Archive | Transportation Politics

Cars are from Mars, Busses (and Bikes and Trains) are from Venus

In the open thread, I mentioned that a Clark County legislator (Republican Liz Pike) wanted to “restart” the CRC project.  The Columbian has the scoop–and not surprisingly, Rep. Pike’s opening bid is to get rid of light rail.  Obviously, such a proposal isn’t going to be acceptable to those of us in Oregon–a state of affairs which was rather confusing to the folks in the combox, mostly Vancouverites, and mostly opposed to MAX expansion (but more than eager to have a wider freeway).

Part of the reason the debate gets so heated–and there’s plenty of bashing of Vancouverites that goes on in Oregon (including, unfortunately, in our combox), is that the two sides don’t understand each other and empathize with each other.  Rural Clark County (and Clackamas County) is full of people that don’t really care to live in urban environments–thinking them to be nasty, crowded, and full of crime.  (Sometimes such attitudes are informed by racism, though certainly not always).  That people who live in Portland may like it the way it presently is, and may view freeway expansion as a threat to urban living, does not commute.  Of course, the reverse is also true–many Portlanders like to snark about “Vantucky”, and engage in all sorts of stereotyping about “white trash” and such, and can’t imagine that someone might actually prefer to live in Battle Ground or Woodland  (or for that matter, Canby or Molalla or Banks), completely dependent on the automobile, and far away from the action here in the city.   Many people who live in rural or semi-rural areas like it that way, and are terrorized by the thought of waking up one morning and finding that the Big City has come out to them.  Right or wrong (and certainly, a LRT line to Clark College poses little threat of upzoning in  Battle Ground), people on both sides of the river fear change, and often see “foreign” infrastructure as a threat, not as a benign (let alone beneficial) improvement.

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Transit and those dependent upon it

There’s been quite a bit in the national press this week about the subject. Amanda Hess, writing for Atlantic Cities, penned an article called Race, class, and the Stigma of Riding the Bus in America. This article drew quite a bit of attention, including a somewhat scathing criticism from Jarrett Walker, who objected to the article’s focus on “white people” as a proxy for higher economic classes, particularly in a the context of a majority-minority city like Los Angeles (on which the Hess article focuses). Not to be outdone, the long-time transit and poverty advocates supporters at Reason (yes, that was sarcasm) penned an article called How Rail Screws the Poor, accusing LACMTA of building rail projects to wealthy communities while cutting bus service elsewhere. Zooming out, a new Brookings Institute report looks at employer access to labor via transit in major US cities. (Portland does quite well on this report, actually).

The issue of whether how well transit systems ought to be optimized to focus on the “transit-dependent”–those who generally don’t have reliable alternatives to public transit for journeys too long to walk or bike–is a major topic in local transit debates. OPAL got started as advocates for those in poverty (though they’ve expanded their focus to all transit riders), and service to the poor is still a major issue. TriMet, for its part, claims that “equity” is a big part of their mission, though many of the agency’s critics would likely dispute that (or argue they are failing to carry this mission out). Unfortunately, the subject is frequently a major source of heat rather than light.
On the transit dependent

Many transit advocates hate the term “transit-dependent”. Many of us dislike even more the term “captive rider”. Both terms, and especially the latter, frame transit as a bad thing–something to be avoided if possible. (This is one reason I like to talk about the auto-dependent; whether a car is liberating or limiting depends on where you live). The terms also promote the notion that there exists a class of rider whose needs not be considered when doing service planning–they will use the service no matter what, so a transit agency can safely go ahead and ignore (or screw) them. (The private sector gouges the poor enough already).

However, it is clear that there are some people who have greater dependency on public transit than others; and in virtually all of the country, land use and infrastructure investments favor motorists over transit riders. Pretending otherwise isn’t beneficial–it fails to reflect reality, and it can also lead to those who depend upon transit to have their needs neglected. Even if an organization cares deeply about the poor and makes equitable service part of its mission, the needs of the “transit-dependent” rider will often be different than the needs of the so-called “choice rider”; and failure to account for these difference will often look like gouging or neglect.

