transfers and Add a New Day Pass = $3 million

This is an interesting idea. Basically with the base fare you only get a single trip with no transfers. Any transfer requires purchase of a new day pass priced at twice the normal fare. Since pretty much every trip requires a return trip at some point, this would basically have zero impact on most people and would actually benefit heavy users of the system. It would cost more for people making one-way trips with a transfer, surely a tiny percentage of trips. I suspect the main reason this would generate so much revenue would be the reduction in fare-cheating using old paper transfers and the faster boarding time from more use of the day pass.

Eliminate the Free Rail Zone = $2.7 million

Rumored to be eliminated for quite awhile now, I wholeheartedly support this idea. Transit is worth something and should not be free, even for tourists. TriMet has made it very easy to buy day passes and weekly passes for visitors to Portland, so there is little reason to keep this going any longer. Portland Streetcar will probably be removed from the Free Rail Zone in the near future anyway, leaving MAX as the only free service. The downtown business association has protested any removal of the FRZ, but if they want it so badly, they should really pay for it since they are the primary beneficiaries.

Sell ads on TriMet websites and TransitTracker by Phone = $0.3 milion

Sure, why not? They do this anyway on the texting service and it has never bothered me. Every little bit helps.

Charge for parking at high-use Park & Ride locations = $0.1 million

This is another no-brainer that is controversial for no good reason. If a public parking lot is filling up to the point where many people can’t find a spot, it is time to start charging for that service. I’m not sure if this very low number is due to TriMet’s unwillingness to charge very much or if it reflects generally low demand at most park-and-rides.

Run Red Line between Airport and SW 11th Ave only (except rush hours) = $0.9 million

TriMet offers three options here: do nothing, save $0.9 million by running the Red Line only from Downtown Portland to the Airport, or save $2 million by running it only between Gateway and the Airport. I thought about the third option, but requiring an extra transfer for pretty much all travelers seems like it would be a huge disincentive to taking transit rather than driving. Since getting to downtown is very easy by transit from most of the region, using the Red Line from downtown would only require a single transfer for most people. This would mainly have a negative impact on people traveling between Beaverton and Downtown Portland, who would be stuck with less frequency during non-peak times.

Eliminate redundant bus service = $1.8 million

Ah, music to my ears! TriMet’s system is rife with redundant or overlapping bus routes that cater to a rather selfish desire for doorstep service straight to downtown at the expense of overall system usefulness. To pick one example off the top of my head, the 9 through Alberta is twelve blocks from the 8, runs much less frequently, and takes ages to wind through narrow residential streets on its way down to Broadway. Most people are better off walking or taking the 72 to the 8, and based on ridership that is what most people do. That segment of the 9 is very redundant.

Once on Broadway we have a case where the 9 and 77 overlap. My sense is that the 9 is much more useful than the 77 at this point. I appreciate that the 77 is a crosstown, but it is strange to have a route that comes very close to downtown but not quite (instead meandering painfully through the Pearl) sharing the road with a route that does go downtown by a more direct path. I say merge the 77 (Halsey, Broadway) with the 9 (Broadway, Downtown), eliminate the northbound tail of the 9, and eliminate the entire NW portion of the 77 (redundant with Streetcar, and NW 25th doesn’t merit service when NW 23rd and NW 21st already have it). I don’t know whether these are the kinds of changes TriMet has in mind, but in any case there are many other examples, especially in the SW.

TriMet offers a variety of other service-cutting options (less frequency and span on MAX, less frequency and span on low-ridership buses, and elimination/reduction of several routes) that sound like more of what we have had to endure the last couple years. At least they are not talking about cutting the core higher-frequency bus lines, but at this point they have already cut service too much. It is hard to ask for that 25-cent increase in fares while cutting basic service.

