Tag Archives | milwaukie MAX

Should TriMet consider the MOS for Milwaukie MAX?

Should TriMet consider the MOS for Milwaukie MAX, particularly if funding from Clackamas County is no longer available?
The Portland-Milwaukie MAX project commenced construction last year, albeit concentrated in downtown. Trees have been ripped out along SW Lincoln, work on the bridge has started, and work is also starting on the so-called “Harbor Structure”, a viaduct over Harbor Drive between SW Naito and SW Gibbs. Work on the bulk of the project, beyond the new bridge, doesn’t start until next year.

That hasn’t stopped activists in Clackamas County, who are skeptical of the project, from trying to block the county (and the city of Milwaukie) from contributing funding. Whether these effort a) are legal, and b) will succeed at the ballot box, but my guess is the latter question will be a yes–and the former question is a big I-don’t-know.

County commissioner Paul Savas, who is critical of the project, has suggested that Clackamas County renegotiate the contract (already executed) which commits the county to pay $25 million to the project in exchange for MAX being built to the Oak Grove area. One proposal that he makes–and which has also been previously suggested here as a potential fallback plan– is that instead of constructing the full line to Oak Grove, the region instead construct the MOS to Milwaukie, and stop there.
What is a MOS?

MOS stands for “minimum operating segment”. It is a standard part of a federally-funded project’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which specifies a smaller subset of a project which, if built, would still meet cost-effectiveness goals. Identification of the MOS serves several purposes–it helps a project deal with funding contingencies–such as a participating government agency withdrawing their contribution–and it also helps (in theory) to make sure a boondoggle section isn’t tacked on to the tail end of an otherwise useful project.

According to the Record of Decision, the full version of the project (the Locally Preferred Alternative, or LPA) consists of a two tracked light rail line from Portland to Oak Grove, terminating at Park Avenue, with 11 new stations, 20 new rail cars, several viaducts, and the Big Bridge over the Willamette River. Two stations, at SE Tacoma and Park Avenue would have park-and-rides, with capacities of 800 and 600 spaces respectively.

The MOS consists of the entire full line, except for the last station. The line would instead end at Lake Road station in Milwaukie, rather than ending at the Park Avenue station in Oak Grove. The MOS would eliminate the construction of a viaduct over McLoughlin Bouleavard, and the Park Avenue station. Instead of building a park-and-ride at Park Avenue, it would be built at Lake Road instead (the LPA has no park-and-ride at this stop). Only 16 new railcars would be purchased instead of 20.

The FEIS contains one other option–and this is what TriMet actually intends to build. It’s described as the “phasing option”, and it is essentially the same as the LPA, but with only a surface parking lot (no garage) at Tacoma Street, giving 320 spaces instead of 800, and a smaller structure at Park Avenue, with 355 spaces instead of 600. It also includes potentially fewer railcars, and a few other cost-saving measures (such as fewer switches along the line, where trains can transfer from one track to the other).

There does not appear to be a “phased MOS” option, which combines the cost savings of the phased LPA with the elimination of Park Avenue.

The numbers

How much are the various options projected to cost? In year-of-expenditure dollars, the figures are as follows (all figures taken from Table 5-1.1 of the FEIS, page 5-4):

  • For the LPA to Park Avenue, US$1.55 billion.
  • For the LPA Phasing option, $1.49 billion (a savings of about $60 million from the full LPA).
  • For the MOS, $1.38 billion (a savings of about $170 million from the full LPA, and $110 million from the phasing option

Projected ridership by 2030 is as follows–and here’s where it gets interesting (all figures taken from secion S.5.1.1 of the FEIS, in the Executive Summary).

  • For the LPA to Park Avenue: 25,570 daily trips.
  • For the phased approach, 22, 700 trips.
  • The MOS: 24,810 trips

Note that the MOS, which is $100 million less expensive, nonetheless produces over 2000 more daily trips than the phased LPA–and the difference between it and the full LPA is only about 760 daily trips.

Hmm. While I’m generally not fond of cost/rider as a metric, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, I’ll do the calculations. For the full LPA, that works out to $60.6k per new rider. The MOS, $55.6k/rider. The phasing option: $65.6k per new rider.

What this tells us is that ridership is dependent on ample park-and-ride spaces. That isn’t terribly surprising–Clackamas County is not terribly dense nor transit-oriented, so many users of the MAX from the county will be driving to a park-and-ride; fewer spaces will naturally depress ridership. It also suggests that the bulk of the riders using Park Avenue will be users of the park-and-ride, and will happily drive an extra mile or so to a different park and ride. But it also tells us that the option that TriMet is planning to build, is apparently the least cost-effective one–there’s more bang for buck to be had by eliminating the Park Avenue station (and the trackwork and viaducts needed to reach it) then there is from the various cost-reduction exercises undertaken to produce the phased approach.

More numbers

Let’s now turn to the question of paying for the thing. Most of the local funding for the project is secure–right now the only doubtful piece is $25 million from Clackamas County, and $5 million from Milwaukie. Since there is a 1:1 federal match on the local contribution, were this $30 million to vanish, so would another $30 million from Uncle Sam–for a grand total of $60 million. There isn’t sufficient local funding to build the full LPA; the best the region can do with pledged funding sources (including the Clackamas County portion and the federal match thereon) is the phased approach. Without Clackamas County’s share (and match), even the phased approach can’t be afforded.

However, the MOS is still quite affordable even without Clackamas County’s share–it costs $110 million less than the phased LPA. If the region built that, it could do so without a dime of Clackamas County’s money, and still have $50 million left over. Uncle Sam would keep half of the cost under-run, but that would leave $25 million. Which brings up an interesting question: Who would get it?