Transit elasticity of demand

One way to characterize a rider’s dependence upon something is via the economic concept of elasticity. Elasticity (assuming that it can be measured with some precision) is roughly defined as the marginal percent change in consumption divided by the marginal percent change in price (or some other parameter)–roughly speaking, it’s a normalized derivative of the demand curve. Price is the usual parameter for elasticity, but other parameters besides price drive consumer behavior. In the case of transit, patrons are also interested in things like coverage, service span, frequency, reliability, speed, comfort, safety, social status, and amenities. Many of these things are difficult to quantify, let alone subject to a rigorous elasticity analysis, but if transit is made more useful and/or pleasant to use, it will attract riders; conversely if it is made to suck more, than they will be driven away.

Overall, a commonly used “overall” price elasticity figure for transit is -0.3, which means that for a given percentage rise in price, one can expect a -0.3% change in ridership. (The -0.3 figure is somewhat disputed; here is a good reference). If one accepts -0.3 as a valid value, this means that raising prices will increase revenue–the additional fare revenue will only be partially offset by passengers leaving the service–an important point to remember when considering TriMet’s FY13 budget planning. (Interestingly enough, analysis of the Portland Streetcar indicates that raising prices does not raise revenue; implying an elasticity closer to -1.0. If this is correct, this would imply that either the Streetcar ridership is less dependent on transit in general; or many trips on the Streetcar are more easily substituted. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest the latter; it is often used for short trips that could easily be made on foot).

Often times, elasticity measures are computed and reported for an entire population. In practice, different members of a given population will express different elasticities for something. In the case of transit, this manifests itself as a significant subset of the ridership whose personal elasticity is closer to 0–the transit dependent–and another subset whose elasticity is far greater (in the negative direction) than the mean.

What do the dependent need?

Some riders are completely dependent on the service–they have no access to a car (or other motorized transport) whatsoever. Others may have limited dependency–someone in a household with more adults than automobiles, or who uses a service like Zipcar may have part-time access to an automobile, but not have one available on demand. Others have a car in the garage, ready to run on a moment’s notice, and elects to use transit only to avoid a difficult commute (or for reasons such as reducing one’s personal carbon footprint). These groups of riders have very different needs.

The first group needs comprehensive service–that runs to all parts of the cities, at as many hours of the day as possible. Frequency and speed are important as well, but likely take a back seat to basic availability. If you have no option other than transit, and the bus or train doesn’t run to a place when you need it to, then you can’t go there.

Part-time transit users can often afford to give up comprehensive service, and are often more interested in transit service optimized for specific trips, most often the commute. Many in this camp will use transit when it’s convenient, and not use it otherwise–and may find themselves preferring transit solutions that optimize the most common trips over the less-utilized routes and corridors. To the extent that “choice riders” can easily abandon the bus or train, they may demand amenities and virtues beyond basic service parameters like span, coverage, frequency, speed, or reliability.

The problem? Reconciling these two goals can be difficult.

The paradox of rapid transit

A major source of objection to capital-intensive rapid transit projects is that rapid transit tends to correlate more with the needs of the choice rider. This is not to say that it isn’t usable by the transit-dependent–of course it is. All riders benefit from fast, frequent service. Many capital projects which have been maligned by demagogues (whether on the right, like the Reason editors, or on the left, like the LA Bus Riders Union) in fact provide a great deal of service to the poor. But rapid transit, by its nature, focuses on corridors–corridors which are then optimized for fast, efficient, and reliable service. This is great if you live/work in the corridor. It’s good if you can drive to a park and ride, or take good connecting transit to reach the corridor. It’s bad if you are carless, and the connecting transit is poor or nonexistent–then the corridor is of little benefit to you.

Another way to put it: Transit dependent riders frequently depend on so-called social-service transit; choice riders are more likely to make do with “ridership-focused” transit. (See here and here).

Doing it right

Does this mean that building rapid transit is a mistake? Certainly not. Many large cities, including virtually all of the largest metropolises on the planet, would not function without quality rapid transit. The key, however, is to build rapid transit on top of a an existing, thriving, and functional basic service network–which in the US is typically local bus.

The problem comes when a city builds rapid transit lines, but without a core network of comprehensive basic (typically bus) service–or cuts basic service to fund rapid transit. There are plenty of examples of boondoggle light-rail or streetcar projects being built in US cities with poor bus service. These lines tend only to serve the destinations within walking distance (or park-and-ride users), and generally have poor ridership as a result. The network effects which make transit transformative, simply are not there.

