In a move which apparently came as a complete surprise, Portland mayor Sam Adams has proposed levying/hiking various fees on TriMet, related to things like benches and shelters. The amount of the proposed fee hike is 8000%, or about $2M; intended to cover the cost of the YouthPass program, which was cut by TriMet in the latest round of budget cuts, after the Oregon Legislature last year stopped funding for the program. State funding ended in 2011, and TriMet has been subsidizing the program for the past half-year.
TriMet reports that it was caught off guard by the measure, and is studying its options.
Thoughts after the jump:
I’ll be blunt. This is an outrageous maneuver by the City of Portland, for many reasons. The YouthPass program is highly defensible, and ought to be funded somehow; but this is NOT the way to do it–a power-play like this has the potential to be incredibly damaging to regional co-operation in the future. Whether or not the city of Portland will follow through with this, or this is just a negotiating ploy, remains to be seen. It’s interesting to note that the item was put on the “consent agenda” for Wednesday’s city council meeting (the consent agenda is for routine and uncontroversial matters to be passed in one motion, without having to waste time to consider and vote on each one individually). This means that either it has unanimous support of the City Council–which would surprise me, especially for an acrimonious proposal such as this one–or Adams is bluffing.
- The immediate reason: The City is taking on the wrong target. If the mayor really wants to play hardball on this issue, he ought to go after the source of the problem: the state Legislature, which ended its support for the program in 2011, but which continues to subsidize suburban yellow bus service. Mayor Adams (and Portland Public Schools) could easily make a credible threat to Salem: Restore YouthPass funding, or PPS will replace it with yellow bus service, which the state is required to support under Oregon law. YouthPass is cheaper to operate than equivalent levels of yellow bus service, so restoring YouthPass funding would cost taxpayers less than having to support yellow busses in Portland. Of course the Legislature could try and exempt Portland from the yellow bus subsidy–screwing over PPS seems to be a popular past-time in Salem–but the optics would look far worse (including to those who don’t care much about public transit) than the current state of affairs.
- Where does Portland think TriMet will get the $2M? Unlike some transit advocates outside of government, who seem to think that TriMet is hiding the ball with its budget crisis (and cutting service in preference to cutting various alleged items of pork-barrel spending), the City of Portland likely has far better visibility into TriMet’s finances. Either it know where the bodies are buried (to paraphrase Norma Paulus), in which case it ought to be forthcoming about this, or it knows that there aren’t any (and perhaps doesn’t care). In addition, it’s entirely fair to point out that a good portion of TriMet’s operational commitments are on capital projects that Portland has either championed, or operates outright (such as the Streetcar).
- If Portland gets away with this move–and especially if this results in service cuts outside of Portland–who’s next? If TriMet further cuts suburban service, will suburban communities then respond with retaliatory fees of their own, or threaten to withdraw altogether? Could this lead to an end to regional transit service, as each city looks to operate their own agencies (or not), lest a dime of “their” tax moneys subsidize so much as a revenue-minute of service outside of their borders–with crosstown trips requiring paid transfers at every municipal boundary, with little co-operation on matters like schedules?
- The last time TriMet was subject to a power play of this sort, depending on what rumors you believe, the result was WES. (Washington County, with its strong industrial base and relatively low number of service hours, likely subsidizes the agency with payroll tax revenues collected within).
Even OPAL, which has been sharply critical of TriMet over the years, has come to the agency’s defense on this issue, which Jonathan Ostar called “concerning”. Regardless, this sort of power play can’t be good news. Local governments around the country have been suffering under the combined weight of loss of federal support, decreased tax revenues due to the recession, increasing pension and healthcare expenditures, and increasing levels of anti-government activism. Many of these wounds are self-inflicted, but have been building up for a long time. If the response of governments to the funding crises is going to be to try and screw each other over, nobody is going to win (except perhaps the Brothers Koch and their ilk), and everybody is going to lose–in particular, those who depend on the government for their education, transportation, or other vital services.
Hat tip to Al M, who got there first in the open thread.