My suspicion is that the under-run proceeds would either be spent on additional capital improvements (such as the recent solar panels at the current end of the Green Line), or divided up among the contributing governments in rough proportion to their contributions. But given that TriMet has pledged operating dollars to help float a bond to finance MLR, it would be nice to think that the cost savings could be used to offset that.

Other thoughts

At the recent #askneil event on Twitter (transcript here), I asked Neil McFarlane about the prospect of building the MOUS:

@engineerscotty: Any thought to only building PMLR MOUS to Milwaukie, w/o Park Avenue, if Clack Co voters block county from contributing its share?

Neil responded thusly:

@talktrimet: @engineerscotty The petition drive in Clack Co is still an evolving process; too early to speculate.

@talktrimet: @engineerscotty Clack Co has committed has to light rail and to the $25M contribution to build the line to Park Ave.

Unfortunately, he didn’t answer the question–something I don’t consider promising.

However, building the MOS might have other advantages:

  • Public goodwill. TriMet’s reputation is not in the greatest shape at the moment, with many accusations abounding about the agency’s motives–including a significant number of folk who believe the MLR project is about pork-barrel politics, not transit improvement. Voters in Clackamas County, in particular, are skeptical. While some of this is no doubt motivated by hard-core anti-transit ideology from the usual suspects, quite a few transit supporters are doubting the agency. Building the MOS might be politically useful.
  • Greater future flexibility. While I don’t expect MLR to be extended for quite a while, at some point in the future an extension to Clackamas, or Oregon City (via Gladstone), or Lake Oswego might be in the works. By truncating the line at Milwaukie, all of the options remain available; the Park Avenue extension somewhat commits further extension down the 99E corridor–other extensions would then have to branch at Milwaukie.
  • A better anchor. An important factor in an efficient rapid transit line is a good “anchor”–a destination at the end of the line that drives ridership. A park-and-ride in downtown Milwaukie, where support for the project has generally been strong, is doubtless a better anchor than one in Oak Grove–a poorer community with low residential density, and many residents who are both suspicious of transit and terrified of gentrification.

Thoughts?

Community opposition and infrastructure projects

A major issue with large-scale infrastructure projects, such as highways or rail transit lines, is that frequently they face community opposition. Depending on which side of the fence one sits on a particular project, such opposition can either consist of heroic defenders of community values fighting valiantly against vested interests and the desctruction of their homes and neighborhoods–or of howling bands of NIMBYs putting their own selfish and parochial interests ahead of the Greater Good™. (Even the acronym NIMBY is generally considered a term of abuse). I’ve been on both sides of this particular fence, and so have you, I’m sure.

Three major controversial infrastructure project in the Portland area–one just “suspended” (and likely cancelled, at least for the forseeable future), one which continues full-speed-ahead through the planning process, and one which is already under construction but which has been subject to eleventh-hour attempts to derail it, serve to illustrate the issue quite well.

Controversy abounds

As noted in a prior thread, Portland Mayor Sam Adams announced the suspension of the Lake Oswego Transit Project after a Lake Oswego city council member withdrew his support for the project, placing the projects supporters on the council in the minority. The CRC continues to march towards construction, despite bipartisan opposition to the project, though funding issues may accomplish what community protests have not been able to. And the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail line is now the subject of a second political challenge from detractors in Clackamas County, as opponents of the project have launched a second challenge to the project, this time an initiative in the city of Milwaukie to block that city’s contribution to the project. A similar measure is also being circulated county-wide, and one county commissioner has suggested renegotiating the contract, already executed, which exists between the county and TriMet, and calls for the county to contribute $25 million to the project.

And a formative event in both the political culture of the region, as well as our transportation infrastructure, were the freeway revolts of the 1970s, which led to the cancellation of the Mount Hood Freeway, as well as several other proposed freeways through Portland neighborhoods–a strike against the alleged Greater Good which was made largely on the grounds that it would have ripped up much of SE Portland.

While I have issues with the cost, I’m generally a supporter of Portland-Milwaukie. I’m on record as opposed to the current CRC, and I’m generally ambivelent to the proposed LO Streetcar. Part of the reason for my ambivelence to the LO Streetcar is that many of the communities along the line–Dunthorpe, Lake Oswego, and even West Linn (which is beyond the line’s terminus, but would be affected by the proposed transit restructuring) seem to be opposed to it. So a good question is: how do I square this with support for PMLR, when it’s frequently alleged that Clackamas County doesn’t want that? (And what of the CRC, which many leaders, particularly in Salem, Olympia, and Washington DC, insist is of crucial to state and national interests, sufficiently so as to override local objections?)

Striking while the iron is hot

A major issue is, of course, timing.

The Lake Oswego Streetcar is still fairly early in the planning phase. Financial commitments haven’t been made, the Final Environmental Impact Statement wasn’t complete (the Draft EIS was, but that’s still early in the process), let alone final design, permitting, and construction started–in short, now is the right time for community objections to be taken into account. And while some of the stated objections may well fit into the “NIMBY” category (particularly from Dunthorpe residents who don’t want streetcars passing by their expensive homes), a key complaint was that the project as proposed would make transit service worse for many users, not better. The design of the line wouldn’t improve either transit times or reliability for Portland-LO trips, and would require a transfer for those coming from beyond Lake Oswego. And the opponents of the project have been, for the most part, those affected by the project.

Given the project didn’t pass the political test, the resources that would have gone to fund it can go to something else. Of course, one key asset for the project–the Willamette Shoreline right-of-way, can’t be moved elsewhere, but there may be other opportunities to use it in the future.

