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TriMet Considers Even More Borrowing for Milwaukie

Back in May I complained that TriMet was getting ready to borrow $39M to fund the new Milwaukie line. This borrowing would be paid back with future payroll tax revenues – funds that could otherwise be spent actually providing service hours.

Now Portland Afoot is reporting that TriMet may consider raising this amount to $60M to get the project done.

There has to be a better way.

TriMet and the Trust Gap Part 3: The Planning Role

Today, TriMet held an informal planning session, at which point it was announced that in order to fund MLR, an additional $20 million of operating revenue may be needed to build Milwaukie MAX, as reported by Michael at PortlandAfoot.org. A key word is “may”.

This column address a broader issue; that of TriMet’s role in planning.

In short: Is the tail wagging the dog?

Originally, Part 3 on this series was going to be all about TriMet’s finances–but that subject will now appear in Part 4, which won’t likely appear until after the election.   As Chris notes, today TriMet held an informal planning session, at which point it was announced that in order to fund MLR, an additional $20 million of operating revenue may be needed to build Milwaukie MAX, as reported by Michael at PortlandAfoot.org. A key word is “may”.

Comments on the merits of this particular decision should go on Chris’s thread. This column address a broader issue; that of TriMet’s role in planning.

In short: Is the tail wagging the dog?

Planning and policy

There are many facets of planning; some of which are clearly within TriMet’s scope and area of expertise:

  • Tactical and operations planning. Things like making preparing detailed schedules, for both regular operations and special events.
  • Detailed design input.  Assisting policymakers with the technical details necessary to make informed decisions on strategy.

But there’s a whole other part of the planning process–strategic planning, where TriMet is intimately involved–but may well be, to quote President Obama, above the agency’s proverbial pay grade.  Things like:

  • Infrastructure planning.  Budgeting, financing, route-planning, and design of major new infrastructure projects, including (but not limited to) transit lines.
  • Service allocation.  Determining, in a limited-revenue environment, where and how to allocate resources.

Now TriMet, as part of its technical expertise, ought to be a major contributor to both of these.  But it ought to own neither of these–in my mind, these are policy decisions which ought to be made by policymakers, not by a transit agency; especially one whose board is appointed in Salem, as opposed to reporting (directly or indirectly) to Metro-area voters.

Of course, TriMet doesn’t do these things all alone, and as Lenny Anderson noted in an earlier thread, TriMet gets blamed for a lot of decisions which are made by Metro or by JPACT (the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation). However, today’s meeting didn’t involve Metro or city or county leaders–it was the TriMet board and staff.  And the decision as to whether or not this money should be diverted from transit operations to the capital budget is a decision which ought to, in my mind, be made by policymakers; not TriMet. 

In short, elected officials in Metro and the city and county governments are the ones who ought to be making this decision.  It’s a, after all, a policy decision.  (And perhaps the relevant policy decision has already been made, and the directions issued to TriMet are that MLR takes priority over everything else). 

But either way, the decision ought to be owned by all the region’s leaders–who ought to take responsibility for it.  If the City of Portland, Metro, the counties, and the other players in the region can’t publicly endorse the tradeoff of service cuts for MAX construction, then they ought to find a plan that they can endorse and implement.

Who should run the projects?

A related issue is that of project management.  Clearly-defined roles and responsibilities are important, as is having project leadership that is competent to the task at hand.  If you don’t have this, you have chaos–the Columbia River Crossing is a fine example.

When the first MAX line was being planned, one big question facing leaders was: who would build and run it?  TriMet, which had only existed for a decade or so at the time, was generally regarded as a bus company and nothing more–an organization which was good at driving, maintaining, and dispatching busses, but which had little experience with capital projects, and none with rail.  Yet the decision was made for TriMet to own the line; and nowadays the agency has extensive experience in capital project management and rail operations.  As such, its role has grown.

Projects (successful ones) go through several phases–planning, design, construction, and operations.  MLR is nearly exiting the design phase; the first shovel of dirt is scheduled to be turned next year.  Metro generally oversees planning activities, but for transit projects, TriMet essentially “takes over” when the design phase starts.  And in some ways, this makes sense–the agency is the repository of Portland’s experience in running these projects.

But there is one caveat.  In the design phase, many policy-based decisions must be made.  This is the phase where funding is secured, NEPA documents (DEIS, EIS) are prepared and reviewed, the necessary research is done, and the project engineering commences.  In this phase, things like budget and scope are still very much in flux, and as we all have found out (and TriMet should have known better), things happen to affect what can be delivered.  Managing issues at this point still requires a great deal of policy decisions to be made.  While TriMet staff are the best qualified to carry out the design activities (those that aren’t contracted out to other design professionals), a good argument can be made that at this point in the project, Metro might be a better agency to act as overseer. 

In particular, Metro is better situated–and has the better policy perspective–to arrange for funding.

Discussion

What do PT readers think?  Should TriMet’s role in strategic and policy matters be reduced, allowing the agency to focus on operations?  Is the present arrangement satisfactory?  Or–to play devil’s advocate–should TriMet’s role in transit planning increase (and Metro’s role reduced to long-range strategy and inter-modal decisions)?  Where should the line be drawn–what level of service change ought to require consideration by agencies other than TriMet?  Would your opinion change if TriMet’s board was locally elected, rather than appointed by the Governor?