Adjust LIFT service to correspond with regular bus/MAX service = $0.4 million

This is the one I am most uncomfortable with, but I had to hit that $17 million mark somehow. This would reduce TriMet’s role to what is required by law, which is to provide LIFT service only during the hours they run regular bus service to an area. Evening and weekend service would be cut to many parts of the region which only have weekday bus service. I do support the LIFT program and would hate to see it cut, but on the other hand there could be other ways to fund it. I have always thought paratransit should be funded by separate social service funding sources rather than being the responsibility of transit agencies. TriMet currently has what us planners like to call “multiple, conflicting, and vague” goals. They are charged with running an efficient, high-ridership service, but they are also told to run an inherently inefficient and low-ridership social service for equity purposes. This makes budgeting very difficult–how much weight should they give to each goal? I would like to see city, regional, and state leaders step in to find a separate funding source for LIFT service.

Reduce annual contribution to Portland Streetcar = $0.3 million

This one was pretty easy for me. The Portland Streetcar is a city amenity and an urban development tool, but it does nothing to enhance mobility, which is the primary purpose of TriMet as a public transit agency. For this reason I generally don’t see why TriMet has any business supporting the Streetcar, and this seems like a reasonable reduction. The City of Portland needs to stand up to the short-sighted business interests who successfully opposed the use of parking meter revenue to support the streetcar, not continue to ask TriMet for operating funds.

Finally, TriMet promises to continue to Find ways to improve internal efficiency, saving an unspecified amount. My sense is that they have already achieved most of what is possible through internal efficiencies, but I know many feel differently, especially when it comes to executive compensation. Shared sacrifice should be felt by all.

I would add a couple other suggestions. One would be to Charge a Peak Fare of 25 Cents. This is used in Seattle by King County Metro and it makes a great deal of sense. It charges more during the time when more service is needed, helping to pay for all those expensive peak-only buses and extra runs. It also encourages people who have some choice about when to travel to choose non-peak times, reducing overcrowding during the peak. Perhaps this could raise enough revenue on its own to reduce the need for a normal fare increase.

Another suggestion would be to Restructure the Bus Network. Much of this would be covered under eliminating redundancies, but there are other examples of short, relatively pointless routes that could be combined to get more ridership and possibly require less layover time. For example, why do the 70 and 73 both stop at the Rose Quarter Transit Center? Combined they would make an excellent crosstown route that would address the terrible lack of connections between inner SE and inner NE. This could probably be revenue-neutral or even revenue-positive.

Well, this was a fascinating exercise, and I encourage all of you to contribute to this interesting method of public outreach. I hope we can have a spirited and civil debate in the comments about our choices and about TriMet’s budget woes moving forward. TriMet will also hold several open houses in February to get feedback on this process.

Jarrett Walker interview in WW

In case anyone missed it, Willamette Week published a short interview with transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker of Human Transit fame. He makes some great comments about the value of mobility and addresses the need for TriMet to restore their frequent service network, which was devastated in the last round of cuts. Mr. Walker has recently moved back to Portland, so hopefully we will get a chance to benefit from his ideas on transit network design. Readers may also be interested in his newly published book.

APTA list ranks Portland #11 in nation for transit savings

The American Public Transit Association (APTA) just released their Transit Savings Report, which estimates how much people save monthly and annually from taking transit instead of driving. Portland is ranked #11 among US cities, with monthly savings of $856 and annual savings of $10,269. The report uses the cost of a monthly transit pass to represent transit costs, while driving costs are calculated by plugging the local average fuel price and parking cost into AAA’s formula for the cost of driving. The report does not take into account time costs, of course, and relies on certain assumptions about per capita vehicle miles traveled, but overall gives a good representation of how much someone could potentially save by switching to transit. It is also interesting to compare cities–for example, Seattle ranks better than Portland at #4, probably due to the much higher cost of parking in Seattle.

C-TRAN also considers BRT

TriMet is not the only local transit agency considering Bus Rapid Transit. C-TRAN is also in the early analysis and planning stages of a possible BRT line. They are calling this effort the Fourth Plain Transit Improvement Project. It appears that the proposed line, while still in early stages, would roughly follow the route of the number 4 bus from Vancouver Mall to downtown Vancouver along Fourth Plain Blvd, and could possibly continue south to the Expo Center Yellow Line MAX station just across the Columbia River. This portion of the line would depend greatly on whether the Yellow Line is extended to downtown Vancouver, which in turn is tied up in the continuing battle over the Columbia River Crossing. In any case, C-TRAN is clearly interested in BRT as a way to improve a busy transit corridor that currently suffers from low speeds and poor access. They are holding a workshop on Saturday, Nov. 19th, 9:30am-12:30pm, at the C-TRAN headquarters at 2425 NE 65th Ave in Vancouver.