A wrench in the works?

The situation across the river is arguably different. The PMLR project has, for much of its planning and design, enjoyed the whole-hearted support of the relevant government agencies–the city of Milwaukie and Clackamas County. Lower-cost options such as BRT were considered for the project–and Milwaukie officials made it clear that they preferred light rail. The project DEIS was completed in 2008, and the FEIS was published in 2010. Funding has been secured, and construction of the line is already underway. And of particular importance, contracts between TriMet and the county have been negotiated and signed. Yet since the publication of the FEIS in October of 2010, the project has been under assault from within Clackamas County. There was vocal opposition to the project prior to this, but it was mostly unorganized and ineffective.

Thus a good question can be asked of the various petitioners and activists trying to block the project (or at least block the County and City’s contributions thereto)–where were you guys four years ago? Why weren’t anti-LRT petitions being circulated in 2008? Why weren’t city and county officials who supported the project being threatened with electoral challenges back when the scope of the project could have been meaningfully changed? Why are anti-transit activists calling on the County to renege on agreements it has already made?

A couple of possible answers to that question:

  • Prior to 2008, political conservatives were dispirited due to the low public regard for the Bush Administration (and to a larger extent the GOP). After 2008, with the election of Barack Obama, and particularly in 2010, the opposite has been true.
  • The current recession has caused some desire to rethink government spending, with calls for austerity being a major feature of political debate, at least until recently.
  • Various outside interests (with an ideological opposition to transit) seem to have taken a greater interest in the issue, and are encouraging local activism.
  • Rather cynically–there may be bad-faith attempts by some to sabotage the project by attempting to raise last-minute obstacles after the ink is dry on the planning process–in particular by targeting its funding. (Some Clackamas County opponents have suggested truncating the project to Tacoma Street, the first stop north of the county line–a project configuration not contemplated by the FEIS, and one which would thus require an expensive and time-consuming replanning phase to requalify for Federal funding).

Indeed, many of the objections to PMLR seem to be more ideological and funding-related rather than community-based objections. Residents of Oak Grove have expressed concerns about gentriciation, and there have been quite a few snarky references to “crime trains”, as though the primary users of transit are lowlifes; but much of the objection comes from those who don’t live anywhere near the line. Certainly, County voters are entitled to determine where their tax dollars are spent, but again the question must be asked: Where were you when the decisions were being made? (And why wasn’t the Green Line, which was being built at the time and goes much further into Clackamas County than does PMLR, subject to similar levels of opposition)?

The will of the people

Many opponents will retort that they have already answered that question: quite a few will tell you that they were opposing the project front-and-center, but being ignored by elected officials–officials who were busy disregarding (if not outright thwarting) the Will Of The People. The first part about that claim is probably true–the activists against the project have been opposed for quite a while–but the second part is harder to justify. Determing the “will of the people” outside of elections isn’t always easy; and many politicians assume that they have a mandate to do the things that they wish to do once in office, particularly if they campaign and win election on these issues. Politicians who only seek to do what appears to be political popular are routinely derided as weather-vanes and flip floppers, after all, not praised for their commitment to democracy. Activists on all sides of an issue will often claim to represent the will of the people, but knowledgable politicians will tend to disregard such claims until they are backed up by votes. (Or dollars).

And a key point about the will of the people–it changes over time. People may change their minds on issues, priorities may shift due to differing circumstances, people move in and out of different jurisdictions, and people may tune in or out of politics due to various psychological factors. This is a big reason why I asked “what changed” above–prior to 2008, it was liberals who had an enemy to rally and defeat; now it is conservatives who are energized by a bogeyman. Thus it is entirely possible (and I suspect, likely) that the critical mass of opinion in Clackamas County has shifted on the issue. Right now, it seems rather evident that a public opinion in the county as a whole is against the project, as several recent electoral contests have been won by the anti-smart-growth side. But a key thing to remember is that it has shifted–much of this appears to be a recent development. If public opinion was against the project in the latter part of the aughts, it was far less in evidence.

When is late too late?.

So which brings up an interesting question: How much should the political process respect stare decisis–a legal term of art meaning “it’s already decided”? (In law, it refers to the concept that a given issue shouldn’t be adjudicated more than once, without good reason). Is TriMet justified in suggesting it may sue Clackamas County if it tries to back out of prior commitments to PMLR? Were governers such as Chris Christie, Rick Scott, John Kasich, Scott Walker justified in killing off various transit and rail projects in their state, in many cases leaving hundreds of millions of dollars in sunk cost and federal funding, and years of planning, on the table?

Before you answer that, consider: CRC defenders love to point to the hundred million dollars, and advanced state of the public process, as reasons the CRC ought to be built as currently planned, despite significant opposition to those plans on both sides of the river.

And consider the Mt. Hood Freeway.

In the early 1970s, Portland’s freeway plan was about half done. The Fremont and Marquam bridges were complete, as were the Stadium Freeway (I-405), Baldock Freeway (I-5 south of downtown) and Minnesota Street Freeway (I-5 to the north). Much of the East Portland Freeway (I-205) was under construction. (This is in addition to older freeways such as the Banfield and Harbor Drive; which predated the construction boom associated with the Interstate highway system). Next on the list was the Mount Hood Freeway, followed by the St. Helens Freeway and the Rose City Freeway. This plan was a subset of the even more ambitious Portland Improvement plan written by none other than Robert Moses in the 1940s (to say nothing of the proposed freeways designed to support a Portland bid for the 1968 summer games; a bid which did not get far).