TriMet has avoided this problem, for the most part. The Blue, Red, and Yellow lines were laid on top of an existing, high quality bus network. Bus service leaves something to be desired out in Hillsboro or Gresham, but is good in the core. However, the recent opening of the Green Line was more problematic, While the proximate causes of Portland’s recent service cuts are factors other than MAX–TriMet didn’t plan the Green Line with the intent of sharply reducing the frequent bus network, the fact that its opening coincided with the recession and the subsequent service cuts, did not look good. There’s a significant danger that the opening of PMLR will have similar issues–TriMet isn’t planning on reducing bus service to fund Milwaukie MAX (other than redundant lines like the 33 and the 99), but if the financial picture doesn’t improve, PMLR may be an additional expense that will have repercussions elsewhere.

Additional complications arise.

  • Rapid transit lines (unlike freeways) are frequently regarded as a valuable amenity to live near, which can have the perverse long-term effect of pushing the poor away from the transit service they are dependent on. Much of greater Portland’s lower-income population lives outside the inner city. While Portland has built MAX lines into lower-income communities like Rockwood or south of Lents, the strongest concentration of service is in the “core” between the West Hills and I-205, Johnson Creek and Killingsworth–a region which contains some pockets of poverty (particularly in the eastern corners) but is mostly middle-class in nature.
  • In times of economic difficulty, the lines which are easiest to cut are the social service lines–as they are the ones which lose the most money. No matter how much an agency cares about equity, it has to balance its books at the end of the day.
  • Exacerbating the problem, many grant-funded capital projects include operational commitments as part of their funding conditions. Many proposed delaying the Green Line opening as a way of dealing with the recession, on the grounds that it was mostly redundant with the 72 bus and the existing Red and Blue lines into downtown. The trouble with that proposal was that TriMet had to run it. This is especially a problem when a capital project turns out to be a boondogggle.

Some advice

For TriMet: I would get the operational house in order prior to any more major capital expansions on rapid transit corridors. (I’m not talking about Portland-Milwaukie, which is already in progress, but things beyond that). There are plenty of ways that capital dollars can be spent (assuming local politicians will continue to have a goal of winning federal grants to goose the local economy) that don’t place all the eggs in one geographic basket.

For the USDOT/FTA/Congress: Funding of capital projects (both urban rapid transit and urban freeways) ought to be conditioned upon having a thriving and useful bus service in place–before laying track or pouring concrete, efficient use of existing infrastructure should be encouraged. Transit projects without good bus service lack the network effects to be successful. The best transit projects are those that are built to relieve overcrowding in an existing bus system, not ones dependent on speculative new riders, even if one suspect that there are large numbers of potential patrons who will ride trains but not bus. And likewise, freeway construction should be discouraged until more efficient utilization of existing streets is made. (Transit project is subject to unfair funding competition with freeways as it is; it would be undesirable for a proposal design to reduce boondoggle projects to have the effect of diverting funds to highways instead).

City of Portland engages in outrageous $2M power-play against TriMet.

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.

WeAllRideTheBus and reform at TriMet

One of the interesting developments of the past few weeks is that the organizational efforts of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon seem to be bearing fruit. TriMet’s recent scaled-back service cuts seem to take many of OPAL’s concerns into account (notwithstanding the warning that additional cuts may be back on the table if labor negotiations don’t go TriMet’s way), and now OPAL has managed to recruit some more serious political muscle into its advocacy, with its new campaign, We All Ride The Bus. In this organizational effort, OPAL is joined by several heavier hitters, including Gunderson (a railcar manufacturer in NW Portland, adversely affected by proposed reductions to Line 17 service) and SEIU Local 49, to campaign for improvements to TriMet’s basic transit service, primarily the bus system..

This past week, We All Ride The Bus held a press conference in which they released their proposed Alternative Solutions for the TriMet budget, which are reproduced after the jump. (They can also be read at OPAL’s Facebook page).

