Archive | Transportation governance

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.

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Is it Time for Our Own “Grand Bargain”?

No, not between the Democrats and Republicans…

Between the City and ODOT.

A little background – a week and a half ago, I took a tour with some ODOT folks of 82nd Ave and outer Powell to talk about what might be in store for these areas as part of our Comprehensive Plan update.


Valentine Khubeyev’s daughter speaking at the vigil in her honor

A few hours later, Valentine Khubeyev was struck by an SUV on the stretch of Powell I had toured, and died of her injuries a hours later. This past Friday evening, I attended a vigil commemorating this tragedy. A lot of frustration (link not working at the moment) was directed at the state of the street and at ODOT.

Now I don’t want to point fingers specifically at ODOT. There are certainly safety issues on City of Portland streets in East Portland as well, and there was a pedestrian fatality recently on Division. Lack of funds for safety improvements is a problem for all jurisdictions in Oregon. But I can’t help wondering if City policies that treat streets as places, not as highways, may ultimately create a better context for investments in safety. The Mayor has posed a similar question.

I recently raised the same point about Barbur Boulevard, where it’s clear to me that it would be much better off as a City street.

So here’s my “grand bargain”. Instead of dealing with these corridors one-by-one, should the City and ODOT negotiate the transfer of all the “orphan highways” in Portland, perhaps as part of the Comp Plan? The obstacle is probably not ownership, but rather funding. In the past, the City has been unwilling to accept these roads until they have been brought up to a certain standard. Maybe it’s time to look past this, and as the first order of business, get these corridors under a better set of policies?


Metro mulls question of TriMet takeover

The question of whether or not Metro should take over TriMet has come up again, with state Rep. Chris Gorsek (D-Troutdale) sponsors HB3316, which would mandate that Metro exercise its authority to do exactly that.

Metro councilors expressed a lack of interest and doing so, and have expressed an opinion that a Metro takeover of TriMet would not fundamentally address the issues facing the agency, with Tom Hughes calling the idea a “solution that doesn’t solve the problem”.

TriMet critics such as OPAL’s Jonathan Ostar disagree, stating that the current board is not responsive enough, particularly to the needs of the transit-dependent.

This is an issue which has come up several times before. With Tiffany Schweizer’s impending departure (her term expires at the end of June, and she is prohibited by term limits from any further service on the board), and another vacancy on the board waiting to be filled, there will be soon two openings for Governor Kitzhaber to fill.

The interesting questions, of course, are as follows:

  • What should the board do differently? Some have advocated replacing the current GM; others would require him to pursue different policies.
  • How would a change in the appointment structure of the board, cause the board to do those things differently?

Both questions are important.

In the past several years, Portland Transit has taken looks at the TriMet board. The former post is woefully out-of-date as to the personnel (the current board roster is here), but still is accurate with regard to the legal requirements.

What could a new board do differently?

While I’m frequently critical of TriMet and of its management–and of Metro President Hughes–Hughes is correct in that many things that constrain TriMet would do so no matter who occupy the board seats. While some of TriMet’s wounds have been recently self-inflicted, many are based on decisions made years ago, which TriMet cannot easily undo. Even if you think that the past eight years of rail projects (everything after the Yellow Line) were a bad idea, TriMet is more or less stuck with them; a new board would not likely be able to, without outside help, mothball WES, for instance.

A new management might adopt a different mix of tactical measures than the current one–such as a different fare structure, a different allocation of service, or further cuts to administrative functions.

One other possibility would be a dismantling of TriMet’s capital projects infrastructure–essentially, a layoff of the bulk of the capital projects division. Most (but not all) work that is done by capital projects is funded by grants and other constrained sources, and some of the work that is done would be necessary even in a transit agency that only provided local bus service and existing rail; but there might be some operational benefits to not doing capital projects. On the other hand, if you are of the view that most of TriMet’s capital projects (or at least the recent ones) are pork-laden boondoggles, or represent an unacceptable diversion of service from the transit-dependent to those who have alternative modes of transportation (including driving), salting this particular earth might be an attractive option.