The Mount Hood Freeway was, in many was, the crown jewel of the system. West of 92nd, it was to be the intended routing of I-80N (later I-84) into Portland, replacing the functionally-obsolete Banfield Freeway. One part of the proposed highway, a stretch between Gresham and Sandy, was already built. Final designs were in progress, property acquisition had started, and the powerbrokers were all aligned to build it–City Hall, the state highway department, and the feds. Gas was cheap and freeways meant Progress.

But then, neighborhood activists, seeing the destruction brought to neighborhoods like Albina and South Portland by the prior freeways, fought back. Allying with environmentallists, they were able to find a sympathetic audience with the Multnomah County Commission, which was able to delay the project. The 1976 mayor’s race became a referendum on the highway, and the anti-freeway side won. A deal was cut, and the Mount Hood Freeway was cancellled, as were the other highways coming after it. The funding was diverted to build the original MAX line. (But not all was good news–as part of the deal, I-205 was allowed to complete, resulting in the destruction of thousands of homes and several East Portland neighborhoods).

Today, hardly anybody laments the millions of dollars spent on designing a project that was never built. The object lesson–inertia, by itself, ought not be an excuse for building a bad project.

So where does that leave us?

So where does that leave us with regard to MLR? Are the same dynamics in play here as were in play along SE Powell Boulevard back in the days of disco?

A couple of differences between the proposed light rail line, and the Mt. Hood Freeway, come to mind:

  • Actual community impact. The Mt. Hood Freeway, were it built, would have resulted in the destruction of hundreds, if not thousands, of homes and businesses. Homeowners would have been reasonably-well compensated, but many business owners, particularly those who don’t own the premises, would have been wiped out by the eminent domain practices in use back then. While the number of condemnations needed for MLR is higher than for prior light-rail lines, it still numbers in the tens rather than the thousands. An eight-lane freeway would leave a scar about 50 yards wide through the neighborhoods it runs through, completely impassable to pedestrians and cross traffic except where overpasses would have been built. A surface light-rail line, on the other hand, is far less disruptive to cross traffic, as the trains only come every several minutes, rather than a continous stream. And electric-powered rail produces zero emissions and little noise; compared to the roar and fumes of a freeway.
  • Rail detractors often point to “increased crime” as a side-effect of transit infrastructure–but this is a charge with little basis in fact, which depends on offensive stereotypes of transit users. These basis of these stereotypes–transit systems predominately used by the poor, and thus afflicted with the pathologies of poverty–aren’t true in Portland anyway, as many middle-class commuters use MAX and the bus.

  • Who benefits?Another big problem with urban freeway construction is that the benefits accrue mostly to those living outside of the city. Someone living near 52nd and Powell isn’t in great need of a shorter ride into town–if Powell is slow, there are plenty of alternate surface streets avaialble; numerous frequent service bus lines serve the neighborhood, and the distance can easily be covered by bike if you prefer. The main beneficiaries are suburban commuters and regional and long-haul traffic. City dwellers, however, bear the brunt of the consequences; it’s their neighborhoods who are ripped up. Urban transit lines, on the other hand, mainly benefit those who live nearby.
  • Source of opposition. Often local fights over community decisions get affected by ideological politics. While much of the opposition to the Mt. Hood Freeway was based on affected neighbors terrified of the bulldozder, the project certainly attracted the attention of environmentalists, who provided local activists with organizational skills, money, and the like. Likewise, Portland’s transit plans have attracted attention from national anti-transit activists, with Americans for Prosperity getting heavily involved in financing and organizing opposition to light rail. In both cases, groups with strong ideological positions (independent of the particulars of a given project) got involved and likely influenced the outcome. Given the short distance that PMLR extends into Clackamas County, however, a good argument can be made that the ideological concerns dominate the discussion.

Responding to Cascade Policy Institute on the role of transit (and other issues)

Last week, John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute penned his latest missive against Milwaukie MAX. While I share concerns about the cost of the project, I view a comprehensive rapid transit network throughout the metro region as something which is vitally important–and which will become moreso as gas prices and environmental pressures in the future make driving an increasingly-expensive proposition.

The role of transit

Charles’ article starts off with an attempt to burnish his environmentalist credentials (which he seems to have recently rediscovered in his now-moot attempt to save trees on Lincoln Street, even though CPI usually sides with the chainsaws in such matters), recalling his days traveling by bus as a young activist, but then says this:

Times have certainly changed. Cars have become more efficient, and chronic urban smog has permanently disappeared due to improved auto technology. That’s the good news. But the bad news is that many transit agencies are no longer content to merely provide a service to those unable or unwilling to drive in a private vehicle.

There’s a lot of baggage in that paragraph. Specifically:

  • The suggestion that modern auto technology has somehow solved the problem of both fossil-fuel dependence and air pollution. I’ll agree that it has helped on both fronts, but despite the fact that cars are generally more efficient than the hunks of Detroit steel that plied the roads during the 1960s, before the oil shocks hit, we still have both a significant oil-supply problem and a significant air pollution problem; one with potentially more serious side effects than smog. (Nor does Charles mention that Cascade routinely opposes attempts to beef up environmental laws).
  • The notion that because the auto-pollution problem is now “solved”, the only sensible mission for transit agencies is social-service transit. Charles then goes on to excoriate TriMet for having more expansive service plans than the role which he thinks is appropriate.

The first bullet item is such obvious nonsense that I don’t think very many are fooled by it. The same efficiencies in design that have benefitted cars also benefit transit vehicles; and fixed-route transit can additionally benefit from externally-supplied electric power, which has zero emissions at the vehicle site (and even if the electricity is generated from burning fossil fuels, fixed powerplants are far better for the environment on a per-kilowatt-hour basis than are thousands and thousands of mobile combustion engines).