First, TriMet must ensure full transparency and accountability by using the most current projections for next year’s budget. TriMet should update its analysis of the payroll tax revenue and federal grant projections so everyone can be more fully informed of the situation.
Second, instead of resorting to fare increases and service cuts, TriMet should fully analyze alternative cost-savings and revenue-generating options. Some initial alternatives include:

  1. Premium Fares for Premium Service: Portlanders currently have access to a variety of free and convenient services that come at a high price to TriMet and its budget. Charging a reasonable user fee for Park-&-Ride lots can generate $1.5 million per year, while charging a premium fare for the Westside Commuter Service (WES) can generate $500,000. Services that cost the region more money to build and operate should be proportionately priced.
  2. Portland Streetcar Subsidies: TriMet should trim payments to the City of Portland (currently $6 million each year) to subsidize the expansion and operation of the Streetcar. Although the city’s investment in the Streetcar has brought many new businesses and economic opportunities to the area, these investments shouldn’t be at the expense of bus service or affordable fares for other areas of the region.
  3. Performance Efficiency Measures: It is imperative that TriMet start investing in our bus system for the long term. TriMet should be looking at ways to get buses moving faster, such as installing ticket validation machines to expedite the boarding process and maximizing the use of bus jump lanes and traffic signal prioritization. A more efficient bus system will save money, allow TriMet to increase frequency and will give its customers reason to believe in – and ride – the bus again.
  4. Reevaluate Future Capital Rail Project Investments: Keeping our current commitments is important, but in a budget crisis, future capital investments in rail expansion projects should be put on hold until current services can be funded sufficiently. As with any business facing operational cut backs, TriMet should exhaust all options to postpone future capital expenses if they are restricting operating expenses for the bus system.

In general, I agree with the substance of these proposals. While I’m hopeful that rapid transit can be added to the SW Corridor in the mid-term, and don’t object to planning activities now underway, I think that in the nearer term, strengthening the existing transit system, in particular our bus system, is vitally important.

But beyond the above suggestions, there’s a few other things I think need to be on the table.

A conversation about the purpose of transit

A big disconnect that I’ve long noticed is that TriMet, and many transit wonks, are convinced that the current program of building out light rail is fundamentally a good idea–yet many existing patrons, who may not use the new services but see their own bus lines being cut–beg to differ. Cameron Johnson of Bus Riders Unite (another OPAL project), in testimony before the TriMet board meeting, compared the agency to a slumlord that neglects his rental properties (the bus system) and instead concentrates his resources on building the nicest swimming pool on the block (MAX) to impress friends and outsiders. The analogy reveals a fundamental belief about rail expansion that some hold–that it’s a frivolous boondoggle, unrelated to the agency’s primary mission. On the other hand, about a third of all TriMet boarding rides are on MAX–so clearly, it can be argued, it’s providing living space, to continue the analogy. (A better analogy might be that MAX is shiny the new apartments going in next door, while the old ones are being neglected).

Why the disconnect? Different people have different beliefs about the fundamental mission of TriMet.

Two years ago, I did a post over at Dead Horse Times on the different missions (and anti-missions–go read the article) that a transit agency might seek to fulfill. OPAL, BRU, and other rider organizations are generally most concerned about mobility-oriented missions: comprehensive and thorough basic transit service, with a particular focus on social justice. Making sure people can use the system to get from point A to point B, in a reasonable fashion and at a reasonable price. And if one is primarily concerned with these ends, a comprehensive, distributed bus network is one of the best ways to achieve it. Concentrating resources in dedicated corridors, which is what rapid transit necessarily involves, doesn’t serve these missions very well.

Many in our political leadership, however, have environmental-oriented missions in mind: Attracting people out of cars. Transforming the built environment to a more sustainable form. Reducing emissions, including of transit rolling stock. And the way you support these missions is to build electric-powered rapid transit (which generally means rail, as trolleybusses are not effective in rapid transit roles), build out to suburbia, provide amenities to so-called “choice” riders who might otherwise choose to drive, curtail or shorten “low-performing” routes, and encourage (or even invest in) transit-oriented development–including providing transit service to new developments on a speculative basis.

This, I think, is a big part of why the two sides in this are not communicating well. People trying to get to their jobs and live out their lives are not as likely to be sympathetic to more abstract environmental concerns, which frequently are found higher up on the hierarchy of needs. It’s easy to conclude that rather than being driven by an environmental agenda, leaders are being driven by pork-barrel politics or other base motives (a desire to make Portland appear more cosmopolitan or “European” is often suggested as a hidden rationale for capital transit investment). Of course, leaders, for their part, are in many cases following the law–regional plans include environmental goals (reduce VMT, reduced emissions) that leaders have to adhere to.