TriMet considers Bus Rapid Transit

The latest update of TriMet’s Transit Improvement Plan contains an interesting development: TriMet is considering Bus Rapid Transit on two corridors:

• A corridor from downtown Portland to Gresham, generally following Powell Blvd from downtown to around SE 82nd or I-205 and Division St east of SE 82nd or I-205
• A corridor generally following I-205 between Clackamas Town Center possibly stretching as far as Beaverton, with service to Oregon City, Tualatin and Tigard.

For those unfamiliar with the term, BRT originally referred to the grade-separated rail-like bus systems found in cities like Curitiba and Bogota. This “full BRT” is often used in developing countries that need the speed and capacity of a rail line but have difficulty raising the high amounts of capital required. In the US, the availability of federal funds for major rail projects has made full BRT less common. The cost of acquiring the necessary right-of-way is also a major part of the cost of a light rail line, so full BRT may not save as much capital funding as one might expect.

TriMet is considering a more limited form of BRT they call “On-Street BRT.” This is the form of BRT recently established in the Seattle region in the form of King County Metro’s “RapidRide” and Community Transit’s “Swift.” These systems generally run buses in mixed traffic with only limited exclusive segments, and instead rely on a variety of other mechanisms to make the buses run with more speed and reliability. These tools include: high frequency; off-board payment; real-time arrival signs at stations; wider stop spacing; signal priority; queue jumps and bus-only signals; and many others depending on the project. The rise of On-Street BRT is driven primarily by a new category of federal transportation funding called “Very Small Starts.” This funding source provides relatively small grants to transit agencies that create such a BRT line, and comes with several requirements. For example, this type of BRT must have its own brand (like RapidRide) with distinctive vehicles, and must have widely spaced “stations” with off-board payment rather than just normal stops.

TriMet has identified two major corridors that will be studied for possible On-Street BRT investment. The first would run from downtown Portland east to Gresham via Powell Boulevard and Division Street. This corridor was identified in the recent Metro High Capacity Transit (HCT) Plan as a first-tier priority for the region. This BRT line would replace portions of the busy number 9 bus and would provide an excellent parallel route to the existing MAX Blue Line to Gresham farther north. Powell Boulevard is currently very car-focused, so a major transit investment like this could make a huge difference in this corridor.

So why not light rail? One problem is a lack of available right-of-way. While it would be technically possible to put light rail in the center of the roadway like the Yellow Line on Interstate, the reduction in car capacity would be unacceptable on these major arterials. Another related problem is that Powell is an ODOT facility, so TriMet would be severely constrained in any efforts to remove or change automobile capacity. TriMet could build an elevated rail line, but that would be much more expensive and most likely heavily opposed by the neighborhoods and businesses along the line. It is also worth pointing out that this BRT line would be able to bypass the Ross Island Bridge by using the new transit-only bridge currently under construction.

The other BRT line being considered as a longer-term project would run on I-205, connecting Clackamas Town Center (terminus of the MAX Green Line), Oregon City, Tualatin, and Tigard. This corridor is in the second-priority tier of projects in the HCT Plan. The I-205 BRT line would be a useful crosstown service connecting several suburban employment centers without going through downtown. It would also provide an east-west link between the WES Commuter Rail, the future Southwest Corridor light rail line, and the MAX Green Line. It could even connect with the Milwaukie Line if it is ever extended to Oregon City.

One advantage of BRT is its quick turnaround time. While light rail in the SW Corridor may take a decade to become a reality, these BRT lines could be completed in just a few years. TriMet is smart to consider a cheaper, faster form of high-capacity transit, especially given the recent decline in federal and state transportation funding. This is the kind of flexibility that many have hoped to see from TriMet. Time will tell if these lines are built and how they function, but I for one am excited by the possibilities.