The second bullet item, though, sounds seductive and reasonable to many. (A few local advocates whom I respect and shall not name :), seem to respond positively to Charles’ piece). Appeals to social equity are laudable, and indeed so-called social service transit is, and should be, a fundamental part of TriMet’s mission. I wholeheartedly support OPAL and their efforts to create a more equitable fare structure (my alternate suggestions on how to do so in this post shouldn’t be construed as objection to the CFT proposal). There is a significant part of the population dependent on transit, and we should not fail them.

But switching to an entirely social-service model; wherein the primary purpose of an agency is to serve the poor, contains a trap. When agencies switch to a primary social-service role, and stop trying to serve the public at large by offering services which are competitive with the automobile–it isn’t long before the service is branded as welfare. (And you can guess what CPI thinks of the other parts of the social safety net). When this happens, political support can vanish, funding will disappear, services will be cut, and the service will become even less attractive–meaning that even more, it becomes the domain of the destitute. There are plenty of examples of transit systems in US cities which only offer subsistence transit–hourly runs at best, no seven-day service, overcrowded busses; and the notion that such systems ought to expand and provide reasonable service is considered laughable in the political cultures of these places.

While the one of the biggest factors in determining the quality and mode share for of transit is land use (New York is #1 for a reason, and it’s not because the MTA is known for efficient management), a big factor is civic engagement and popular support. Portland has excellent transit (for a US city of its size) in no small part because the populace supports it, and it enjoys popular support because the system is usable (and is used) by more than just the poor. The moral of the story: if you want good transit for the poor, you must provide good transit for the middle class. Otherwise, it will be cut to the bone.

One other reason to avoid social-service-only transit: It is often environmentally-unfriendly. While Charles didn’t include this particular canard in his article, other anti-transit activists have been known to repeat claims that driving is more fuel-efficient than taking transit. Jarrett Walker does a fine job of debunking this theory, but social service-focused systems (which often have little patronage outside of peak hours and lines) frequently run nearly-empty busses, and a car with one passenger is more fuel-efficient than a bus with one passenger. Well-patronized transit systems in large cities, on the other hand, easily outperform private autos on energy efficiency.

Light rail vs express bus

The other key claim in Charles’ article is that light rail, allegedly, offers a worse customer experience than bus. The basis for this claim seems to be the observation that MLR will provide a slower ride from Portland to Milwaukie than the express 99 bus, which makes the trip in about 15 minutes according to the schedule. The local-service 33, on the other hand, requires 25-30 minutes to make the trip. MLR is expected to make the journey in 25 minutes. On the surface, this seems like a bad deal for commuters, however there are two important factors to consider:

  • Express service is only offered during peak hours. This isn’t an immutable property of the line–TriMet could run the 99 all day and on weekends if it chose, but the agency currently does not do so.
  • Express service is only useful if you are in Milwaukie (or beyond) and are trying to get downtown. If you want to visit OMSI, or if you live in Westmoreland, the 99 is useless to you. Likewise if you want to travel in the reverse direction–if you live in the Pearl and commute to a job at Dark Horse Comics, you can’t use the 99.
  • And most importantly, both local and express bus service, when running in mixed traffic, are unreliable. The schedule says you’ll get downtown in 15 minutes. It could easily be double that or worse; anyone who travels McLoughlin during rush hour knows that it is frequently a parking lot. Rapid transit in an exclusive right-of-way (which does not necessarily have to be rail) doesn’t get stuck in traffic jams, and thus can deliver far better on-time performance. This is not just an advantage that rapid transit has over local bus, but it’s an advantage that it has over the automobile–even if on most days the commute is smooth, people on a fixed schedule often need to budget additional time for those days when the highway is jammed.

Most of the rest of the article consists of broad accusations of incompetence against TriMet (and against government-run transit in general), and the usual assortment of free-market platitudes (a “a market-driven transit concept”) that one might expect from a Libertarian think tank. Charles seemingly pines for the halcyon days of Rose City Transit–and while the old private bus operators were treated shabbily by the law back in the 1960s, what really killed off Rose City Transit and the numerous other private transit companies that existed during the first half of the 20th century, was the massive adoption of the automobile and the buildout of auto infrastructure. RCT no longer had a viable business model (even if the fare increase it wanted in 1968 were granted, it was toast as a private concern), and private transit still does not, and won’t as long as driving as subsidized and cheap. I’ve no particular objection to privately-operated transit when and where it can make money, but calls for transit to be privatized and unsubsidized in this day and age are essentially calls for it to not exist at all. Given that we don’t expect the roads to make money (they’re viewed as a public good, and not as a profit center), the suggestion that transit ought to be held to a higher standard is patently unreasonable.

Cascade Policy Institute ?s MAX Light Rail?

Update:

The FTA has responded to Cascade’s letter, and disagrees with Cascade’s contention that the MAX Green Line is out of compliance with the Full Funding Grant Agreement. The FTA’s response is here. Quoting from the response:

In recent years, TriMet, like many transit agencies across the country, has been impacted by the decline in economic conditions. FTA recognizes that light rail projects are long-term investments that may experience one or more economic downturns during their lifecycle. While the duration of almost any downturn is uncertain, transit agencies are often faced with service reductions as a way to temper immediate financial impacts until conditions improve. Such temporary actions are not typically viewed by FTA as a breach of contract. Section 19(a) of the FTA FFGA discusses “default” in terms of “…substantial failure [emphasis in original] of the Grantee to complete the Project in accordance with the Application and this Agreement will be a default of this Agreement.” TriMet is not in “substantial failure” of completing the project nor is it in default of the FFGA as a result of recent service reductions.