Rather than continuing to talk past each other, the political leadership of the Metro area and OPAL and other ridership groups need to come to an understanding on this. And rather than diverting resources from existing to new service as an operations detail, a public conversation ought to be had as to how much of our transit dollars will be spent on providing basic service, and how much will be spent on projects with a primary environmental rather than mobility bent.

Endowment

In Part 3 of our recent interview with Neil McFarlane, he noted that TriMet board policy limits the agency’s debt ratio to 7.5% of operating revenues. (I suspect that this policy excludes the unfunded pension and OPEB obligations, which are closer to 200% of operating revenues–albeit most of this debt will not come due for years if not decades). And there’s a good reason for this policy, beyond the obvious one of not getting too far into hock: operational dollars are the most scarce kind. The FTA will happily throw money your way for capital projects, but operating grants are rare–most operating revenue comes from fares, the payroll tax, and a small amount from other sources such as advertising.

One of the major criticism of the Milwaukie MAX project is that TriMet is issuing $60 million in bonds backed by payroll tax revenues to get to $745 million dollars. While the FTA matches that $60M, the bonded money represents revenue lost to operations until the bonds are retired. The Oregon Legislature has approved a small hike in the payroll tax to offset this, but that’s money that could go to service (or to funding the aforementioned pension and OPEB obligations).

Not funding operations has been a longstanding FTA policy. It’s a dumb one in my opinion, but it’s unlikely to change soon.

However, Uncle Sam only provides half of the capital costs for MLR–the other half is provided by local sources: Metro, municipal governments, and the state of Oregon. And these local governments don’t have a set-in-stone policy of only financing capital costs.

Thus–rather than going to the Oregon Legislature and asking for lottery dollars to build the next MAX line; what about instead asking for money to start an endowment–a pool of money which sits in a safe place, possibly managed by a trustee? Having such a thing in place could solve several problems:

  • First, the interest on this could be used to fund operations, or short-term capital needs (like bus replacement).
  • Second, the endowment could be nominally pledged to the pension/OPEB obligations, helping TriMet clean up its balance sheet.
  • Third, the money might be drawn down (borrowed from) in lean times as a way of tiding the agency through recessions, to help avoid service cuts at a time when additional service is often needed

The downside of this sort of an endowment is large piles of money tend to attract people looking to capture it for themselves: Labor might try to use it to justify pay/benefit raises; anti-tax groups might try and demand a reduction in payroll taxes, etc. So this has to be managed carefully. But all else being equal, I’d rather TriMet be earning interest rather than paying it.
Separation of operations and capital planning
This next suggestion is as much a political suggestion as anything else. In many ways, TriMet is two agencies, joined at the hip. One is a transit operations company, which provides bus and train service to the general public. The other is a capital projects agency, which designs and builds stuff. Many of the things these two halves of the agency do are separate–operations are mostly funded as noted above, capital projects are mostly funded through grants–but this distinction is not often well-understood.

If TriMet had a dollar for every time somebody suggested solving the budget crisis by laying off planners or engineers, it wouldn’t have a budget crisis. The fact of the matter is, though, most of the folks on the capital projects side of the house are being paid by funding sources that simply can’t be diverted to operations.

Given that–might it be useful if the capital planning function was housed elsewhere (Metro, perhaps), or at least treated as a separate agency with separate books?

There would be many consequences to such a re-org, so at this point I’m mainly proposing it as an area of further study–but it might be worth considering.

Mayoral debate Monday, Feb 6, on active transportation issues

From Evan Manvel on the O-TRAN mailing list:

For those near Portland, there’s a debate between Smith, Brady, and Hales on active transportation issues this upcoming Monday.

Feb 6, 7pm
Lincoln Performance Hall
Portland State University

A forum for Mayoral candidates Eileen Brady, Charlie Hales, and Jefferson Smith to answer questions regarding their priorities and positions on active transportation in the Portland metropolitan area.

Topics will include public transit, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, equity considerations, funding concerns, public health and safety, and projects that impact the Portland region.

Doors open at 6:15 with light refreshments provided. The forum is open to the public, admission is free, and seats will be filled on a first-come basis!!

Evan