Tag Archives | governance

TriMet and the Trust Gap, Part 2

Tuesday morning’s article, Under New Management: TriMet and the Trust Gap, sparked a lot of discussion–so much so that a followup article is in order. While it would be foolish to pretend that portlandtransport.com’s readers are representative sample of the wider community–the contributors here are self-selected for an interest in transit, whether pro or con–quite a few topics came to the fore.

Tuesday morning’s article, Under New Management: TriMet and the Trust Gap, sparked a lot of discussion–so much so that a followup article is in order. While it would be foolish to pretend that portlandtransport.com’s readers are representative sample of the wider community–the contributors here are self-selected for an interest in transit, whether pro or con–quite a few topics came to the fore.

Transparency, and how the “trust gap” is a two-way street.

One of the most important observation in the discussion, I think came from Michael at PortlandAfoot.com, who stated the following:

TriMet’s ballot issue strikes me an example of an institutional mistrust of the public.

Now, the agency’s policies could certainly be worse, and I know some are trying to make them better.

But after several months of covering TriMet, I’ve found it unpleasantly reminds me of the public housing agencies I’ve covered: A group of well-meaning public servants who are certain that voters, in their hearts, do not approve of their work.

Public servants who therefore conclude that voters must often be kept in the dark, for their own good.

This attitude does not tend to win voters’ trust.

While my direct dealing with TriMet are far more limited than Michael’s, what I have observed tends to corroborate his experiences. There has been much criticism of TriMet’s public participation initiatives from many quarters–a common complaint is that public input is ignored. Michael’s own website documents complaints of this nature–such as the practice of only allowing testimony at board meetins after other business (including voting) is complete. While it would be unusual for public testimony to reverse the outcome of a vote (if TriMet’s done their diligence, then none of the testimony should be surprising); I could see cases where it might delay one while new information is considered. Holding the vote before the testimony Looks Bad.

The agency is a leader in open-sourcing its operations data, enabling applications like TransitTracker and the transit appliance that Chris and others have been working on. Many other agencies regard even this sort of information as top-secret. But it would be nice if TriMet were more transparent about its planning work-product as well (this goes for Metro and JPACT as well) and its performance data–there’s a whole bunch of data which is in the category of if-you-ask-nicely-we-may-give-it-to-you, but which is not available online.

One likely reason for not making this available is a fear that transit opponents would take advantage of this data and use it to throw sand in the gears. Certainly, that is a possibility. But this is a transit-friendly town; and there are a whole lot of activists out there who stand ready to refudiate any such FUD, if only we had the data.

As the cliche goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

And, if that argument doesn’t win the day, it is perhaps useful to remind TriMet’s management and board (and every other public servant at all levels of government) of one important fact: You work for us (meaning the entire community). It’s far more important for us to trust you than the opposite.

Governance, and the NCLB theory of public administration

Most of you have probably heard of the No Children Left Behind Act, or NCLB. Those of you who (like me) have school-aged children almost certainly have. NCLB has been highly controversial in the education community, and while discussion of it is off-topic here, there’s one bit that is relevant to the present discussions of TriMet: NCLB’s enforcement mechanism. Schools which fail to meet the prescribed standards risk losing federal funding. Likewise, many opponents of 26-119 have asserted that TriMet management needs to be “taught a lesson”, and that withdrawal of funding is the best way about instituting reform.

In the private sector, where you typically have competing companies providing the same product or service in the marketplace, and a liquid equity market, this works, sometimes. Poorly-performing companies go out of business, or have their management sacked and replaced–assuming that there is in fact effective competition. Success and failure are easily measured–in dollars–and the actual product or service is (in modern Western capitalism) typically a means to the end of making money for investors. (No matter how much a business’s advertising may assert otherwise; the boss almost always gets the first slice from the pie).

What about public agencies? It is highly questionable as to whether this form of correction works in the public sector, where the goods and services provided are far less fungible, and are often unprofitable. Transit agencies (and public schools) don’t exist to make money for taxpayers (on the contrary, they require a tax subsidy), they exist to provide a specific service–public transportation, in the case of TriMet. Ignoring various types of privatization (which is a topic all on its own), there isn’t any way to switch to a different transit agency if one thinks TriMet is under performing in some fashion. Nor is the withdrawal of funds (either by defeat of a tax levy, or by loss of riders) likely to “punish” Neil McFarlane or the board–they’ll just cut back service or delay new bus purchases in response. Public sector administrators, by design, have a far smaller personal stake in their agencies than do private executives; thus it’s not clear that attempts to “teach them a lesson” result in the desired lesson being learned. (Often, the lesson learned instead is that the public is fickle and untrustworthy, leading to the problems discussed in the prior section).

In many cases, though, the public has an alternative for dealing with recalcitrant public officials–voting them (or their bosses) out of office. TriMet, whose board is presently appointed by the Governor, is a bit more isolated from the public, but the governance of TriMet is an issue. Metro has the right under TriMet’s charter to “take” the agency from Mahonia Hall–a right it so far has not exercised; though the latter agency was thoroughly annoyed by the opaque process by which McFarlane was hired. Isolating the agency from politics was probably a wise idea in the 1970s, when it was a bus company and little else; but given its elevated role in planning, a good argument can be made that it should be more directly answerable to metro-area voters.

And one other wrinkle to consider: What might happen if a certain former basketball player were to win the governor’s race on November 2? While Chris Dudley hasn’t commented much on public transit (unlike his primary opponent), his party has long been less friendly to transit than that of John Kitzhaber.

Missions, and what ought to be accomplished?

One of the other take-aways from the debate is that there’s a fundamental disagreement among many of us (and probably in the wider community) as to what TriMet’s mission ought to be; a fact which colors our respective views of the agency. Some may think that the current goals of TriMet are correct (even as they debate the merits of the execution); others believe that the agency’s overall mission is wrong, and it needs to be focusing on something else. Some would prefer to see the agency’s role (and budget) greatly expanded, including the substantial reallocation of resources currently dedicated to road construction. And there are more than a few who oppose public transit altogether and would prefer to simply shut TriMet down.

Yesterday’s Oregonian contained a most curious editorial–curious, considering the fact that the same editorial board expressed opposition to 26-119 (and had some unkind things to say about TriMet management) only a week before. The editorial, timed to coincide with the RailVolution conference recently concluded, praised TriMet’s expansion of the MAX system, and explicitly endorsed the Milwaukie line. (The article took a bit more conciliatory line to management in general, laying blame for the agency’s woes on the transit union). I was a bit surprised, and I suspect the juxtaposition of the two editorials may be astonishing to a few others.

But it might be explained by the paper’s view on what TriMet ought to be trying to accomplish. Just what the paper’s overall view on this subject is, I’m not sure–some of the “obvious” explanations aren’t terribly charitable to the O. But it’s clear that the editorial staff has a different vision of what TriMet ought to be accomplishing than, say, OPAL or Cascade Policy Institute, or AORTA. And the same is true for many of the readers here.


I don’t expect calls for greater transparency to be controversial, though if anyone disagrees, feel free to say so. But the other two broad topics should stimulate some interesting debate.

What should Tri-Met’s governance structure look like? As-is? Organized under Metro? A board who is elected by the public? And what should it’s role be in the planning process, compared to other agencies (ODOT, Metro, and the various cities and counties)?

What should the over-arching mission of TriMet be? The primary means of personal transportation within the metro area? What it is now? More focus on the poor? A minimal “system of last resort”?

And a third question, to tie it altogether: How can the public ensure that the agency is striving to meet the goals that the community asks of it?