The original text of this article is after the jump.

Well, not really–but it sure seems that way.

Two weeks ago, the libertarian think tank took exception to what it believes is insufficient service hours on the federally-funded MAX Green Line, and sent a sternly worded letter to the Federal Transit Authority on the subject.

In the letter, the CPI noted that the Green Line is operating with 33% fewer service hours than originally intended; claiming this to be a violation of the Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA), a contract which is negotiated between a transit agency and the FTA concerning the dispersement of federal funds. An FFGA generally specifies the terms and conditions for designing, building, and operating the project in question. An agency which violates an FFGA, by (for example) not using the funds for the stated purpose, or failing to operate the service once built, may be found in violation–and agencies which remain in violation after being notified of such, may have to forfeit or refund federal funding.

That the Cascade Policy Institute cares so much about the needs of MAX riders may come as a surprise to readers of Portland Transport–many of whom have been led to believe that CPI doesn’t like light rail. But there it is, in black letters, John Charles requesting that Uncle Sam intervene on behalf of beleaguered Green Line users, who are being deprived of service hours promised by TriMet:

We ask that the FTA take steps to enforce the terms of the contract by requiring that TriMet operate the Green Line at 100% of the originally planned service levels, or pay back one-third of the total federal grant funding used for capital construction, as authorized in section 19(a) of the FFGA, as well as Chapter VI, Section 12 of FTA Circular 5010

How times change.

It was only last fall, it seems, that the Institute was busy opposing another MAX project, the Milwaukie line, in its written publications, by claiming, among other things, that it would reduce bus service. It was only last fall that we were treated to the spectacle of ATU 757 members cheering on John Charles after a rousing anti-MAX speech before the TriMet board, in which he gleefully promoted the theory that MAX epansion was a grave threat to bus operations. But here we have the CPI demanding that TriMet increase MAX service, or else be subject to what would essentially be a penalty of over $100 million–“one-third the total federal grant agreement”–either of which would require cuts in service elsewhere, likely including bus service.

Did the CPI have a change of heart? Did John Charles become a trainspotter this spring, and suddenly develop a deep love for our light rail system?

Don’t be silly. However, we’ll get to CPI’s likely angle later. First, we shall consider a more important question:

The unanswered question

Is TriMet in violation of its promise to the FTA, as the CPA letter and press release alledge? More to the point, is TriMet in jeopardy of any penalties, including those proposed by CPI in its letter?

Portland Transport made an inquiry with TriMet as to this matter, and the agency shared with us the following memo which general manager Neil McFarlane sent out to the board of directors in response to the CPI announcement:

The Cascade Policy institute has released via press release a complaint they have filed with FTA – alleging that we are not in compliance with our Green Line Full Funding Grant Agreement – and that FTA should embargo future federal funds. I want to assure you that TriMet is in full compliance will all aspects of the FFGA for the MAX Green Line. The contention continues that since we opened the line with 33% less service than originally planned – we were not in compliance. Obviously, FTA will need to provide their own response. The initial service level has not been an issue raised by FTA. I am sure that FTA understands the long-term nature of our light rail projects (they are planned with a 20 to 25 year horizon and a 50 to 100 year life), as well as the difficult decision we and other transit providers have had to make to survive the great recession.

The memo then goes on to tout increasing ridership on the Green Line–information which, while encouraging, does not address the issue of FFGA compliance (the FTA cares that about whether the trains run and how often, not so much who rides them).

TriMet spokesperson Mary Fetsch, in a followup, further stated:

The FFGA does not specifically describe LRT frequency levels. The document is focused on the construction of the project, schedule and costs. […] It notes that the Grantee will operate and maintain its entire system at an adequate and efficient level of service. TriMet had intended to operate the Green Line with 10 minute frequencies during peak periods and with 15 minute frequencies during off-peak hours. Due to the deep recession affecting the Portland area, we have reduced service throughout the system and are operating the Green Line with 15 min peak and off peak service. TriMet has communicated with FTA about reductions in transit service as a reaction to the recession.

TriMet worked with community to reduce service and balance accessibility with the need for cost cutting. We believe that the temporary reductions in Green Line services are a responsible reflection of the economic realities.

Fetsch also provided us a copy of the South Corridor FFGA (PDF).

Defaulting on an FFGA can be serious business, and can result in agencies being required to pay back grants. Prior to the Green Line opening, some transit users suggested that TriMet delay its operation in lieu of service cuts elsewhere–advice which, if followed, would undoubtedly constitute a FFGA violation. Likewise with the frequent calls to mothball WES (though in that case, it might come close to making financial sense… you can do the math at home).

At any rate, Neil informs his board–in plain language–that ” I want to assure you that TriMet is in full compliance will all aspects of the FFGA for the MAX Green Line”–but then softens his stance by noting that the FTA will “have to provide their own response”–which is not as reassuring as his initial stance. Michael Anderson contacted the FTA and asked them for clarification of the matter; and they indicated that they would issue a response, but gave no indication of what it might be.

So is the Green Line in compliance?

As far as I can tell…. probably. But there is certainly a chance that the FTA might issue an objection.

Unpacking the FFGA?