The bottom line, of course, is what should TriMet’s overall mission be? Comprehensive transit service throughout the metro area? Quality transit service in the urbanized parts (but skeletal service to sprawl)? Service that focuses on the poor? Reductions in driving? Environmental outcomes, such as reduction in greenhouse gasses or overall energy consumption? Land-use outcomes? Is TriMet’s fundamental purpose to be a social service agency, a transit agency, or a green agency? Much of the arguments over what its proper course of action seem to stem from unspoken disagreements over this.

How would a new board be certain to implement policies that are desirable?

Much of the criticism of the current board centers around the fact that it was a) appointed by a mainstream, pro-business Democratic governor (and confirmed by a like-minded Senate), who doesn’t necessarily share the values and goals of either the political right, or of many on the left; and b) it is stuffed with business leaders and other “model citizen” types–folks who have demonstrated skills in things like management, law, or finance (and can be counted on not to pee on the carpet), but who may lack understanding of, or empathy with, communities that TriMet is charged with serving–particularly underprivileged riders. Many who advocate changing how the board is selected, do so out of a desire to alter the board’s composition.

The advice “be careful what you wish for”, arguably applies here–especially for TriMet’s critics on the left.

A Metro Council takeover is the easiest means to imagine happening–the current Council’s reluctance notwithstanding. Metro already has the legal right to do so. However, the Metro Council, after all, has a similar overall political lean as does the governor’s office. Tom Hughes is (much like Kitzhaber) a pro-business Democrat who is not afraid to give the environmental community the back of his hand. Metro does have more ardent liberals like Bob Stacey on board, but it’s political center of gravity is well within the Democratic Party mainstream, and more in tune with elite politics than the populist variety. (I’m actually surprised that no Tea Partiers have managed to get elected to the Metro council, particularly from the suburban districts–sooner or later, I expect AFP or similar groups to bankroll an insurgent run for the council–particularly in District 2). And keep in mind–many of the controversial decisions that TriMet gets blamed for were actually driven by Metro and the various municipal governments.

Depending on how district boundaries were drawn, a directly-elected TriMet board would likely have a similar composition as the Metro Council–and could potentially be gerrymandered to be dominated by the suburbs; the TriMet service district has a population of 1.5 million, but the city of Portland is only around 500k.

Other arrangements that I’ve seen proposed are likely unconstitutional. One such proposal is a board elected by pass-holders, but excluding those from participation who don’t use the system. While this would undoubtedly produce a rider-friendly board, it also undoubtedly flies in the face of the one-man-one-vote principle. If TriMet were private (or quasi-private), it might have greater freedom on how its governance is structured, but going that route would deprive the agency of the plenary powers of government–most notably taxation; an agency that still depended on elected officials for revenue could not be truly independent of them.

One other possibility might be legal restrictions on who may serve on the board–other boards and commissions that the governor appoints may have restrictions on composition. (The Oregon Transportation Commission, who oversees ODOT, is required to be politically and geographically diverse, for instance). Legislating requiring that some number of TriMet board members be transit users (or even carless), or have professional expertise in transit planning or related fields, could be introduced. (Personally, I wouldn’t mind a ban on anyone involved in real estate from being on the board, but that’s not going to happen, and likely not legal). For a long time, the board traditionally had a labor representative, a tradition broken only recently when Lynn Lehrbach of the Teamsters was replaced with a nominee with no union background.

Revisting TriMet and Metro

Garlynn Woodsong is a planner and a frequent commenter from Portland Transport’s early days. He has recently returned to Portland after an assignment in California.

A recent visit to San Diego opened my eyes to another possibility for the reorganization of transit in the Portland region.