The FFGA is a standard contract executed between the FTA and a transit agency, upon substantial completion of a project’s planning and design. The process for getting federal funding is long, complex, and nasty… but the FFGA itself is mostly a standard form (a sample agreement with the variable terms left blank can be found here). CPI alleges that TriMet is violating sections 2(d) and 12(b) of the FFGA. Both sections are generic boilerplate, and read as follows:

[Pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 5309, the purposes of this Agreement are to] establish the Grantee’s financial commitment to the Project including its obligation to fund the Local Share, its obligation to Complete the Project with a specified amount of Federal assistance, its obligation to achieve revenue operation of the Project by a specified date, its obligation to pay all costs necessary to Complete the Project that are in excess of the Estimated Net Project Cost, and its obligation to finance the future maintenance and operational costs of the Project;

and

With the Execution of this Agreement, the Grantee assures that it has stable and dependable funding sources, sufficient in amount and in degree of commitment, to operate and maintain its entire mass transportation system at an adequate and efficient level of service, including the future operation and maintenance of the Project without additional Federal assistance beyond the amounts set forth in the Financing Plan. The foregoing assurance does not preclude the Grantee from altering service through contracts with private providers of mass transportation services.

TriMet has successfully funded the Local Share (of construction funds), and has successfully completed the project construction and opened the Green Line on schedule. CPI’s accusations seem to rest on the contention that TriMet has failed to “finance the future maintenance and operational costs of the Project” and/or to maintain “stable and dependable funding sources, sufficient in amount and in degree of commitment, to operate and maintain its entire mass transportation system at an adequate and efficient level of service, including the future operation and maintenance of the Project without additional Federal assistance beyond the amounts set forth in the Financing Plan.”

The FFGA does not specify minimum levels of service that TriMet is required to maintain. CPI seems to contend that since the level of service is 33% less than that contained in planning documents, this constitutes a breach. TriMet begs to differ, claiming that the service reductions are a reasonable response to economic conditions, and that the service currently provide (15-minute all-day service on weekdays, lesser service on weekends) is a reasonable amount which provides a “adequate and efficient” level of service. Recent history seems to support TriMet’s version of things–I’m unaware of any instance of an FTA grant being rescinded, or the FTA ordering service increases on a project, due to service cuts that nonetheless left a viable service in place.

But what if the Green Line were in violation?

But what if the FTA were to agree with CPI, and decide that TriMet is in violation? Section 19 of the standard FFGA contract deals with breaches:

(a) Substantial failure of the Grantee to Complete the Project in accordance with the Application and this Agreement will be a default of this Agreement. In the event of default, the Government will have all remedies at law and equity, including the right to specific performance without further Federal financial assistance, and the rights to termination or suspension as provided by Section 11 of the Master Agreement, “Right of the Federal Government to Terminate.” The Grantee recognizes that in the event of default, the Government may demand all Federal funds provided to the Grantee for the Project be returned to the Government. Furthermore, a default of this Agreement will be a factor considered before a decision is made with respect to the approval of future Grants requested by the Grantee.

19(b) deals with nonperformance during the construction phase, and is not germane to this discussion.

(c) In the event of a breach of this Agreement by the Grantee and before the Government takes action contemplated by this Section, the Government will provide the Grantee with ninety (90) days written notice that the Government considers that such a breach has occurred and provide the Grantee a reasonable period of time to respond and to take necessary corrective action.

Several things to note: First, a breach must be “substantial” for a default to occur–even if one were to conclude that the service levels stipulated into planning documents are incorporated into the FFGA and thus form a minimum baseline service which must be maintained, an argument could be made that service which isn’t quite as good but which is still useful does not constitute a substantial breach. Secondly, the FTA has to notify TriMet in the event it considers the agreement breached, and give the agency 90 days to correct. TriMet has been operating at the present service levels for over a year and a half, the FTA is well aware of this (as TriMet, like all transit agencies receiving federal funding, must file regular operational reports), and they have not objected. Finally, while repayment of granted funds and exclusion from future grants are remedies which are available to the government in the event of an uncured breach, CPIs “theory of damages” (that since service hours have been reduced by 1/3 for slightly over 18 months; TriMet should remit 1/3 the capital costs) seems to have no legal basis: the Green Line is designed to operate for decades, not months or years, thus a 1/3 remittance based on a short-term service decline is not based on any reasonable damage calculation.

The worst thing that would likely happen to TriMet, as far as I can tell, is if the agency is informed if it is in violation, they would then reallocate service to bring the Green Line into compliance. This would probably result in service cuts elsewhere, and the agency and the CPI would trade a few barbs in the media, but TriMet is unlikely to permit itself to run afoul of the FTA for very long. Life will go on, at least in the short term.

But as hinted above–I suspect that this is not about Green Line service levels.

Derailing the Milwaukie line

Right after the Charles letter issues demands concerning the Green Line, it alson contains the following (emphasis in original):

We also request that until one of these actions take place, FTA withhold all capital funding for future TriMet rail projects, including but not limited to the $1.5 billion Milwaukie light rail line and the $932 million rail extension to Vancouver, WA.

My suspicion is that this maneuver isn’t about improving Green Line service at all (that train, after all, has already left the station), any more than CPI’s habit of trying to chat up transit workers and poverty activists in opposition to MAX is about improving bus service. While CPI does sometimes offer meaningful criticism and advice for the agency, such as this comment on the proposed fare increase (I don’t agree with all of it, but I consider it fair comment); CPI is organizationally opposed to publicly-subsidized and/or publicly-operated transit. Unlike OPAL or other critics of TriMet, who agree with the agency’s fundamental mission but disagree with its execution of strategy, and wish to reform TriMet, CPI’s CPI’s stated goal is to replace public transit with a “market-based system where roads, bridges, transit and airport facilities are operated (and possibly owned) by private vendors who charge user fees that vary based on supply and demand conditions.” In other words–to get rid of TriMet. This posture makes it harder to take operational criticisms of the agency seriously–especially when it takes seemingly inconsistent positions as to the mix of services the agency ought to provide.

CPI has been steadfast, however, in its opposition to the next train to leave the platform, Milwaukie MAX–or to virtually any increases in funding for the agency, seemingly for any purpose. I believe that when it comes time for the FTA to disperse funds for MLR later this year, once final engineering is complete and construction is ready to begin, CPI will be there to object–claiming that TriMet isn’t sufficiently financially viable to run the project, or that the actual service levels that TriMet intends to deliver will be less than what was outlined in MLR’s funding proposal. I don’t suspect these endeavors to be very successful–TriMet enjoys a good reputation with the FTA overall, and transit providers all over the country have been cutting back service–but I suspect them to be tried.

The libertarian alternative?

Some libertarians may object to my dismissal of CPI’s goals and concerns. “Market-based solutions” sounds good in theory, after all, and in fairness, CPI also takes positions against publicly-subsidized roads. (And bashing the gubmint is a popular pasttime, even among liberals). Some libertarians (not all) make grandiose claims about how all will work smoothly in Libertopia once the shackles of government are discarded–and consider the superiority of privatized, unsubsidized transit to be manifest and not a legitimate subject of debate. But for many, the quality of (current) public services is a secondary concern–the primary concern is reduction of government; a restructuring which is seen as an end goal in itself, not as a means to some other specific purpose. And if the “jitney” idea doesn’t work out, and transit goes away altogether? Tough–if the free market can’t provide a service at a profit, then obviously there is little need for it and it shouldn’t be provided. If the hidden hand of capitalism smacks you on the backside, so be it.

There aren’t too many examples of “market based transit” functioning in the developed world. Hong Kong has successful (and profitable) private transit operators, but the HK government is heavily involved in their finance, regulation, and operations. Routes are assigned by franchise, fares and schedules are fixed, and uniform standards of service are imposed on the franchisees. For lower-usage routes, HK does have less-regulated services which resemble jitneys; but the main trunk routes (and the bus system) are highly regulated, and there is no lawful competition there. And the government and private enterprise often gets highly entangled when it comes to new project planning, at a level which would likely be considered corruption here. Hong Kong is also insanely dense, and ownership of automobiles is highly expensive and inconvenient–it’s an excellent transit market, in other words, no matter the organizational arrangements.

Of course–if you’re really cynical, you might suspect that the real point of the so-called libertarian agenda (I say “so-called” because it is often supported by players who are quite clearly not libertarians) is not any sensible notion of liberty or freedom, but to shift the costs of providing public services from taxpayers, particularly the wealthy, to the working stiffs who depend on the service. A cynic might also suspect that another goal is to bust public sector unions like ATU. (Members of the union might give more careful consideration to who they shower with applause, as quite a few of CPI’s backers would love nothing more than for all of you to lose your jobs). And the really cynical might even suspect the point is to kneecap a potential competitive threat to petrochemical interests. To be clear, I don’t have any reason to suspect John Charles’ bona fides–many libertarians I know are sincere in their beliefs and despise corporate handouts and cultural warfare (and the shooting kind as well) every bit as much as progressives do. But as far as some of the entities who provide much of the funding for libertarian think tanks are concerned, I’m nowhere near as charitable. Quite a few energy interests and moguls fund CATO, for instance. I don’t know who funds CPI specifically–they do not disclose this information.

But regardless–calling for an increase in transit service is a rather interesting position for a libertarian think tank to take.

TriMet board approves start of Milwaukie MAX construction

TriMet board votes to fund construction of first stage of MLR, and authorize bonding of payroll tax revenues to finance project

Updates to come throughout the day… but the bottom line is that the TriMet board today approved a $127 million contract to start building the “Caruthers Crossing” bridge, a key component (and first step) of the Milwaukie MAX project.

Lots of heated testimony, as lots of people came to weigh in. Quite a few Milwaukie business owners testified in favor; and quite a few folks from OPAL, ATU757, and other community members opposed. Regular PT reader Cameron Johnson gave an impassioned speech against, which is here.

Also, the board voted in favor of one of the more controversial parts of the project, the proposal to commit future payroll tax revenues in order to back a $63 million bond. Neal McFarlane answered in the affirmative when asked (by a board member) if he is comfortable with the financials on this. (Ed: It would be nice if more data could be shared, so that we could be more comfortable with this–right now, the narrative that this is all pork-barrel politics seems to have a whole lot of traction).

Both votes were unanimous in favor.

In other news, the family of one of the victims of the April accident where a bus ran down five pedestrians, killing two, has filed a $20 million lawsuit against the agency. And the board also voted to ban electric cigarettes from TriMet vehicles, and limit the definition of “service animal”.

Thanks to Joseph Rose, Michael Anderson, and Cameron for covering the meeting on twitter this morning.

UPDATE: First press coverage, from Jim Reddin of the Portland Tribune, here. One obvious issue with the Tribune article is it paints MLR opposition as mainly coming from ATU 757 members who would rather have the funds spent on their compensation and benefits–when in fact, there were many other factions present in opposition.

UPDATE 2: Oregonian press coverage of the lawsuit. In addition to TriMet, other named defendents include former GM Fred Hansen, New Flyer (the manufacturer of the bus involved), and Hadley Products, who manufactured the mirror which it is claimed blocked driver Sandi Day’s view. The $20 million award requested by plaintiffs is well in excess of the liability cap for public agencies according to Oregon law ($100k for pain/suffering plus $100k for economic damages). Another lawsuit against TriMet, filed by a woman injured in an unrelated accident, seeks to lift the cap using the landmark 2007 ruling against OHSU as precedent.

UPDATE 3-5: Johnathan Maus’ coverage at bikeportland.org. And more from Michael Anderson, here. And Joseph Rose of The Oregonian here.