Currently, Metro does regional transportation and land use planning, while Tri-Met does regional transit planning (finer grain of detail than Metro), transit project construction and transit operations and maintenance.

In San Diego, SANDAG does regional transportation (including transit) and land use planning, as well as transit capital projects (construction); the transit operators just handle simple service planning, operations and maintenance.

We have previously discussed having Metro perform a wholesale takeover of TriMet, and the pros and cons of this approach.

But, what if Metro were to only take over the TriMet Capital Projects Office and long-rang planning functions, leaving TriMet to handle short-range service planning, operations and maintenance?

This would allow Metro to have a more direct link between long-range planning (coordinating land use and transportation) and the implementation of those plans; it could also handle the funding of those capital projects.

TriMet could then be freed from the political heat involved in capital projects; it could focus on its core strengths of running the regional transit system. Shenanigans involving taking from the TriMet general fund to pay for capital projects would be made more difficult… which would hopefully free up funding to pay for the operations of new lines constructed by Metro.

The two agencies would still need to work as closely together as they do today, especially with regards to find operations funding for new lines, and for projects like system-wide electrification (if something like that were to happen). But, it could be a win-win…

I’m not necessarily advocating for this move; I’m simply putting it out there for discussion of a possibility that I don’t think has been thoroughly vetted in this region yet.

Any thoughts?

Some (more) friendly advice for TriMet

As noted in the Open Thread, TriMet’s board approved the agency’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget at today’s board meeting, a somewhat controversial proposal that included the abolition of Free Rail Zone, a fare hike and a flattening of the fare structure, and another round of service cuts. The good folks at OPAL were out in force, advocating for their alternate budget which included (as the big ticket items) a significant reduction in TriMet’s Streetcar subsidy, and a far smaller contingency plan.
I have my concerns with the OPAL proposal–in particular, reducing the contingency fund does not strike me as wise, given the uncertainty around TriMet’s labor situation. Were the contingency fund to be reduced and then TriMet to lose, an additional $5M or more in service cuts would have to be imposed. If TriMet prevails, the money not spent this year can be used to offset necessary cuts next year, or even restore service. And a good argument can be made that the Streetcar contribution represents a contractual obligation of TriMet that can’t be cut. (Whether this was a wise idea in the first place is another matter, but that’s water under the bridge).

However, TriMet would be wise to treat presenters at its board meetings with greater respect, even if it ultimately rejects their advice. The agency seems to have developed an affinity for procedural shenanigans to cut off debate that they don’t want to hear, such as trying to exclude the OPAL proposal from consideration as it wasn’t on the agenda. Perhaps its the case that the board made up its mind long ago, feels that further discussion of the matter is a waste of everybody’s time, and is only holding a public forum due to the requirements of open meetings law–but this no way to run a railroad. The people of OPAL are TriMet’s friends and customers. Unlike some others who show up and testify at TriMet board meetings, OPAL wants to improve the agency and its service, not undermine and/or abolish it.

With that in mind, some longer-term advice for the agency. Some of this is stuff I’ve written before, but it bears repeating.

Constrain capital projects

Notice that I’m not saying “stop” or “embargo” or “moratorium”. “Constrain” is a less restrictive term. But there are specific issues–real and perceived–with parts of the region’s capital spending on transit–which have caused some critics of the agency to regard all capital spending as suspect.

Major capital projects ought to be subject to the following conditions.

  • To the extent that projects depend on either TriMet’s operating revenue and/or bonding authority, they ought to have a positive return on investment. Buying new busses is an example of an obvious win–it’s far more cost effective to keep a fleet within its service life than it is to scrape along with busses that break down all the time, may not have parts available, and lack modern amenities (or need to use wheelchair lifts for ADA compliance). This is even true if the agency has to borrow money to buy the vehicles.
  • Conversely, if a project is funded mostly or solely from grant monies, be very mindful of what strings may be attached to those grants, particularly if the service is not expected to serve a great number of riders. Many FTA grants for new capital projects require continuous operation of the service for a long period of time, which reduces the agency’s ability to respond to downturns or other adverse conditions. And if the project is a boondoggle–a certain Washington County commuter rail line comes to mind–this can be an expensive mistake to make. If TriMet is to make service commitments, it should ensure that it is on routes/corridors where it expects to need to provide that service. A key objection to the Streetcar subsidy is that TriMet might choose to reduce service on the Streetcar corridors to implement budget cuts, on the grounds that it’s a lower-priority service, but is prevented from doing so and thus has to cut bone instead.
  • Projects should not result in reduced or less attractive transit service for the majority of affected users. This doesn’t mean that routes should never be reconfigured, but adverse effect should be minimized–particularly loss of service altogether, loss of service span, or significant reductions in speed or frequency. If one-seat rides are replaced with transfers, then the transfers ought to be timed or frequent.
  • Projects that are being primarily for reasons other than improving transit service or efficiency (such as economic development, garnering Federal grants, land use/placemaking, or improving environmental outcomes), in particular, need to be done in such a way to avoid adverse effects on existing transit service and customers. Many elected officials, not charged with operating TriMet, seem to like leveraging the agency for FTA grants. While this often has a net benefit for the overall economy–FTA grants are essentially “free money”–the political sponsors of these programs may not always be mindful of the potential impacts on those who depend on the service. In the worst cases, they may not care–they may not have transit riders as part of their constituency (or riders may be constituents who can be easily marginalized). As the transit provider, TriMet needs to act as gatekeeper to ensure that it projects are in the best interests of the riders that it is charged to serve. TriMet, first and foremost, is in the transportation business, and its primary focus needs to be getting people from A to B.

More transparency, please
This should go without saying, but sunlight is the best disinfectant. Anywhere there’s a black box, there will be people wondering what is hiding inside the box. Other than Human Resources data or information concerning ongoing negotiations, bids, etc.–there’s very little information at TriMet that merits secrecy. TriMet is not the State Department; nor is it a public corporation that needs to keep trade secrets safe from competitors. As much internal planning, forecasting, and other data as possible should be made public–and “made public” ought to include “downloadable from the Internet”. This includes things like primary source data for published reports, so others can check the agency’s work. No need to spend money on fancy web infrastructure–simply putting this up on an FTP site will suffice; those of use in the activist/journalist business will be happy to assist with cataloging and arranging the interesting stuff.
A Culture of Ridership
This topic heading may sound too buzz-wordy (management-speak is full of platitudes about cultures of this or that), but it’s an important point, and one that it can be argued, subsumes all the others made in this article: TriMet needs to focus on its riders. Period. Not on being a conduit for federal funds. Not on transit oriented development. Not on technology. TriMet needs to focus on ridership and service. Other goals may be important, particularly environmental outcomes (and transit plays a big part in this!) but these are things that TriMet should not be the owner of. TriMet needs to own transit–that, and nothing else, is its raison d’etre.

And if necessary, TriMet needs to have a management structure which reinforces that. Right now, the TriMet board answers to the governor, meaning there’s a loss of focus on the needs of the Portland metro area. And the board has long consisted of business and political leaders, often with little or no transit knowledge. While many of these folks are certainly competent in their fields, it isn’t a stretch to suggest that many are appointed in large part due to their connections, their status as “community pillars”, and the overall gravitas of their resumes, not because of specific qualifications in the field of public transit or an ability to represent the interests of riders. And in some cases, the appointment may give rise to the appearance of a conflict of interest, such as is the case when real estate interests find themselves seated on the board.

And this, if I may make the suggestion, is an area where OPAL and other rider advocates may help. Metro seems to not be interested in taking over TriMet (though they have legal authority to do so), and legislative changes to TriMet’s organization structure are likewise not on the radar. If an agency which truly represents the interests of riders is the goal, then governance which is congruent with that goal would be a highly beneficial thing.